Hollywood screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin are essential but undervalued

Renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Picture: Supplied

Renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Picture: Supplied

Despite their fundamental importance in the filmmaking process, screenwriters are often taken for granted at best, mocked and ignored and exploited at worst (sample Hollywood joke: Did you hear about the Polish starlet? She screwed the writer). Some protect their work by becoming producers and/or directors, while others keep on working, mostly in obscurity. Here are a few prominent and talented names, past and present, some of whom have became well known in their own right.

Aaron Sorkin: The renowned writer of stage and screens large and small has credits including A Few Good Men, The West Wing and The Social Network, the last of which won him an Oscar. His work - often about men with a Cause, good or bad - is intelligent and entertaining but the dialogue is often glib, substituting snappiness for wit when it's not being preachy. He's also been criticised for having a "woman problem".. A Few Good Men, besides following a very similar structure to Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, is an example: Demi Moore's female officer is constantly bungling and berated, all the better to let Tom Cruise's character shine. Sorkin's characters often have a tendency to sound alike if he's not careful.

Paul Newman, left and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Picture: Supplied

Paul Newman, left and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Picture: Supplied

William Goldman: Known for snappy dialogue and well constructed stories, he became venerated in his later years as a kind of showbiz sage as well as a script doctor. Goldman won Oscars for original screenplay - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - and adapted screenplay - All the President's Men - and also adapted existing stories by himself (The Princess Bride) and others (including Misery by Stephen King). Goldman had fallow periods and less impressive efforts but remained busy till late in life.

Quentin Tarantino, seen here in Reservoir Dogs. Picture: Supplied

Quentin Tarantino, seen here in Reservoir Dogs. Picture: Supplied

Quentin Tarantino: The writer-director is another whose style is distinctive, with pungent dialogue and a bowerbird sensibility, mixing styles and genres and inspired by bits and pieces from other movies and sources. He did a respectably straight adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel with Jackie Brown. Historical revisionism is another favoured area, as seen in Inglourious Bastards and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino also sometimes fancies himself as an actor, but it's the least of his talents. And like Sorkin, he's sometimes criticised as having a "woman problem" - and a particularly violent one.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz: The brother of another screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane achieved the singular feat of winning writing and directing Oscars back to back (for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve). Mankiewicz was literate and intelligent and witty but often verbose (20th Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck's big note on the screenplay A Letter to Four Wives was to lose one of the wives). He preferred dialogue and character to flashy camerawork and editing.

Ernest Lehman: The writer and (sometimes) producer was well known for adapting works by others - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Sound of Music. They tend to be fairly straightforward, some with good new ideas (Rolf literally blows the whistle on the von Trapps in TSOM), some with bad ones (an unnecessary opening up of Virginia Woolf) He co-wrote the dark showbiz movie Sweet Smell of Success, based on his own story, and one of director Alfred Hitchcock's best movies, North by Northwest, an original.

Billy Wilder: Wilder began as a writer before turning to directing as well. He always wrote with a co-writer - two frequent collaborators were Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's best films feature biting, clever dialogue (whether his or his co-writer's) and a slightly cynical, but human, point of view. His work ranged from film noir (Double Indemnity) to madcap comedy (Some Like It Hot) to comedy-drama (The Apartment). He had a naughty streak which, unfortunately, became crudely vulgar when censorship became less restricted.

Joe Eszterhas: The Hungarian-American writer had a run of well-paid success in the 1980s and '90s with movies including Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, Jade and Music Box. There was a certain repetitiveness to many of his plots: person on right side of law gets too close to suspected person on wrong side of law who turns out to be guilty. His career faltered after the poorly received Showgirls and An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.

This story Saluting some of the screenwriters first appeared on The Canberra Times.