What Richard Yates would think of Sam Mendes making Revolutionary Road.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 26 2007 12:35 PM

Revolutionary Road—the Movie

Leonardo DiCaprio. Kate Winslet. Richard Yates' dark novel is finally being made into a Hollywood movie.

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[Ruddy] turned out, predictably enough, to be a very agreeable, friendly bullshit artist. … For the first five minutes he's elaborately, embarrassingly respectful … because he Admires my Work so much (so very, very much) and because he's always, always wanted to meet me. …[Then] he turns into this brusque, ballsy, rough-diamond kind of guy: hell, maybe he's crude … but no son of a bitch in This Town, in this Industry, can ever say he's copped-out on a property yet. For instance, let's take a property like Revolutionary Road. Let's take the ending. Is that a problem? Why hell, let's face it, of course it's a problem. Nine guys out of ten in This Town would cop-out on a problem like that—but wait. Listen. Do I know what he's gonna do?

Ruddy proposed to put in a lot of "tricky camera work" at the end—flashbacks, track shots, match dissolves—so that the audience wouldn't be sure, finally, whether April was dead or alive. When Yates inquired whether that might be confusing, Ruddy threw up his hands and said he wanted to "eat [his] cake and have it too!" Yates concluded: "In the end, of course, it came to light that he has absolutely no plans for producing the picture in the near or even foreseeable future ... and the whole afternoon was really just an opportunity for him to try out his personality on me." As for Yates, he plugged away at the Iwo Jima project for a few more weeks before ending up at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Center. He'd been found wandering along the Sunset Strip giving away money to bums and prostitutes. On top of which he thought he was Jesus.

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For the rest of Yates' life, the lucrative prospect of Revolutionary Road—the movie—shimmered like a mirage in the middle distance. In 1967, Ruddy bought the property outright for $15,500, which Yates gave to his ex-wife so she could start a college fund for their beloved daughters. By 1972, Yates was languishing as a writer-in-residence at Wichita State University. Desperate to get the hell out of Kansas, he asked Ruddy if he could earn a few bucks writing his own adaptation of Revolutionary Road. Ruddy had just produced The Godfather, so what better time for a "ballsy" guy like him to roll the dice?  But Ruddy already had two other projects lined up, and while he told Yates it would "break [his] heart" for another person to make Revolutionary Road, Ruddy wouldn't stand in the way if someone made him an "irresistible offer." 

Fatefully, that someone proved to be actor Patrick O'Neal, and there the matter remained. To the very end, Yates tried wresting Revolutionary Roadaway from O'Neal, whose original screenplay he'd read and found godawful. But O'Neal wouldn't budge. Yates died (still broke) in 1992, and O'Neal died two years later.      

I've always had a perverse curiosity to see O'Neal's screenplay, so I could imagine Yates' reaction to its various lapses. One thing I'm willing to bet is that O'Neal made the Wheelers a lot more sympathetic than they ought to be. It was a common misconception when the book was first published, even among good critics. Quite simply, Yates meant for the Wheelers to seem a little better than mediocre: not, that is, stoical mavericks out of Hemingway, or glamorous romantics out of Fitzgerald. Rather, the Wheelers are everyday people—you and me—who pretend to be something they're not because life is lonely and dull and disappointing.

Were Yates alive to advise Mendes, I daresay he'd insist that the movie begin, as the novel does, with April's mortifyingly awful performance in an amateur production of The Petrified Forest. In other words, the Wheelers' doom should never be in doubt because they can't help being themselves. "When the curtain fell at last," Yates wrote, at the end of one of the most excruciating scenes in American literature, "it was an act of mercy."

Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life. He is working on a biography of Philip Roth.

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