Thanks for the Memoirs

BEING FLYNN and Other Life-Story Films

By Peter Bowen | February 28, 2012
Being Flynn

Paul Weitz’s BEING FLYNN, starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, is adapted from Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The book, which recounts Flynn’s experiences in the late 1980s when he encountered his estranged father while working at a homeless shelter in Boston, earned the writer a PEN International award. When Paul Weitz read Flynn’s memoir, he saw how it could make an emotionally powerful film. Producer Andrew Milano remembers, “We all fell in love with the book, and like many good projects it has been a long road to getting it made. But when we find material that matters to us, we stick with it.” Indeed from writing some 30 drafts of the script to casting, Weitz worked to honor Flynn’s story. As Julianne Moore (who plays Nick Flynn’s mother in the film) commented, “Paul’s screenplay of Nick’s story is a journey that takes you from childhood to adulthood. Nick experienced hardship and difficulty, and almost succumbed to it. Through Paul, we see how Nick found a way out of that by writing about it, and by talking about it, eloquently.” For Flynn, one of the highlights of the film was having Robert De Niro play his dad: “My father possesses levels of self-confidence, lunacy, and menace while also evincing compassion and a certain nobility. The idea of Mr. De Niro playing the part was the best possible news, since all those qualities are evident in his movie work.”

The Motorcycle Diaries

In January 1952, a 23-year-old medical student called Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his 29-year-old pal Alberto Granado left Buenos Aires on motorcycles to travel across the expanses of South America. Their 5000-mile trek from Argentina, up along South America’s western coast, and finally to Miami, was recounted in Guevara’s journal. Even after Guevara went on to become the  famous revolutionary “Che,” his youthful memoir lay buried among his papers. It was not till after his death in 1967 that the manuscript was found. His daughter Aleida recounted in The New York Times how in discovering the “sheaf of typewritten pages” that would be come The Motorcycle Diaries, she found her father all over again: “To tell you the truth, the more I read, the more in love I was with the boy my father had been.” The epic adventure proved a pivotal learning experience for the young Che, who honed his sense of injustice and political oppression during the trip, long before it crystallized into any sort of ideology. Che began his account with a disclaimer: “This isn't a tale of derring-do, nor is it merely some kind of 'cynical account'; it isn't meant to be, at least. It's a chunk of two lives running parallel for a while, with common aspirations and similar dreams.” Published first in Cuba in 1993, the book quickly became a cult favorite in Latin American countries. When published in English, it was marketed as “Das Kapital meets Easy Rider." The director Walter Salles, who’d been moved by the book when it came out, spent years researching the actual trip and the period in which it took place. For him, the Diaries told two stories, one of young men on an adventure and the other of a continent coming of age. In an interview with ThenItMustBeTrue.Com, Salles explained that “the idea here was not only to be faithful to [the book], but also faithful to the spirit of the original journey, and that meant that we also needed to be exposed to the same kind of unpredictable adventures that they had been into. And the film is very much the result of a really wonderful screenplay written by José [Rivera] and a lot of improvisation that occurred during the journey.” In order to facilitate this improvisation, the production, along with Gael Garcia Bernal (Guevara) and Rodrigo de la Serna (Granado), followed the route of the original trip as they made the movie.

The Pianist

In 1945, after Władysław Szpilman had survived the unspeakable ordeals of World War II, he decided to write about it. In his memoir, Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City), he described his experience of being a celebrated concert pianist and a regular performer on Polish Radio who was forced into hiding after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His family was pushed into the ghetto and, in 1942, they were sent to Treblinka concentration camp, where no one ever survived. Szpilman escaped at the last minute with the help of a friend. For the next three years, he barely scraped an existence, working as a laborer when he could and hiding out in various abandoned apartments and ruined buildings. In the end, he was saved by the most unlikely of people, a Nazi officer who recognized his musical talent. The first edition of the book received no support from the pro-Stalin Polish Communist government. However, in 1998, when his son Andrzej re-published the by-now-neglected memoir, first in German as The Miraculous Survival, and then in English as The Pianist, the book took off. Roman Polanski, who had long wanted to make a film about the Holocaust – and was Jewish, Polish and an artist himself – felt a deep connection to the story. In an interview with Film Scouts, Polanski explained, “This book describes the events I remember from my childhood. For many years I've been planning to make a film about this period, but I couldn't find the right material. Szpilman's book isn't just another chapter in the book of martyrdom we all know. In his memoirs, he describes these events from the point of view of a man who experienced them. …Reading the first few chapters, I knew it was going to be my next film.” The film, starring Adrien Brody as Szpilman, proved to be a triumph, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Director for Polanski and Best Actor for Brody.

