Pictures at a Revolution (5 page)

Beatty was as skilled at courtship professionally as he was personally; alluring phrases like “It has to be you” and “You have to save this project” could work wonders when spoken by someone who could turn on ardor and charisma as effectively as he did. But Kubrick, not one to say yes precipitously, wasn't susceptible to charm—and he wasn't interested in directing
What's New, Pussycat?
The meeting ended pleasantly but inconclusively; a few minutes later, all thoughts of it were swept away by the day's news.
20

 

As 1963 drew to a close,
Beatty wasn't feeling a great deal of urgency about getting
Pussycat
into production. He felt as charged with excitement about the French New Wave as everyone else and had already committed himself to his next film,
21
a low-budget, black-and-white absurdist comedy-drama that would pay direct homage to the French style, entitled
Mickey One.
Once again—as he had done with Kazan and
Roman Spring
's José Quintero—he would be working with a New York theater director: Arthur Penn. And after
Mickey One
, if
What's New, Pussycat?
still wasn't ready, there were other possibilities. Beatty had never bought a property to develop for himself before, but Inge had been urging him to read a first novel by a twenty-four-year-old writer that had just been published
22
and had a perfect part for him, comic, sexy, contemporary, and within his age range. The book was
The Graduate.

Although it sounds unlikely, the protagonist of Charles Webb's novel appeared, on the page, to be tailor-made for Beatty. In
The Graduate
, Benjamin Braddock is the scion of an apparently WASPy family, a cocky, aloof college track star who returns home for the summer before beginning two years of graduate school, then announces to his parents that he has wasted his life, that he is sick of being their “goddamn ivy-covered status symbol,” and that he is taking to the road; early in the narrative, he spends three weeks hitchhiking and fighting forest fires in northern California.
23
Beatty himself was the product of a Virginia Baptist upbringing, he had been raised to behave like a southern gentleman, and in high school he had been both a football star and senior class president before going on to spend a year at Northwestern University.
24
And he knew his way around alienated characters, perhaps too well.
The Graduate
, as written, made sense for him.

But somebody else also thought Webb's novel would make a good movie and moved swiftly to obtain the rights. Lawrence Turman first heard about
The Graduate
when he read Orville Prescott's mixed but appreciative review in
The New York Times
in October.
25
Prescott faulted the novel's “preposterous climax,” in which Benjamin succeeds in getting to the church just in time to stop Elaine Robinson's wedding to another man, and he complained that the book “raises questions about the psychological motivation of its hero and makes no effort to answer them.” Nonetheless, he wrote, the “sardonic comedy about the mysterious malaise that afflicts the spirits of some of the most intelligent of modern young people is written with exceptional skill…. He has created a character whose blunders and follies might just become as widely discussed as those of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.”
26

The Graduate
was published by New American Library, a relatively new house under the editorial direction of David Brown, a former executive in 20th Century-Fox's New York offices who would return to the studio a couple of years later. Webb's novel represented an experiment for the publishing company, one of two books it was using to test the marketplace for hardcovers rather than the paperbacks that had been its specialty (the other was Ian Fleming's James Bond novel
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
, a minor gamble itself since the 007 movie franchise was not yet established in the United States).
27
But despite Prescott's warm (if qualified) endorsement of
The Graduate
, the book made little impact and quickly drowned in a sea of first-time literary fiction.

Its failure was no surprise. Webb's book arrived at an awkward moment for novels of its kind.
The Graduate
unfolds in a cool-temperatured, deadpan prose style that would likely have turned off any reader looking for an heir to the slangy, personalized voice of Holden Caulfield. Prescott's comparison to
Catcher in the Rye
notwithstanding, the book was a latecomer to the genre of adolescent and postadolescent anomie and a bit too early to be part of the shift from stories of individual alienation that flourished in the 1950s to novels in which alienation was used as the touchstone of an entire generation later in the 1960s. While not autobiographical, Webb's novel clearly owed a strong debt to a wrenching episode in his life that took place in 1960, when he was barely out of his teens and in his junior year at Williams College. He had fallen in love with a Bennington sophomore named Eve Rudd. Rudd got pregnant, and she and Webb became engaged; when her parents found out, they pulled her out of school and she had an abortion. In the wake of his split from Rudd (whom he eventually married), he began his novel.
28

