The best movies about screenwriters to watch during the writers' strike – The Washington Post

A brash Hollywood executive is brainstorming ways to get around needing so many screenwriters. Finally another studio suit says wryly, “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process,” before tossing out his ironic topper: Perhaps actors and directors could similarly be scuttled.
That scene isn’t from real life, but rather from Robert Altman’s masterful dark comedy “The Player,” in which production execs played by Peter Gallagher and Tim Robbins square off over the usefulness of industry scribes.
Such laugh lines hit hard with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) now on strike over such issues as pay models and artificial intelligence in the workplace, and with the union contracts for directors and actors due to expire soon.
Tinseltown loves to put versions of itself on the screen, and “The Player” is among scores of movies that spotlight a screenwriter, including such Oscar- or Golden Globe-nominated projects as “Barton Fink,” “My Favorite Year,” “The Muse,” “The Front” and “Trumbo,” as well as the Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris.”
The fictional Hollywood writer’s life can be rendered as comedically light (“Late Night”) or dark (“Seven Psychopaths”), and, on occasion, a single actor has played both, such as William Holden (“Paris When It Sizzles” and “Sunset Boulevard”). And sometimes, the film genuinely illuminates how they do what they do, such as in 2020’s “Mank,” about the legendary Herman J. Mankiewicz.
As the WGA strike wages on, The Washington Post asked Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz (Herman’s grandson) to select his favorite films that prominently feature a screenwriter. Here are his picks. Pencils down, lights down.
Summary: Studio executive Griffin Mill (portrayed by Robbins) starts feeling the heat from a new rival exec (Gallagher) and from a screenwriter who’s anonymously sending threatening postcards in this dramatic, diamond-sharp back-lot satire from director Altman and writer Michael Tolkin, who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
Sample dialogue: Griffin, at a showing of “The Bicycle Thief”: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this.” A screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofrio) retorts: “You’d probably give it a happy ending.”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “This tops my list, because first, the screenwriter dies, which provides some sense of the regard that writers are held in by those who write the checks. Moreover, there’s a scene on [the Gallagher character’s] first day at the studio — as he’s poised to take the Robbins character’s production job — when he says writers are indulgences the studio doesn’t need and shouldn’t pay: ‘There’s a lot of time and money to be saved if we came up with these stories on our own.’
“Then he suggests the studio could develop movie ideas out of the newspaper: ‘Pick a story, any story.’ An executive grabs the paper and reads a headline: ‘Immigrants protest budget cuts in literacy program.’ Gallagher’s character waits a split second, then spews out: ‘Human spirit overcoming economic adversity. Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio. Put Jimmy Smits in it and you’ve got a sexy “Stand and Deliver.”’
“If you want a reminder of what the Writers Guild of America is up against on the picket line, watch this scene, then quit the business.”
Summary: In this trippy tale directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), a fictional version of its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), is a seemingly everything-addled scribe who feels lesser than brother Donald (also Cage) as he tries to adapt a story by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) about a Florida orchid poacher (Chris Cooper). But no summary can do justice to the wonderful meta-weirdness of this Oscar-nominated screenplay, which riffs on an actual nonfiction story by the real Orlean.
Sample dialogue: Fictionalized story guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) to Charlie: “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “Kaufman’s original comedy-drama long turned me off — meta sometimes makes my head hurt — but this movie deserves another chance from people like me. Cage embodies Kaufman, basting in every insecurity that haunts screenwriters: indecision punctuated by a profound lack of confidence, which produces crushing anxiety, which leads to crippling anxiety, which causes writer’s block. I was recently reminded of ‘Adaptation’ when I saw a sign, carried by striking writer Max Silvestri, that read: ‘Bad news, studios. Not writing is literally my favorite thing. I can do this forever.’”
Summary: In this dramatic noir from director Billy Wilder, young screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to help aging former silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her delusional comeback attempt — as she readies for her would-be close-up for “Mr. DeMille.” (Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. won an Oscar for writing.)
Sample dialogue: Norma: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “As usual, the screenwriter is the smartest person in just about every room. And as usual, the reward for the writer’s keen understanding of the human condition is a long studio contract and the love of a brilliant and exciting partner. Right. Actually — spoiler! — he gets shot in the back and drowns in a pool.”
Summary: An L.A. woman (Gloria Grahame) with growing feelings for her bungalow neighbor, wordsmith Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), becomes increasingly unsure whether he’s guilty of murder in this Nicholas Ray classic scripted by Andrew P. Solt and Edmund H. North from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.
Sample dialogue: Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart): “I used to think that actors made up their own lines.” Dixon: “When they get to be big stars, they usually do.”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “This, along with ‘The Harder They Fall,’ is one of Bogart’s best performances. He’s painfully human as a struggling screenwriter who has a dangerous temper. … Inevitable doom hangs over the entire picture, due in large part to the presence of Grahame as the wannabe actress who falls for him. Bogart doesn’t die in the movie, but if there’s a fate worse than death, it awaits Dix Steele.”
Summary: When a big-budget movie’s cast and crew (portrayed by such talents as Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy) arrive in a small Vermont town, the storylines unspool: Who will be conned, corrupted or conflicted before cameras even roll in this dark comedy by writer-director David Mamet?
Sample dialogue: Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon): “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “This is often dismissed as a lesser offering from Mamet. Perhaps that’s because the cast and crew of the movie-inside-the-movie are all reprehensible, grotesque and spectacularly patronizing. That’s probably it. Whereas [François] Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ — which would be on this list if the screenwriter were in it — celebrates the artists, Mamet’s movie turns them into caricatures. ‘Wait, why do I like this?’ Well, first: It’s funny. Second, its two identifiable human beings are both writers: the great Hoffman as an honest screenwriter, and Pidgeon as a local bookstore owner and his enormously likable muse.”
The last writers’ strike, when streaming was new and Conan grew a beard
Summary: This is director David Fincher’s colorful, Oscar-nominated tale (scripted by father Jack Fincher) of acerbic alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he works to finish one of the greatest scripts ever, 1941’s “Citizen Kane.”
Sample dialogue: Herman: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”
Why Mankiewicz chose it: “I never met my grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, who died in 1953. My image of him came entirely from my father, who described his dad often. And though David Fincher never spoke to my dad as he developed the script, from the first moment I saw ‘Mank’ on screen, it felt as if I were experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather through Oldman. On top of that, Fincher’s sense of time and place in ‘Mank’ seems perfect. If you want a feel for what it was like to be a frequently fired studio writer in the 1930s who goes on to write perhaps the greatest American movie of all time, then ‘Mank’ is your movie.”


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