Recently I was talking with Felicia about movies, in particular movies about writers. Movies about writers shaped my beliefs, as a younger man, about what a writing life would be like; for the last many years, I have learned to unwind those beliefs, as they don't reflect any kind of reality. To Felicia, I said, I watched any movie about writers I could find, because there weren't very many of them—
Ha! she said. Are you kidding me? And she proceeded to Google, quickly unearthing results with titles like The Fifty Best Movies About Writers.
There are a lot of movies about writers. In many of them, the writers are celebrated and successful; they are young rocketeers or old heads of state. When they publish a book, thousands of people turn up to hear them speak, movie studios throw money at them for the rights, etc. And sure, sometimes those things happen. But most writers probably won't experience them. Most writers' careers are quite a lot smaller than that.
All of this got me thinking about two of my favorite movies about writers. I hadn't thought before about how they each depict the unglamorous side of writing, but they do, each in different ways. They were both released in the same year, and they both failed at the box office.
The first to be released was Wonder Boys, adapted from Michael Chabon's novel. (Chabon is one of my very favorite writers.) The movie is a character marvel; though there are several movie stars in it (Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, etc.), none of them is playing their usual starlike self. Michael Douglas plays a writer and professor named Grady Tripp; he was once a literary darling, and now, a decade later, has been unable to produce—well, unable to complete—his second novel.
Vernon: Why did you keep writing this book if you didn't even know what it was about?
Grady: I couldn't stop.
The star of the movie might be the pink bathrobe Douglas wears for most of his screen time; it clings to and makes his character, not unlike Dr. Strange's red cloak, or Superman's cape, except with the opposite effect. What I love, too, about the movie is that it seems to mark the moment of Douglas's career that he embraced his age. (Go watch The Kominsky Method on Netflix after watching Wonder Boys; it's like watching Grady Tripp at 75.)
Wonder Boys is about a man failing constantly: Failing to mentor his students, failing his marriage, failing to care for himself properly, and, most of all, failing at writing. It's marvelous.
Almost Famous, on the other hand, is about making a writing dream reality, and...well, mostly failing. Cameron Crowe wrote this movie, based on his own experiences as a young music writer, and it's shot through with nostalgia. (You have to embrace that going into it; if you're cynical about it, the whole movie can fall apart in a second.) The story is simple: William Miller, who is fifteen, coerces writing assignments out of music magazines—first Creem, then Rolling Stone. The latter sends him on the road with the fictional band Stillwater, not knowing he's still in high school.
When William is given the Stillwater assignment by Rolling Stone, he asks Lester Bangs, the editor of Creem, if he should go:
Bangs: Stillwater? Beware, beware of Rolling Stone magazine because they will change your story, they'll rewrite it, you know, turn it into swill.
William: But besides that. What would be wrong with it?
William travels on the band's bus, goes to all of their shows, gets to know the groupies—sorry, "Band Aids"—who flock to the musicians, and desperately tries to get his story. Again and again he fails to get the interviews he needs, and, when at last he delivers his story to Rolling Stone, the story falls apart in fact-checking. The movie is all about the ordinary heartbreak of writing something that matters to you, only for forces beyond your control to wring the life out of it and invalidate your hard work. It's also marvelous.
I just realized, too, that both of these movies have terrific soundtracks and feature Frances McDormand, and in neither of them is she the writer. Is this the secret to making a great movie about writers? Put Marge Gunderson and Bob Dylan in it someplace?