This Legendary Unproduced Screenplay Deserves a Spot on the Shelf Next to Gatsby

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 15 2012 5:10 PM

The Great American Unproduced Screenplay

Three Oscar nominees are the latest to try their hand at Edward Ford, a masterpiece despite the fact—because of the fact?—that it has never been filmed.

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Over the years, the script has suffered from the same cruel passage of time that Edward Ford does; the world has changed, but Edward Ford has always been the same. It’s now been 50-odd years since the script’s earliest scene; it’s aged into a period piece (and as Dobbs quotes Frederic Raphael as saying, “screenplays don’t age like wine; they age like fruit.”) The culture’s shifted, too, in small ways and large. Some people in the audience in the ’80s might have known what Edward Ford was talking about when he mentions seeing a film with Pork Chops and Kidney Stew, but the pair is nearly lost to the ages now. This works the other way, too—the script has a fictionalized version of Ed Wood, who is now, thanks to Tim Burton, no longer as obscure as he was when Dobbs was writing.

And in the meantime, thousands of people have read Edward Ford and seen the film in their heads. It could have been directed by Tim Hunter or David Byrne or David Lynch or Steven Soderbergh or Dobbs himself. It could have starred Woody Harrelson or John Lithgow or John Ritter or William Hurt or even Crispin Glover, all of whom approached or were approached at some point in the script’s history. All these potential Edward Fords are evoked every time the script is read, like cinematic Schrödinger's cats. But the instant any one director fixes it on film, the superpositioned versions will collapse and be gone forever. It’s hard not to see that as a narrowing of the road. It almost seems right that Edward Ford should be immortalized in a screenplay that never quite worked out as planned.

Or, sometimes, a movie might get made by exactly the right people at exactly the right time. Just before this story was scheduled to run, Dobbs emailed me, letting me know that Anonymous Content’s Alix Madigan and David Kanter—the producer of Winter’s Bone and Dobbs’ former agent, respectively—have optioned the script and are making “the most committed attempt yet to actually make Edward Ford into a movie.” Terry Zwigoff, of Ghost World and Bad Santa, is attached to direct; he has an aptitude for the mixture of pathos, humor, and grime that makes up Edward Ford’s world. But best of all, they’ve gotten an actor who is so obviously the right choice to play Edward Ford that now I can’t imagine anyone else in the role: Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon. Dobbs again: “You never know. Sometimes the alchemy just comes together.” It’s hard to imagine Edward Ford finally getting made after so many years. But of all the hypothetical versions of the film, this seems like the most promising. Dobbs has a good sense of the odds; it “could happen just like that—or collapse in a hill of beans.”

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I knew that Edward Ford had some basis in fact: Luke Krantz, the painter’s son, is an obvious stand-in for Dobbs, whose father, artist R.B. Kitaj, taught at UCLA in the early 1970s. So it wasn’t surprising to find out that Ford, too, is based on a real person, one of Kitaj’s high school classmates named David Ward. I was a little surprised he was still in Los Angeles, but Dobbs gave me his name and put us in touch, and one Sunday I visited him at his apartment.

I wasn’t expecting Ward to live up to his alter ego, but walking into his apartment near Wilcox and Santa Monica in an unfashionable part of Hollywood, the same one he lived in when Dobbs was writing the script, was like attending one of Gatsby’s parties, although a lot less glamorous. David Ward was exactly as Dobbs wrote him, down to the ancient typewriter he used to create his file cards. Two yellowing movie magazines were framed on his wall, folded open to full-page headshots of the cowboy actors Roy Barcroft and Kenne Duncan, renamed Jed and Lester in the script. B-Western villains. There was an ancient publicity still of Ward dressed as a bandit, just the way it’s described in the screenplay, holding a rifle and glaring at the camera. Best of all was a photograph of Ward brandishing a knife as “Mother” in an (almost) all-black production of A Hatful of Rainnot even this detail was invented.

He’s a fan of Edward Ford (“Yeah, it was pretty good ...”) although he’s never had the opportunity to play the cameo Dobbs wrote for him in the screenplay, which was intended to get him his SAG card in real life. Ward got more work as an actor than Edward Ford does in the script. He appeared in a few of the soft-core movies Ed Wood made at the end of his career, though not, Ward emphasized, doing anything pornographic: “I was just an extra in them in a couple of nightclub scenes.”

David Ward, late 1960s
David Ward, late 1960s

Courtesy of David Ward.

And yes, David Ward did finally make it into the Screen Actors Guild, although not in as cinematic a fashion as Edward Ford: He landed work as an extra in Iron Eagle. Dobbs sent director Sidney J. Furie a note: “This is my friend David Ward. Give him a line, will ya, he’s been trying to get into SAG for a hundred years.” Although Ward’s dialogue was cut from the final film, it got him into the union at long last. (No minor thing; as Ward put it, “I'm still getting residuals on that one.”) He played a cabbie named Edward Ford in The Limey (directed by Soderbergh, contentiously, from a Dobbs script), although his lines were cut once again. And he still eats TV dinners religiously. His favorite is Stouffer’s Chicken in Barbecue Sauce, although he made a point of telling me that he can cook for himself: “… I make Jell-O, and applesauce, Campbell's chicken noodle soup. ...”

Before I left, David Ward wanted me to watch his most recent work as an actor, a student film written and directed by his niece, Christiana Martini. It’s called The Last Black Hat, and Martini has Ward playing himself: an aging actor whose dream has always been to play the villain in a B-Western. And because there’s a film-within-a-film, Ward also, at long last, gets to play the villain in a B-Western, black hat and all. So I watch the film with him, and watch him watch it. I’m sitting in a tiny Hollywood apartment in the afternoon sun with Edward Ford, the patron saint of people whose ambitions always exceed their grasp. The film ends with Ward in a theater, watching himself on-screen murdering a group of gold prospectors and stealing their money. Being the bad guy. Ward peers intently at his own image and nods his head back and forth in a manner Lem Dobbs wrote about 30 years ago and I read about 20 years after that, dreaming I could write for the movies.

On the wall behind the TV, David Ward grips his rifle and glares into sunlight from 40 years ago, waiting for someone to cast him in the kind of movie no one had made in years and no one would ever make again. On-screen, David Ward, 40 years later, makes the shape of a gun with his fingers and fires it at the camera. In his chair Ward watches himself and just beams. In all the years since he came to Hollywood (and since his B-Western idols came to Hollywood, and their B-Western idols, and further and further), nothing that matters about this city or its dream has changed. I should know. Interest has been shown in my scripts and I've been attending a number of meetings.

Correction, Nov. 15, 2012: A headline on this article originally said three Oscar winners are trying their hands at Edward Ford. They are Oscar nominees.

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