Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Savage truth about playwrights

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are The Savages.

The other night I watched The Savages, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Among other reasons I wanted to see it, main character Wendy Savage (Oscar nominee Laura Linney) is a playwright--and I have a minor hobby of analyzing the way that playwrights are portrayed in other media (movies, novels). Fun fact: in real life, Laura is the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, so she's probably very familiar with the theatrical-academic world of The Savages.

Wendy is an example of how I don't want to end up. She is 39 years old, unproduced, working temp jobs, applying fruitlessly for grant money, single, childless, and having dispassionate sex with a balding 52-year-old married guy. She's so beaten-down by life that she is stunned when a guy who works at her father's nursing home asks to read her play. "Where I come from, people never want to see your unproduced plays," Wendy explains. To me, this rang a little false. The impression I get from reading blogs like surplus is that the New York theater world is full of people passing unproduced scripts around and gossiping about which ones deserve productions. And it made me wonder: why doesn't Wendy try to join a writing group?

Still, I loved her reaction when the man says that he liked her semi-autobiographical play. "You don't think it's self-important and bourgeois?" Wendy asks earnestly. Ha.

Wendy's brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is also involved in theater as a drama professor in Buffalo, so their dialogue has several funny theater references in it. (Wendy: "Now we have to go out West and get Dad!" Jon: "We don't, Wendy, we're not in a Sam Shepard play.") And I almost burst out laughing when I saw that Jon had a Richard Foreman poster leaning against the wall of his living room (photo below). Too perfect! I just wish that The Savages could've worked in a reference to A. R. Gurney, famous for his plays about Buffalo, NY.

At the end of the movie, Wendy's growth as a character, a sense of "she's gonna be all right after all," is symbolized by her play getting a small New York production. Jon watches a rehearsal and comments on the play's "mix of naturalism and magical realism," which is again, TOO perfect, because that's the major trend in playwriting these days--Tony Kushner, Sarah Ruhl. I never expected a movie to capture this about the theater world.

Still, I always think it's facile when movies show writer-characters overcoming their lousy childhoods by transforming them into works of art. I guess it's the dramatic payoff for making Wendy a playwright in the first place, but it gives the impression that the only thing playwrights can write about is themselves. Wes Anderson did the same thing with Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums--at the end of the movie, she overcomes her depression and writes a play about her dysfunctional family. Though I feel it's more tongue-in-cheek in Anderson's version than in Jenkins'.

As female playwrights in movies go, though, I love Margot Tenenbaum. She talks less about playwriting than Wendy Savage does, but since she's in a Wes Anderson movie, she's got lots of weird quirks and an iconic wardrobe. Someday, I'm going to be Margot for Halloween. I already have dark-blond bobbed hair and a fur coat I inherited from my grandma.

Wes Anderson also created a memorable playwright character with Max Fischer, of Rushmore. I haven't seen that movie for a while, but I just watched some clips on Youtube, and think I need to see it again. Max, in all his awful, egotistical, awkward glory, is painfully reminiscent of how we playwrights can get on our worst days. And his line "I can write a hit play. Why can't I have a little drink to unwind myself?" certainly resonates with this not-yet-21-year-old playwright...

Photos from criticsrant.com

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