Time to reframe the legacy of ’70s screenwriter Carole Eastman ‹ Literary Hub

Around 1976, producer and entertainment mogul David Geffen gave Carole Eastman $100,000 to write a screenplay. As a musician manager, Geffen had already made a name for himself signing major talents early in their careers, from Laura Nyro to Crosby, Stills & Nash. By then, betting big on an established talent like Eastman must have seemed like a no-brainer – the writer had already scripted four films, one of which (1970’s Five easy pieces) hit the cultural zeitgeist and earned him an Oscar nomination.

Eastman had apparently carved out a path for herself in Hollywood with her baffling, plotless character studies, and she counted industry heavyweights like Jack Nicholson among her close friends and key collaborators. Even in hindsight, Geffen’s bet seems like a smart bet, but it never really paid off. Eastman’s name didn’t appear in another movie’s credits for 16 years, and her most enduring work was already behind her.

When she died six days shy of her 70th birthday in 2004, the title of nearly every obituary described Eastman as the author of Five easy piecesand many of these articles have pointed to the film’s iconic chicken salad scene – in which Nicholson’s character Bobby Dupea berates a waitress for the restaurant’s ‘no substitution’ policy – ​​as his most indelible work. .

In 2010, film historian Peter Biskind went so far as to write that “Five easy pieces was the only decent script Eastman ever wrote, or produced anyway. The film, indeed, had become the sum total of Eastman’s legacy as a writer, aside from the occasional mention she receives in Hollywood stories on brighter subjects like Nicholson or Warren Beatty. .

Last year, however, Eastman appeared in two new books, Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life and Matthew Specktor Always crash in the same car, which devotes an entire chapter to the enigmatic writer. It might be an overstatement to suggest that Eastman is having a “moment,” but the time seems right to revisit his work and consider how his legacy might still be reframed.

As David Geffen’s anecdote suggests, Eastman is the kind of character easy to mythologize: a reclusive writer who was briefly at the epicenter of ’70s Hollywood but never seemed too enamored with it. An intensely private person, she avoided the limelight at every turn and wrote most of her work under the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce”, the second half a tribute to her favorite Irish writer.

Quotes about Eastman from his contemporaries tend to only add to the air of mystery, with most acknowledging his mastery of the intricacies of language before mentioning aspects of his perceived strangeness, from his chain smoking to his alleged fears. planes, elevators and cameras. (Buck Henry once said she was “born to be an eccentric old lady.”) In a 1971 Los Angeles Times Eastman’s profile, the reporter notes, “Judging by the complete lack of information about screenwriter Adrien Joyce (Carole Eastman)…I could have concluded that she didn’t exist.”

With a writer like Eastman, it’s tempting to fantasize that all of his unproduced scripts are works of genius, unfairly gathering dust somewhere.

These days, it’s a little easier to piece together a biography of Eastman, as Specktor does in his book, and as writer Nick Pinkerton did in an excellent article about her for Film Comment in 2014. in 1934 in Glendale, California, Eastman grew up around Hollywood in more ways than one. His father worked as an attendant at Warner Brothers, his uncle was a cameraman, and his mother was, at least for a time, Bing Crosby’s secretary.

Eastman’s older brother also became a screenwriter (and appeared on screen in one of his films, Shooting), but his own screenwriting career was not a foregone conclusion. After dropping out of high school due to what she described as ‘constant’ truancy, Eastman took up dancing and appeared in the musical Funny head in 1957 before a broken foot ended that part of his career. That same year, she made the fateful decision to enroll in an acting class taught by blacklisted character actor Jeff Corey, where she met a young Jack Nicholson.

Eastman’s acting career was short-lived, arguably culminating in 1962 with a role opposite Robert Duvall in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents. Her friendship with Nicholson, however, lasted the rest of her life, and their creative partnership inspired much of her best work. By 1965, Eastman had turned to writing, and Nicholson was under contract with B-movie producer Roger Corman to go out into the wilderness and shoot two westerns back-to-back with director Monte Hellman. Nicholson had written one of the screenplays himself, because what was to become Roll in the whirlwindbut he attributed the other to Eastman, whom he dubbed “Speed” after witnessing his extremely slow writing process.

The resulting movie, Shooting, follows a retired bounty hunter (Warren Oates) who agrees to guide a mysterious young woman (Millie Perkins) through the desert, but becomes suspicious after realizing she might report to a man following them (Nicholson) . Their journey is described as a relentless march through hell towards certain death, interrupted every now and then by the woman’s disturbing habit of sporadically firing her gun at nothing in particular. The film’s mix of overwhelming dread and absurd humor has become a hallmark of Eastman, and it remains one of the purest distillations of his voice as a writer.