Like his protagonist, Benjamin, Webb was a top student (the novel's “Halpingham Award” was based on a prize for creativity that Williams awarded Webb in his senior year), and like Benjamin, he was mired in a sense of cultural, geographic, and emotional dislocation; once he had finished at Williams, he moved to Brooklyn Heights, started and then abandoned a novel, then moved to the West Coast and began
The Graduate
as a short story one morning in the Pasadena Public Library. Webb wrote a first draft of the book while living in Berkeley, then moved back to Cambridge, where he finished it.
29
Webb says he was inspired by the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Katherine Anne Porter, and while “J. D. Salinger did strike a particular chord, [it was] the stories, oddly, more than
Catcher
, for some reason.”
30

The Graduate
is told almost entirely in long passages of dialogue, with no physical descriptions of the characters, no omniscient explorations of states of mind, and only the barest, most unadorned language (“Two days after he got home from the trip Benjamin decided to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson”)
31
used to describe thought or action. Webb says he later realized that the “particular style used in
The Graduate…
represented the misdirection of an innate playwriting talent”
32
rather than an inherently novelistic approach.

Larry Turman, though, found the book haunting and droll, and he thought the spare, dialogue-driven storytelling made it perfectly suited to adaptation for the movies.
33
Turman was a latecomer to the business; he had worked in his father's fabric company until he was twenty-seven, when he left to make a new professional start on the bottom rung, working for $50 a week at the Kurt Frings agency in New York. A decade later, he had become a rising producer who, working with his partner, Stuart Millar, had already made four films, including the Judy Garland vehicle
I Could Go On Singing
and an upcoming adaptation of Gore Vidal's play
The Best Man.
34
Now, he was ready to split with Millar and start producing by himself, albeit on a shoestring.
The Graduate
, which had sold only about five thousand copies, wasn't an expensive property, but Turman didn't have a lot of cash on hand. He swallowed hard and paid David Brown $1,000 out of his own pocket to option it, with an agreement that he would pay $20,000 if he decided to purchase the novel outright. Casting Beatty, or anyone else, as Benjamin Braddock, never crossed his mind: He would worry about actors later. First, he needed a screenwriter who could work quickly and cheaply and a director whose name could turn
The Graduate
into an attractive enough package to secure a studio deal and the financing that came with it.
35

Turman didn't have immediate luck finding a writer, especially with the money he was offering. Having Webb adapt his own novel wasn't an option, since the young man was already ambivalent about his profession. “I wanted during my growing up to be an actor very badly,” he said later, “and it was very painfully that I put this dream aside and took up writing, which in one sense was a second choice frustration for me.”
36
Turman sent the novel to William Goldman, who was then a novelist, not yet a screenwriter; Goldman wasn't interested.
37
So, like many producers looking for low-cost writing talent, he turned to off-Broadway theater. A year earlier, Turman had seen a pair of one-acts at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre by a writer named William Hanley. “This guy came to me, Lawrence Turman. He said, ‘I have this book and I'd like you to write the screenplay, and I've got $500 to pay you,'” says Hanley. “And I took it.”
38

 

In December 1963,
another, much more high-profile pursuit of literary rights was also under way in New York; the quarry was Hugh Lofting's series of
Doctor Dolittle
books. Lofting's first novel about the extraordinary veterinarian of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh,
The Story of Doctor Dolittle
, had been published in 1920 to instant success; the author, a British civil engineer and World War I veteran who moved permanently to the United States with his first wife and children after serving in the Irish Guards, wrote a dozen Dolittle books before his death in 1947.
39
The rights to all of them were now in the hands of his widow, Josephine, who relied on her instincts, her twenty-seven-year-old son, Christopher Lofting, and her lawyer, Bernard Silbert, whenever a prospective buyer came calling.

