I’m a huge fan of My Fair Lady.
In fact, I not only have all of its songs committed to memory; I put Rex Harrison to shame back in my high school theatre days when I essayed the role of Henry Higgins.
One of my favorite moments comes after Eliza, that squashed cabbage leaf of a Cockney girl transformed by Higgins into a proper Edwardian lady, manages to pass herself off as the real thing at an ambassador’s ball.
Higgins and his associate Pickering celebrate her triumph in song. “Tonight, old man, you did it! You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it. And indeed you did.”
They continue in that vein until Higgins modestly reminds Pickering that he didn’t do it alone. “Now wait! Now wait! Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to you!”
I’m sure it’s just an oversight—the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, but they unfortunately manage to ignore Liza’s not unimportant contribution to the evening’s success.
It’s shame that the film industry was still in its infancy back in 1913 because Higgins and Pickering were born to be directors.
Many directors are plagued by faulty memories.
Rarely do they recall that the films they claim as their own (“A Film by….”) began life as scripts by someone else.
A recent example?
Ms. DuVernay was, you may recall, distressed at her failure to win an Oscar nomination for her direction of Selma and the failure of David Oyelowo to win a nomination for best actor.
She registered no such distress over the failure of the film’s writer, Paul Webb, to win recognition for his contribution to the project.
In fact, she herself not only neglected to acknowledge him but also claimed credit for the script, especially the scenes which distorted President Johnson’s role in the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act.
DuVernay, laying claim to authorship of the screenplay, goes a step beyond the memory lapse that seems to afflict many directors.
Most don’t claim credit for the writing because they don’t have to.
The studios, with the granting of possessory credits, and the critics, with their embrace of the auteur theory, do it for them.
Here’s the way it works out in practice.
If a film is a big success, everyone credits the director, conveniently forgetting that it ever had a writer.
If a film is a failure, it is, of course, the writer’s fault.
The poor director did his best, but in spite of all his talent, he just couldn’t overcome the problems with the script.
It used to be much worse.
Back before the Writers Guild won the right to arbitrate film and television credits, producers sometimes awarded credit to themselves or to the girlfriends who served them so well.
It was, from the producers’ point of view, a wonderful system—lamented, I’m sure, for years after its unfortunate demise.
Today, for better or for worse, the responsibility for the determination of credit belongs to the Writers Guild.
Once a film wraps, the producer submits a proposed writing credit to the Guild, which then sends a notice of that credit to every writer who worked on the project. If any one of these writers challenges the proposed credit, the Guild conducts an arbitration to determine the fair and proper credit.
Three anonymous arbiters—veteran writers with produced credits of their own—review the various drafts along with position statements from the involved writers. When their review is complete, they make a credit determination—a decision that is final and subject to appeal only on procedural grounds.
It’s an imperfect system—an attempt to impose objective rules on what is inescapably a subjective judgment.
I myself have been frustrated on more than one occasion while serving as an arbiter, forced by the rules to award credit to the author of an inferior version of the story and deny it to a writer whose work was clearly superior but whose contribution to the shooting script was insufficient to justify acknowledgement of his or her role in the development of the film.
This, of course, is a problem not with the WGA rules but with studio executives, producers and directors who, in their inept attempt to make the script better, almost invariably make it worse.
What was it Churchill said about democracy?
It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.
So it is with the WGA credit arbitration system.
Everyone hates it…until they consider the alternatives.
One thing about the system that everyone can applaud?
The rule that anytime a proposed writing credit includes a production executive (that means you, producers and directors), the credit goes to automatic arbitration.
It’s a wonderful brake on the producer and director’s potential abuse of their power.
It’s our Writers Guild saying to the Henry Higginses and the Pickerings of the film world, “Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to…the writer.”
He or she did it!
He or she created the damn thing, and without him or her, there would be nothing.
With a little bit of luck, the writer might one day be acknowledged as the real author of the film, just as the dramatist is acknowledged as the author of the play.
I’m kidding, of course.
Only a cockeyed optimist stuck like a dope could express such a hope.
It could happen only if screenwriters, like every other kind of writer in the world, were able to retain the copyright on their work, the copyright the studios now hold “throughout the universe unto all eternity”—a standard phrase in every contract I ever signed.
The studios give up screenplay copyright?
When hell freezes.
And when it happens, I’ll dance all night on the ice.
FOR FURTHER THOUGHTS ON
CONSULT CHAPTER 59 OF
CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD NOBODY