Shooting proved too esoteric to secure distribution beyond a few Parisian arthouse theaters, but Eastman continued to find work, scripting two episodes of the TV show Run for your life before helping French filmmaker Jacques Demy write the dialogues for his first film in English, Model store (1969). These efforts proved to be a dry run for the biggest year of Eastman’s career, 1970, which saw the release of two “Adrien Joyce” scripted films. Puzzle of a falling child and Five easy pieces.

The first, a collaboration with Panic in Needle Park director Jerry Schatzberg, is only available on DVD and seems to be Eastman’s film most ready to be rediscovered, if only because it is a “tribute to alienation”. (to quote Pauline Kael) from a writer who seemed to understand the subject well. Through a series of flashbacks, it follows an aging model (Faye Dunaway) as she recounts the events leading up to her mental breakdown, quickly establishing herself as an unreliable narrator prone to both paranoia and megalomania.

The film feels a bit like the product of a culture that only recently discovered therapy, but Dunaway is perfect in the role, and the script offers up some of Eastman’s most memorable banter. (“All men these days grow their hair out. It’s fabulous, but you all look like Jesus. So how will we recognize him when he arrives?”)

This unknowable quality is of course part of what makes Eastman such a compelling figure, but it also threatens to make her more mythical than anyone else.

Released a few months apart, it was probably inevitable that Puzzle would be eclipsed by Five easy pieces, which remains a staggering achievement and the only film in Eastman’s oeuvre that inspires a wave of appreciation every time it passes a birthday. In Bobby Dupea, Eastman honed a type of character she was drawn to repeatedly: the angsty perfectionist who would rather give up than produce something he considers less than worthy.

The film came to define Nicholson’s star character, and he became determined to collaborate with Eastman again, aggressively shopping around one of his unfinished scripts called The heiress of the mouse bedlater renamed The wealth. Nicholson finally convinced Warren Beatty to co-star with him and Mike Nichols to direct, and suddenly the film had all the ingredients for a hit. Instead, the once-promising project turned into a flop of epic proportions.

Released in 1975, The wealth attempted to capitalize on the recent trend of hit comedies set in the 20s or 30s, including moon paper and The bite. Its convoluted plot follows two incompetent con artists (Nicholson and Beatty) as they attempt to scam the heiress to a sanitary napkin empire (Stockard Channing). The film isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests – the Coen brothers are among its defenders, and Nicholson’s springy facial features are well-suited for goofy comedy.

It is, however, extremely uneven and borderline inconsistent, which is at least partly due to the fact that Eastman produced an endless 345-page script. Despite his protests, Nichols cut the script himself. “He kept cutting all the good stuff,” production designer Polly Platt said in Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “[Eastman] would suffer, but there was nothing she could do about it.

The wealthEastman’s failure likely led to Eastman’s long hiatus, whether it was because she couldn’t bear to see her job taken away from her again or because the offers stopped rolling in after the film was shot. . In Hollywood fashion, she kept a low profile, spending part of her time locked in a room at the Château Marmont with her typewriter. (That $100,000 from Geffen probably came in handy.) “It was a rewarding time,” she later told the Los Angeles Times. “I explored other forms of writing.”

At some point, Eastman returned to writing screenplays—Jerry Schatzberg said she had done a number of uncredited rewrites for various producers, including Scott Rudin. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that it finally made two comeback attempts: the Nicholson vehicle man problem and the HBO movie Teammates. Both are perhaps best left in the dustbin of history, but they are remarkable in one way: Eastman ultimately chose to write under his own name. After seeing the final products, she may have wished she hadn’t, but it’s nice to imagine the angsty perfectionist finally learned to accept the flaws in her own work.

With a writer like Eastman, who has produced less work than she otherwise might have had, it’s tempting to fantasize that all of her unproduced screenplays are works of genius, unfairly gathering dust somehow. go. For his book, Specktor visited an archive of Eastman’s papers at the University of Texas and compiled a list of his unproduced projects. Most intriguing, in the eyes of this reader, is Interval, a paranoid thriller about a folk-rock singer who falls under the influence of a cult leader. At one point, it was to be directed by Monte Hellman, and it’s easy to imagine the potential film would sit comfortably among Eastman’s other underrated gems, wrapping Adrien Joyce in another layer of mystique.

This unknowable quality is of course part of what makes Eastman such a compelling figure, but it also threatens to make her more mythical than anyone else. Fortunately, Specktor also unearthed a note scribbled in the margins of Eastman’s papers, which pierces the riddle: “I am Carole Eastman. I live at the Chateau Marmont hotel. I have 3 cats. And I’m a writer by choice. Taduum!”