Screenwriters Remember Alvin Sargent

On Film / The Daily — May 13, 2019
Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977), written by Alvin Sargent

Three Oscar nominations and two wins are impressive enough, but the outpouring of tributes on social media to screenwriter Alvin Sargent following the news of his death at the age of ninety-two, particularly the plaudits from his admiring colleagues, are an even greater testimony to the impact of his work. “When I started doing this stuff for a living back in the late ’70s,” tweets screenwriter and producer Larry Gross (48 Hrs., Porto), “Alvin Sargent was almost universally regarded by writers, producers, agents, everybody in Hollywood as the gold standard for serious, creative screenwriting.” Gross cites Julia (1977), an adaptation of a chapter in Lillian Hellman’s memoir addressing her friendship with an anti-fascist activist and her relationship with fellow writer Dashiell Hammett in the 1940s, as one of Sargent’s most fully realized works. “Obviously, Sargent was far ahead of his time in the degree of his interest and ability in depicting complex, interesting female characters,” writes Gross. “The depiction of the Hellman-Hammett love affair was one of those rare convincing depictions of heterosexual love in a Hollywood film.”

Though he’d been selling ads for Variety in the early 1950s, Sargent’s first job on an actual movie production would also be his first collaboration with Julia director Fred Zinnemann. Sargent told the New York TimesRobert D. McFadden that he’d never even seen a screenplay “until 1952 when my agent got me a small acting job and handed me a plane ticket to Hawaii and a copy of From Here to Eternity. I read it on the plane. It was beautiful.” Ten years later, after a series of stops and starts, Sargent was writing regularly for television series such as Naked City, Route 66, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The first feature of his to be realized was the caper comedy Gambit (1966), directed by Ronald Neame and starring Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine.

Among the standouts from the decades that followed are The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring a young and riveting Liza Minnelli; The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), an adaptation of Paul Zindel’s play directed by Paul Newman; Paper Moon (1973), the film based on Joe David Brown’s novel and directed by Peter Bogdanovich that would score Sargent his first Oscar nomination; Bobby Deerfield (1977), a contemporary reimagining of a love story by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque starring Al Pacino; Straight Time (1978), featuring one of Dustin Hoffman’s greatest performances as a thief addicted to crime; and Ordinary People (1980), an adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel for which Sargent won his second Oscar. Robert Redford directs Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton in the story of a family failing to cope with loss. For Variety’s Peter Debruge, “what has always impressed about Sargent’s work is the way he seemed to dedicate his entire career to unpacking the popular images so often propagated by film and television . . . Where other writers are expert manipulators, writing memorable zingers or orchestrating characters’ behavior toward some calculated payoff, Sargent wrote human beings.”

Genuine humanity is the thread that runs through an otherwise eclectic range of genres that eventually—and somewhat unexpectedly—led him to writing for the Spider-Man franchise. Sargent’s wife, the producer Laura Ziskin, got him to do some uncredited doctoring on the script for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), and Sargent wound up writing the two sequels. “Now this is what a superhero movie should be,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Spider-Man 2 (2004). “It’s not camp and it’s not nostalgia, it’s not wall-to-wall special effects, and it’s not pickled in angst. It’s simply and poignantly a realization that being Spider-Man is a burden that Peter Parker is not entirely willing to bear.”

Whether he was adapting a story of political intrigue by Lillian Hellman or a tale of teenage angst by Stan Lee, Sargent excelled at locating the human heart beating at the center of the narrative. Craig Mazin, creator of the HBO series Chernobyl and cohost of the popular Scriptnotes podcast with fellow screenwriter John August, calls Sargent “the patron saint of unpigeonholeable screenwriters.” For Mark Harris, the author most recently of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,Paper Moon, Ordinary People, and Spider-Man 2 are all, in their very different ways, master classes—tone-perfect, impeccably structured, witty, human, worth visiting and revisiting.” And tweeting posters for Gambit, Paper Moon, and Straight Time, Larry Karaszewski, who’s cowritten screenplays with Scott Alexander for Miloš Forman and Tim Burton, simply adds: “There was no one better than Alvin Sargent.”

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