The Dolittle books, with their plethora of animals and fantastical plots (including, in later installments, an extended trip to the moon), represented both ideal properties for children's movies and potentially insurmountable challenges for filmmakers. But other than a long-forgotten cartoon short made in Germany during the silent era, Dolittle had never reached the screen. The Fox Film Company, one of the two studios that eventually merged into 20th Century-Fox, had made Hugh Lofting an offer back in 1922. But in the decades after that, Lofting's primary suitor was Walt Disney.

“Disney tried to get hold of it for years,” says Christopher Lofting, “but the cheap bastard wouldn't pay anything for it! Disney specialized in public domain properties—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—that they didn't have to pay for. The Disney company offered a contract to my father back in 1940 or 1941, supposedly for a movie, but they were asking him to surrender everything: merchandising, television, which was in the contract even though it didn't really exist yet, and rights to everything that he had ever written and
would
ever write, for a flat fee of $7,500. My father's final line to them was, I only have one question—I have a four-year-old son and I wonder why Mr. Disney doesn't want him, too. What's wrong with him?”
40

As Christopher Lofting grew up, the proposals to his father's estate kept coming. “I would say there was a serious offer every two to four months through the 1950s and early 1960s,” he recalls. “They circled and circled. And we'd always say, ‘How are you going to handle the animals?' And then it would collapse over creative issues.”

In 1960, Josephine Lofting, on Silbert's advice, granted a short-term option on the books to Helen Winston, a former actress and neophyte producer who planned to commission a script for a live-action Dolittle movie and then shop it to studios. By 1962, Winston had a completed screenplay by a writer named Larry Watkin
41
but still found no takers for what was guaranteed to be an expensive production, given its fanciful nineteenth-century setting and the complexities inherent in working with a large cast of animals. “She had a lot of bad luck,” says Lofting. “We kept extending and extending her option, but finally we had to say, ‘Look, if you come up with a deal, fine, but you no longer have an exclusive option.'”

The Lofting family's decision to field other offers opened a window of opportunity for a far savvier and more competitive player. Arthur P. Jacobs—“Apjac” to his friends, colleagues, and clients—was, at forty-one, a pale, roly-poly, chronically tense, hyperactive chain-smoker, “a perfect cardiac profile,” recalls Lofting. He had also, until recently, run one of the most successful public relations firms in the business, overseeing a bicoastal self-titled company and a staff that served not just as publicists, but as career shapers, advisers, image makers, and crisis managers for Beatty, Otto Preminger, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and countless others.

With his motormouth, his stubby brown cigarillos, a bottle of Fresca always glued to his hand, and a set of omnipresent color-coded rectangular note cards on which he would jot down ideas, notes from meetings, phone numbers, and to-do lists (he even kept them in his bathroom),
42
Jacobs was easy to spoof as the picture of a Sammy Glick–style Hollywood hustler, but the man underneath all the perpetual motion was widely liked, funny, friendly, and very good at his job. In 1962, he had gotten out of the PR business and set his sights on becoming a producer. By the end of 1963, he had completed his first movie for 20th Century-Fox,
What a Way to Go!
The comedy was, in a way, a publicist's vision of what a studio motion picture should be—a big, colorful gift box the contents of which didn't matter as long as the wrapping looked fantastic. Jacobs had used his industry-wide connections and long client list to pull together a cast of big (if somewhat oddly matched) names—Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, TV stars Bob Cummings and Dick Van Dyke, even the venerable Margaret Dumont—for a movie that was little more than an extended series of blackout sketches about a hapless young woman (played by MacLaine) whose husbands keep dying on her. The film was extremely expensive, and even by generous assessments uneven in quality, but Jacobs had done at least part of a producer's job: The money was all up on the screen. Now, five months before
What a Way to Go!
opened, he was trying to line up his next project before any word of mouth on the last one could slow his momentum.

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