A Man Who Gives a Hecht

Special Features   A Man Who Gives a Hecht Ron Hutchinson's admiration for Ben Hecht led him to his new play, Moonlight & Magnolias, a comic account of the creation of a classic.
Ron Hutchinson
Ron Hutchinson

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Sixty-six years ago — for the last half of last month — it was all quiet on the Southern front.

The most expensive, and feverishly discussed, movie made up to that point in time — "Gone With the Wind" — screeched to a stop, with director George Cukor at the controls, and production was shut down while producer David O. Selznick raided Oz for a replacement (Victor Fleming) and then took him into a week-long story-huddle with writer Ben Hecht. When they emerged from Selznick's office on the seventh day, they had a script in hand.

"The job wasn't helped any by the fact that Hecht refused to read more than one page of the book," notes Ron Hutchinson, who has turned hectic calamity into Hechtic heroics. (In play form, his Moonlight & Magnolias opened March 3 at Manhattan Theatre Club.)

"Hecht thought that the book was junk and that there wasn't a movie in it. As a result, the despairing Selznick — with the eyes of the world on him — decided his only recourse was to act out the book, and that's just what he and Fleming did in order for Hecht, at his Underwood, to bash out scene after scene" until a strong narrative thrust was established. Quite a few other writers — F. Scott Fitzgerald among them — helped fill in the blanks, each working on different colored paper, so the finished screenplay resembled a rainbow. Hecht's Herculean nuts-and-bolts chore rated only five paragraphs in "A Child of the Century," one of his autobiographies, but what precisely went on during this turbulent long-week's-journey-into-script is anyone's guess. Hutchinson guesses frenetic comedy.

"I wanted to see if it's possible to write something with the kind of feel of those old screwball comedies. Something like "His Girl Friday." That's Charles Lederer, another great screenwriter, but its roots are in Hecht [coming from "The Front Page" by Hecht and Charles MacArthur]. To me, that's the gold standard — the smartest dialogue-writing that's ever been done. It's about matters of life and death, but they're played for witty charm."

Director (and MTC's artistic director) Lynne Meadow cast the comedy accordingly. Douglas Sills, who has Mack Sennett and The Scarlet Pimpernel on his resume, plays the Scarlett producer. "The thing about Selznick," Hutchinson points out, "was that there was this boy trapped inside a man. Doug can do the comedy and the eagerness, the puppy-dog nature of this hyperactive man. He was, said his son, the first recorded case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Danny Selznick said, 'The reason my dad was able to do ten movies at a time was because he had ADD before anybody knew it. He got bored very quickly.'"

Hutchinson also spoke to a Fleming daughter, Sally. "Victor Fleming made some of the biggest movies of all time — he was taken off ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in the morning and put on ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the afternoon, literally. He invented the blockbuster but died before it was fashionable to be a studio director, so he never got his due, although two guys are now working on a biography which is due out in '06. Fleming was a big hero to Steven Spielberg." With David Rasche in the part, one gets the bonus of a good physical facsimile of Fleming. "He even has the same hairstyle. There's a photograph of Fleming shouting at Vivien Leigh on the set, and it's exactly the same. Every actress he ever worked with — from Clara Bow to Ingrid Bergman — fell in love with him, except Vivien, who couldn't stand him because she was so terrified of him and so devoted to Cukor."

The fact that each member of this creative trio was a distinct type helped the writing as well as the casting, says Hutchinson. "The patrician Selznick contrasted well with the rough 'n' ready Fleming, who, in turn, contrasted well with the intellectually tough Hecht. I think Matthew Arkin will be able to give us that intellectual bruiser that Hecht was."

Hecht acquired his intellectual toughness as a Chicago newspaperman and took it with him to Hollywood just as movies were learning to talk. He won the very first Oscar for original screenplay for "Underworld," which he wrote, in truth, with some blood from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre he'd covered as a reporter. In no time at all, he was pulling in a grand a week as a screenwriter, prompting him to wire a pal back East: "The money out here is unbelievable, and the only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

It did get around, of course. Indeed, that's what turned Hutchinson, a playwright Belfast-born 58 years ago, into a screenwriter — to date, a child of a quarter of a century.

Brian Dennehy prompted that career switch when he was starring in Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull in Chicago. "Brian said, 'Would you like to make some money by writing a "Miami Vice" episode?' I said, 'Sure, but I've never seen "Miami Vice."' He said, 'Why would that be a problem?' And, when I saw the money in American screenwriting, I decided that I would like some of that. I owe it all to Brian Dennehy."

Throughout 25 years of screenwriting, Hecht has been Hutchinson's hero and role model. "When you go to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, either you get angry about the hoops writers are put through, or you work within the studio system, take your lumps and enjoy the lunacy. I didn't want my Hollywood play to be one of those pissed-off screenwriter plays. I love the place, and I'm grateful. The image of a Hollywood writer is Barton Fink, the poor put-upon guy who is schlumpy and a schmuck. Ben Hecht wasn't pushed around by anybody. He wouldn't read that damn book, but he'd do the job. Give him $15,000, and he'd stay in that room for seven days and wrestle Scarlett O'Hara's love life to the floor. He made the studio system work for him, and that was the story I wanted to tell."

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