An Irish Catholic, a German Jew and an American secular humanist are standing outside the gates of Heaven. I could rephrase to say an actor, a screenwriter and a movie critic are at the pearly gates, but this isn’t the start of a joke. This past week, Milo O’Shea (86), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (85), and Roger Ebert (70) all died, and although I am highly unqualified to speculate whether any or all of them will be granted access to the puffy, white clouds of eternal bliss, I can state with confidence that their individual contributions on Earth were significant.
It is not my interest or intention to duplicate the content of fawning obituaries and related appreciations that have been published recently, but rather to remark on the oddness of Hollywood hierarchy.
Virtually everyone knows who Roger Ebert was by virtue of his television appearances since the 1970s starting with co-host Gene Siskel and their patented “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” adjudications, his column in the Chicago Sun-Times, his many books including the annually published “Movie Yearbook,” and his Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975. Movie fans of director Russ Meyer’s T&A repertoire also know that Ebert co-wrote the script for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a cult classic. In short, Ebert occupied a pedestal of popularity along with the likes of Rex Reed, Gene Shalit and Pauline Kael.
Milo O’Shea was a lesser known actor, and I suppose if you asked the so-called “man on the street” to name a movie O’Shea was in he might come up empty-handed. But I suspect if you flashed a picture of O’Shea (at left), that flummoxed man would snap his fingers and say something like, “Yeah, I know that guy. He was in . . . shit, don’t tell me . . .” After all O’Shea was in about 30 movies including Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, and the wack-o “Barbarella” where he played evil scientist Durand Durand. (Side note: O’Shea revived the role for a Duran Duran concert video.)
That brings us to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Among these three recently deceased Hollywood players, Jhabvala’s demise undoubtedly elicited the most head-scratching. The woman wrote 23 produced screenplays – many with Merchant Ivory Productions – two of which garnered her the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (for “Howard’s End” and “Room With a View” – two period pieces which if not handled delicately could have turned into boring costume dramas.) Jhabvala also won the Booker Prize in 1975 for her novel “Heat and Dust,” set in 1920s India; she is the only person to have won a Booker and an Oscar. Nevertheless, like most screenwriters, she was virtually unknown to the movie-going public.
The Hollywood hierarchy is odd indeed. Like Frank Capra once remarked, “Scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racket . . . the least understood and the least noticed.”