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.

David Ward's SAG headshot, 1985
David Ward's SAG headshot, 1985

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 Unpublished novels have a similar air of failure about them, but a manuscript at least has the virtue of being in its final form—at the bottom of a drawer or on a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”).

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.”

***

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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