The recent movie, Lincoln, is based on a wonderful book of non-fiction by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Those of us who count ourselves as historians have historians as our heroes and heroines. Goodwin is one of mine. Not only is she a superb scholar, but her writing is down-to-earth. Her histories read like novels and reach a general audience. (Yes, there was a plagiarism kerfuffle a few years back, but I bought her explanation; and it only made her a more careful scholar.)
Screenwriter Tony Kushner took just a small portion of her book–the part about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery–and turned it into two and a half hours of engaging film. Sometimes period pieces can be stodgy and pedantic, but Kushner, who won a Pulitzer for Angels in America and co-wrote another incredible historical film, Munich, took a subject for which director Steven Spielberg had already rejected two scripts and wrote one that brought you Lincoln as war president, story-teller, master politician, husband, and father.
Though the major movie award programs give statuettes for writing both original and adapted screenplays, the writing categories rarely receive the notice that Best Actor, Actress, Director, and Movie do. Think about it. You probably remember Titanic won Best Picture (gag), but do you remember who wrote the screenplay? How about any of your favorite major motion pictures? When people stay to read the credits, “writer” is one they tend to skip. A shame, really, because two hours of mindless action and simplistic dialogue can only go so far. I believe, as writers, we have an appreciation for exposition through dialogue we find in truly great movies. An historical piece, like Lincoln, with its richness of sometimes archaic language, is to us like a Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick is to a twenty-something gamer.
Lincoln mesmerized me not only with Spielberg’s attention to historical detail but also with incredibly fluid and pertinent language. As I watched the movie, I absorbed the language and, of course, felt a pang of envy for Kushner’s talent. I knew that Lincoln would win awards right and left during the movie award season to come, but I also knew the writer of that screenplay would get only nominal, if any, recognition.
Then came Daniel Day Lewis’ Golden Globes Best Actor acceptance speech:
“Tony Kushner, every day I live without the immeasurable wealth of your language, which reminds me every day of the impoverishment of my own.”
That one sentence took my breath away. An actor–one whose talent is amazing but without the ego-trip–acknowledged the writer before the director. Unheard of but refreshing.
Next time you go to a movie, listen, really listen, to the dialogue–not just the way the actor says it but how the writer put it together. With ease, you’ll spot the difference between a writer and a hack.