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.
Courtesy of David Ward.
I first read Edward Ford—the famously brilliant, famously unproduced screenplay by Lem Dobbs—in 2003, during the first year of a comprehensively unsuccessful attempt to become a professional screenwriter. Our manager gave my writing partner and me a copy, perhaps sensing thematic affinities between Dobbs’ masterpiece and the non-masterpiece we had just written (about an alcoholic airline pilot, but not Flight). As happens anytime Edward Ford changes hands, the words “greatest” and “unproduced” were both used. Given that the next thing we worked on with this manager was a twin-swapping comedy with a talking car, it’s entirely possible he intended Edward Ford as a cautionary example, and I missed his emphasis on “unproduced.” But I sure agree with “greatest.” And so does most of Hollywood; the script has been passed around more or less continuously since Dobbs wrote it in 1978—several millennia ago, in film years—and it’s perpetually about to go into production. In fact, it’s happening once again: As of this week, a trio of Oscar nominees are attached to the project, as producers once again attempt to finance Edward Ford. But regardless of whether it’s ever filmed, it’s one of the great works of American art.
That sounds like an absurd claim to make, because there’s something uniquely shameful about unproduced screenplays. Unpublished novels have a similar air of failure about them, but a manuscript at least has the virtue of being in its final form—at the bottom of a drawer or on a best-seller display at Barnes & Noble, it’s still words on a page. Screenplays, on the other hand, are written to be watched, not read—if it’s still on paper, something didn’t work out. Lem Dobbs, of course, has had plenty of screenplays work out, from his uncredited rewrite on Romancing the Stone to next year’s Robert Redford-directed thriller The Company You Keep. But even if Edward Ford never makes it into theaters, the screenplay makes sense on a bookshelf. I’d put it right next to The Great Gatsby, that other great American work of longing and failure.
Edward Ford’s Edward Ford is a borderline-OCD film fan bouncing around the dregs of Hollywood trying to get work as an actor. He keeps meticulous records on carefully typed file cards not just of the films he sees but also of their casts and the theaters where he saw them—a sort of analog IMDb. Ford has an autist’s ability to remember unimportant details while missing the big picture: In one scene, he tells amused party guests that he didn’t enjoy Olivier’s Richard III because “It was just a boring remake of a Karloff picture called Tower of London.” But he isn’t your garden-variety film eccentric: He doesn’t meet a charming underprivileged kid, or stumble upon a worldwide conspiracy, or inherit a fortune. There’s no “inciting incident” or “call to adventure” in this screenplay. There’s just the passage of time, in all its strangeness and glory.
Which is not to say nothing happens. The script opens in the early 1960s as Edward Ford arrives in Hollywood, hoping to be cast as the bad guy in B-Westerns. As plans go, this is a terrible one: Republic Pictures, the last of the Poverty Row studios, shut down in the late 1950s. But he doesn’t have any real sense of being a man out of his time—he blithely follows other actors auditioning with Gorky and Strindberg with a performance of Lionel Atwill’s monologue from Son of Frankenstein.
The script tracks Ford through two decades of artistic and financial failure: a marriage, a divorce, the deaths of close friends, his entire life happening while he survives on TV dinners and longs for his SAG card. He gets work as a “waiver,” even further down the totem pole than an extra—there’s an insert shot with a giant arrow identifying his head in a crowd scene—but he can’t get a line. Eventually, he settles into a more or less stable existence playing the villain in black theater productions: crooked white cops, “Mother” in A Hatful of Rain, and the like. Bad guys, like he wanted. But not exactly like he wanted.
Ford’s story plays out against the parallel lives of his two closest friends from high school, Ben Krantz and Al Foster. Krantz, the most successful of the trio, is a relatively well-known painter, teaching art at UCLA and sleeping his way through the student body. Foster wants to be a screenwriter (“Interest has been shown in my scripts and I've been attending a number of meetings”), but, alcoholic and thin-skinned, he has none of Ford’s ability to shield himself from failure. The script ends with an Adaptation-like recursion: Krantz’s son writes a movie about Ford, who gets a cameo and finally gets his SAG card.
But the plot matters much less than the portrait Dobbs captures of a willful blindness that’s central to human nature. Ford amiably soldiers on as the world changes around him, convinced that at some point he’ll get an agent, a line, a SAG card. It’s not quite hubris; as Ben Krantz says, “I don't think he knows. He doesn't know. About the road getting narrower ... as you go.” And Dobbs manages to show this happening, Ford’s road getting narrower, in painful detail, while Ford himself doesn’t notice. On any page of Edward Ford, you can say, as Fitzgerald said of Gatsby, that “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
Some of the script’s enduring reputation undoubtedly comes from what I think of as the Sideways effect: If there’s one group of people predisposed to like a screenplay about a film nerd who doesn’t succeed in Hollywood, surely it’s aspiring screenwriters. I can certainly attest that Edward Ford resonates more deeply with each fresh failure to sell a screenplay. More than that, though, Edward Ford has grown in my estimation with each screenplay I’ve read over the years. That’s less a compliment to Dobbs than it is a comment on the state of screenwriting: the outsized influence of a few screenwriting gurus has ensured that even the very best screenplays have a certain monotonous predictability to them. Every time I slog through another script that delivers precisely the expected turns and jolts on precisely the expected pages, I have more appreciation for the way Edward Ford’s structure follows theme instead of a template.
But saying it’s pretty good for a screenplay doesn’t go far enough. Though written by a 19-year-old, Edward Ford is one of the few works of art that tackles real, bone-deep, four-in-the-morning terrors. You might not have the talent you need. Success may no longer be available to you. Time will bury everything you care about. These are not things you want whispered in your ear on date night, and they don’t turn studio executives' eyes into dollar signs. But they are essential parts of what it means to be human.
Edward Ford has kicked around Hollywood now for longer than Edward Ford himself, and under similar circumstances. Ford arrived in town a few years too late to star in a Republic Western; Dobbs managed to write what should have been one of the great New Hollywood films in 1978, just as the studios stopped making them. Its life as a cult object began in the early 1980s, when Stuart Cornfeld—now running Ben Stiller’s production company, but at the time working at Fox—read it, loved it, and started passing it around. Steven Soderbergh, who got a copy from Cornfeld, mentioned the script in his sex, lies, and videotape diaries. As Dobbs, now 52, tells me, “Suddenly every would-be filmmaker in the world, and film journalist, agog at Soderbergh’s ascendance and wanting to read about and emulate him, saw this reference in his book. That's when the—endless—articles and so on started about ‘best unproduced blah-blah ...’ ” (Adds Dobbs, darkly, “This was also the moment when ‘screenwriting’ became the basis of civilization, where before it had been simply a profession and largely unnoticed”).