In the brightly colored comic book world of my youth, I was infatuated with Time for Beany, a wonderful puppet show recounting the adventures of a wide-eyed boy named Beany as he sailed the seven seas on the Leakin’ Lena under the command of his pompous uncle, Captain Horatio K. Huffenpuff.
The characters were wonderful: their names alone told you almost everything you needed to know about them.
There was Beany’s faithful, if somewhat dimwitted friend, Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent.
There was, of course, the yogurt-loving Tear Along the Dotted Lion.
And let us not forget his fellow terror of the jungle, Mouth Full of Teeth Keith—the mangy lion with the slippery, ill-fitting dentures.
But my particular favorite was Dishonest John, whose black cape, black hat and black mustache announced his villainy to the world as he swept on stage, holding his cape in front of his wicked face and cutting loose with a nasty, sneering, sniggering laugh.
You had to love this guy, and I did.
The thing is, I’ve always been drawn to villains.
Ming the Merciless of Mong was always more interesting to me than Flash Gordon.
Jeffrey Hunter as Christ was a bit of a snore, but Frank Thring as Herod the Great stepping on his father’s corpse as he ascended the throne, now he was something!
And Darth Vader?
The Dishonest John of the future!
Who would not prefer his “foul stench” and unforgettable voice—the very embodiment of EVIL—to the nice guy heroics of Luke Skywalker?
I like villains, and I’m proud to say that my five year-old grandson is following in my footsteps.
In the games he plays during recess at pre-school, he always wants to be the villain. He almost always gets his wish. And he almost always get the holy crap beaten out of him as his good-guy friends, determined not just to overcome evil but to wipe it from the face of the earth, gang up on him with their fists flying.
He is undeterred, and I admire him for it.
I admire him for succeeding where I myself, in my high school acting days, failed.
I always wanted to be the villain, and I always ended up playing the dull, colorless, nice-guy hero.
I was, for example, doomed to portray Mortimer, that nicest of all bewildered nice guys, in Arsenic and Old Lace when the role I really wanted was Jonathan—Mortimer’s demented brother whose plastic surgery had made him a dead ringer for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein.
Now there was a role I could really have gotten my teeth into!
But it was not to be.
It turned out that my high school stage experiences were a preview of coming attractions—a trailer for my adult life.
It’s a sad story and I won’t go into it here, but you can imagine my excitement when I recently discovered that for one brief shining moment I actually achieved my life-long ambition to be proclaimed a villain.
I, it turns out, was the villain who destroyed a masterpiece of filmmaking art.
I learned about it this way.
A few days ago, I engaged in that most popular of current pastimes: I googled myself and discovered that I appear in a footnote to an academic essay entitled “The Screenwriter as Auteur: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.”
A footnote? you ask.
Well, it’s not just any footnote.
I happen to be keeping very good company in this particular note.
My companion in academic esoteria?
The footnote cites the development notes I wrote for Jeffrey about Ephron’s script, and the text which this note documents holds me personally responsible for ruining Ephron’s work!
I can’t say that I fully understand just how I managed this because the essay’s author uses all sorts of wonderful words with meanings beyond my feeble understanding.
She is, in fact, a mistress of academic jargon and clearly more brilliant and insightful than I could ever hope to be.
According to her, I intimidated Ephron and her director, Mike Nichols, into cutting the heroine’s monologues and fantasies…or to put it in her own unforgettable words, “the film omits the diegetic Rachel and refrains from adding any goal or obstacles for the enacted Rachel, [and so] the film’s narrative fails to present a compelling narrative.”
There’s some other stuff about “syuzhet structure” and the film’s “fabula,” but the bottom line is this…
I SINGLEHANDEDLY…well, I may have a little support from Jeffrey.
Let me rephrase that.
I, STUDIO DRONE DAN BRONSON, HAD COMPROMISED A MASTERWORK OF THE CINEMA, REDUCING IT FROM GENIUS TO MEDIOCRITY!
I am so proud.
It turns out that I was, if only for a moment, what I’d always aspired to be.
I can almost hear Hamlet denouncing me.
“Oh, villain, villain, damned smiling villain.”
It was, I feel, a major achievement to have reduced one of the finest writers and one of the three or four most powerful directors in Hollywood to quivering jelly, shaking in fear of the consequences if they failed to execute my notes!
This strikes me as all the more remarkable when I recall an experience at director John McTiernan’s Wyoming ranch. I was there, working with him and Jonathan Hensley on the screenplay for Die Hard: With a Vengeance.
Jonathan and I had just received Fox’s notes on our work, and we were in despair—the notes were so wrong-headed and destructive.
Just then, McT walked into the room, took one look at our faces, and asked what was wrong. The notes, we told him. We just didn’t know what to do with Fox’s notes.
He picked up the notes.
Said, “I’ll show you what to do with them.”
And he threw them into the fire burning on the hearth!
Now John was big, but Mike Nichols was even bigger, and I—little ol’ me—had forced him to alter his entire conception of his film.
Now I have to confess that I didn’t even remember that I had done the development notes on Heartburn until I stumbled across this insightful essay on the Internet, so I headed out to our storage barn, dug up my coverage from my Paramount days, and found a copy of the coverage in question.
I started to read, prepared to be dazzled by my brilliance.
And what did I discover?
That I had loved the Annie Hall approach Ephron had taken to her material!
I’d loved the heroine’s monologues and fantasies?
The very elements the essayist claimed I had forced from the script?
Oh, I’d suggested they were a bit too verbose and could use some tightening, but search as I might, I could find no place in the notes where I recommended they be cut.
You can imagine my disappointment.
One minute, I had stood proudly in the villain’s hall of fame, heir to the legacy of Dishonest John, Ming the Merciless, Herod the Great, and Darth Vader himself.
The next, I was just another nice guy.
Oh, the pity of it!