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang

In 1922, World War I veteran Robert Elliot Burns found himself arrested with two other men in Atlanta, GA for robbing a grocery store for $5.81, a grand sum that got him six to 10 years of hard labor in a Georgia chain gang. But he quickly escaped and found his way to Chicago, where he became the editor and publisher of Greater Chicago Magazine. Seven years later, his past caught up with him, and he returned to Georgia on a promise that he would only serve a perfunctory sentence. But back on the chain gang, his life turned into a living hell. After several thwarted attempts (for which Burns was cruelly punished), he finally escaped, moved north, and wrote about his travails. The story first appeared in serial form in True Detective Mysteries, then was published as the book I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang, a best-seller which was soon adapted in the hit 1932 movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. When the film hit theaters, Variety decried the commercial potential of such a dark, depressing tale, but the box office receipts told another story. A Warner Bros. telegram from the New York premiere trumpeted: “FUGITIVE BIGGEST BROADWAY SENSATION IN THE LAST THREE YEARS STOP THOUSANDS TURNED AWAY…”  The movie's politics were further pushed in a newspaper advertorial that proclaimed, “At Last the Truth on Chain Gangs Prison Camps….Every Anguished Bloodstained Word is True.”  By the time the film came out, Burns had been re-arrested and was waiting in jail in New Jersey to be transported back to Georgia. But the public outcry over the horrors portrayed in his story pushed New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore to refuse Georgia’s attempt to extradite him. The otherwise fluffy gossip columnist Louella Parsons spoke up for the film’s political message, declaring, “If this motion picture…can do anything to correct an evil that is a blot on civilization, it will not have been made in vain.” But not all were pleased. In 1933, the warden J. Harold Hardy sued Warner Bros. for "vicious, brutal and false attacks” against him in the film, and the studio supposedly paid him off rather than going to court.

Auntie Mame

The fashionable, free-thinking Mame, made famous on film and in the theater by Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball, and Angela Lansbury, had her roots in the aunt of novelist Patrick Dennis, author of the book Auntie Mame. From the outside, Dennis' work appears to be a memoir, written in the first person about a young boy named Patrick who is adopted by his exuberant aunt after his father’s death. In truth, Dennis was born Edward Everett Tanner III and was raised by his parents in Evanston, Illinois, but he did have an aunt called Marion Tanner who was the inspiration for Mame.  Although the book was initially rejected by several publishers, it became a best-seller when it came out in 1955. In 1957, it was adapted for the stage with Rosalind Russell in the title role. And the next year, Warner Bros. turned the story into a film, with Russell reprising her role. The movie became the highest grossing film of the year, and Russell was nominated for an Academy Award for her iconic performance. (Indeed, Russell became so associated with the role that Bernard F. Dick titled his biography of the actress Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell.) The story would be reinvented again in 1966 as a musical with Angela Lansbury, and that musical was filmed with Lucille Ball in 1974. But as the larger-than-life character became more famous, its flesh-and-blood prototype became more problematic. Dennis publicly acknowledged that his aunt Marion Tanner was his inspiration, but would continually shift positions on how much of Mame was drawn from real life. At least on paper, the character and real person shared a birthplace (Buffalo, NY), an alma mater (Smith College), and many similar experiences (including a Zen phase, working at Macy’s, and losing a husband in a mountaineering expedition). Mame’s famous Beekman Place apartment seemed very similar to Tanner’s town house, which she bought in 1927 on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Both were lively meeting places for artists, writers, performers, crackpots, and the like. When the novel was turned into a play, Dennis actively sought to distance his work from his aunt, who was riding the book’s coattails for her own benefit. In 1957, for example, Tanner signed up to do the TV quiz show The Big Surprise, labeling herself “the real Auntie Mame.”  The problem for Dennis and the play’s producer, who had just signed up Rosalind Russell, was that they didn’t want their fashionable character being compared Tanner, whose dowdy, bag-lady appearance was a far cry from Russell's. In the mid-sixties, when relations between the aunt and nephew grew even more strained, Marion Tanner publicly rejected her fictional alter ego, announcing, “I don't especially like Auntie Mame. I think I'm much nicer.''

The Egg and I

In 1945, Betty MacDonald, who’d taken to writing humorous accounts of her various exploits, recounted in detail her experience trying to start a chicken farm in Washington State inThe Egg and I. She hadn’t initially intended to write anything, but her sister had promised a publishing scout at a cocktail party that her sister was working on it, pushing MacDonald to submit a book proposal. Her memoir, summed up rather dryly by the New York Times review as "Life on a wilderness chicken ranch," became a publishing sensation, as the post-war generation connected to her dry, urbane tone. (MacDonald exclaimed such things as, “Who(ever) said that wild animals won't bother you if you don't bother them ... must have lived in an apartment house and just finished reading Bambi.”) Universal-International bought the film rights in the spring of 1946 and The Atlantic Monthly serialized the book that summer. The film version, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, was rushed into production and released in 1947. While the movie proved a hit, it was two minor characters, Ma and Pa Kettle (played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride), that soon became the main attraction. Not only did Main get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but the saga of the hillbilly-ish couple with 15 children was extended from 1949 to 1957 in nine additional films. As soon as MacDonald’s characters hit the big time, lawsuits started to occur. First, the son of Albert and Susanna Bishop filed suit, claiming that his parents were the model for the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle. The case was settled out of court, but the Bishop family wasn’t done yet. Another lawsuit brought by nine other Bishop family members, and Raymond H. Johnson (who claimed to be the inspiration for the Native-American character “Crowbar”) brought suit against the publisher as well as the Seattle store that sold the book. However, the plaintiff’s claim of harm was severely damaged when attorneys showed that Albert Bishop regularly appeared on stage with chickens under his arms claiming to be “Pa Kettle.”

Catch Me if You Can

In 1980, Frank Abagnale Jr. (with the help of writer Stan Redding) revealed in Catch Me If You Can the incredible fraudulent escapades that hitherto had only appeared in court transcripts and FBI files. Subtitled “The Amazing True Story of the Youngest and Most Daring Con Man in the History of Fun and Profit!,” the memoir actually seemed to live up to its own hype. At 15, Abagnale started on his life of duplicity by racking up expenses on his father's Mobil credit card. After he left home, his ambition increased, pushing him to masquerade as a Pan Am pilot, a prison official, a medical doctor, and more. Along the way, he swindled the sum of more than $2 million, mostly by passing bad checks. Arrested before the age of 30, Abagnale spent less than five years in jail, convincing the authorities to spring him so that he could work for them as a fraud detector. His story immediately caught the attention of Hollywood, but it took a long time to find the right combination. Steven Spielberg, who eventually directed the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, was convinced by Jeff Nathanson – who “wrote the best script based on Frank's [Abagnale] life, and his book” – and, of course, by the story in which Frank Abagnale “did things that were the most astonishing scams I had ever heard.” But once the film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, came out, critics began to question whether Abagnale’s scams weren’t a bit of a scam themselves. Investigators went back over the details, often finding that not all the facts lined up. Abagnale, who by now was running a successful consulting firm, shrugged off such concerns on the Abagnale and Associates website: “I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography." Abagnale would later sum up his life and his book, saying, ''Modesty is not one of my virtues….Virtue was not one of my virtues.”

Born on the Fourth of July

During the fall of 1974, Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet who been paralyzed during the war, sat down in Santa Monica to write his memoir Born on the Fourth of July. In 2005, he recalled: "I wrote all night long, seven days a week, single space, no paragraphs, front and back of the pages, pounding the keys so hard the tips of my fingers would hurt. I couldn't stop writing, and I remember feeling more alive than I had ever felt.” He wrote for one month, three weeks and two days, recounting the complex process that lead him from gung-ho American patriot to wheelchair-bound peace activist. The book became a powerful rallying cry and was quickly adapted into a script by Oliver Stone in 1978. Stone later remarked, “Probably the best screenplay I’ve written is Born on the Fourth of July, based on the Ron Kovic book about Vietnam. I spent a year on that, worked with Al Pacino, who was going to star in it.” But six days before production was to start, the financing fell through. Stone promised Kovic that if he ever got the chance to direct, he’d return to the project. After the critical and commercial success of Platoon, Stone did just that, albeit this time with Tom Cruise in the lead role. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars (including a first for Cruise) and won two (Best Editing and Best Director).

Running with Scissors

In 2002, an advertising creative named Augusten Burroughs published his first book, a wild memoir of his life growing up with a crazy extended family called Running with Scissors. Based on some 20 notebooks that he kept from the ages of 12 to 17, it detailed how, when he was 12, his self-involved mother left him in the care of her unorthodox psychiatrist in a dilapidated home, with six other children. The sprawling, slapstick story of neglect, seduction, mania and unwashed dishes is by turns horrifying and hilarious. And the memoir proved a best-seller, leading to it being adapted for the screen and directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, with a cast that included Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Alec Baldwin, and Joseph Cross (as Burroughs). Talking to AfterElton, Murphy explained the memoir’s lure: “When I read the book, I was shocked at how much we were alike. I had never met anybody else, other than me, who had polished their allowance, and things like that. I was very attracted to the 'shiny things' thing, movies and glamour and escape. We had that in common. I loved what it was about. I had been offered a lot of things to make my film debut on, and I turned them down. Then I read it, and I thought, 'I know how to tell that story.' It was a personal story to me. I wanted to protect it.” The book established Burroughs as an important young writer, and the movie earned Bening a Golden Globe nomination and established Murphy as a force in film as well as TV. However, not everyone was pleased. In 2005, the Turcotte family (the real family in the book) sued both Burroughs and his publisher for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. As part of the settlement, Burroughs agreed to call his work a “book” instead of a memoir in the Author’s Note and to acknowledge that the Turcottes had different versions of what is recounted in Running With Scissors.


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