The Extraordinary Alvin Sargent

Alvin Sargent cut his teeth ’til they were razor sharp writing for early 1960s television programs , like Naked City, Route 66, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He spent ten full years scribing for the small screen before making the leap to feature films with Gambit in 1966, a wry and witty caper flick of the first order starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. As entertaining as Gambit was, it only hinted at the pinnacles he would soon ascend.

Between 1968 and 1970, two respectable Gregory Peck dramas (The Stalking Moon and I Walk the Line) sandwiched Alan J. Pakula’s The Sterile Cuckoo, a downbeat comedic drama which earned Liza Minelli her first Oscar nomination as Best Aactress. Two years later came The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds – a cinematic mouthful that was Paul Newman’s underappreciated third directorial effort. Sargent’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Paul Zindel earned Joanne Woodward a Golden Globe nomination, but it’s rare to hear a peep about the movie today.

1973 would bring Sargent his first Oscar screenplay nomination for Peter Bogdanovich’s wonderful Paper Moon. The Depression-era dramedy, filmed in gorgeous black and white, and starring Ryan O’Neal and daughter Tatum, was both a critical and commercial success.

Four years would pass before a Sargent penned another film that would make another sizable impact. Julia, a historical drama directed by the great Fred Zinneman, and starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, scored Sargent his second Oscar nomination in 1977, and this time, he would win. Julia was the start of a three-film run that should be seen as one of the greatest screenwriting triptychs in cinematic history. As fine a film as Julia is, the two movies that followed that award-winning drama were even better.

First came Straight Time – one of the great “lost” films in American film history. Despite a never hotter Dustin Hoffman in the lead as a recently released criminal trying to stay “straight,” the film was a box office disappointment in 1978 and received no awards notice. It belongs in the great pantheon of downbeat crime dramas such as The Onion Field, Night Moves, The Gambler (the James Caan version), and At Close Range that hardly anyone saw, but everyone who did waxes poetic over. Dark, uncompromising films about people on the margins living lives devoid of hope.  As Max, Hoffman is dogged by a malevolent parole officer (the great M. Emmet Walsh), who harasses Hoffman until he caves in and returns to a life of crime.

The ending is a masterpiece of sadness. After taking down several scores, his last one – a botched jewelry heist – leads to Max shooting a cop as he escapes and leaves town with his girlfriend, Jenny (a very young Theresa Russell). Just outside the city, Max makes a moral decision – perhaps the last one he will ever make – by leaving Jenny at a gas station and driving off into an all but certain oblivion. The impact is devastating.

Two years later, Sargent would see the screenplay for which he is most famous earn him his third Oscar nomination and his second win, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. On the surface, the film is a family drama about the upper-class Chicago Jarretts, whose repressed grief over the death of their eldest son tears their home apart. But man, is that not even the half of it. Ordinary People was in some ways a Merchant-Ivory film taking place in modern times. It connects us to the significance of things unsaid, of that which lies just beneath surface, about how words become weapons, and how true courage is not about the absence of fear, but the standing in the face of it and forcing yourself to go forward.

There are moments in the film that are truly astonishing – some of them burst forth when a character finally releases their anger and grief. The best of these take place in therapy sessions between the surviving son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) of Calvin and Beth Jarrett (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) and his shrink, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Conrad feels responsible for not saving his brother during the sailing accident that took his sibling’s life. Along with his survivor’s guilt and failed suicide attempt, he believes that his mother does not love him.

In so many other films, this would lead to an emotional catharsis that would result in mother and son coming together. The thing is, Conrad is right. I remember being stunned by this fact when I saw the film for the first time. And when Donald Sutherland quietly confronts Moore, finally finding it within him to call her out on all of her remote bitterness, it feels as painfully true as… well, real life.

In lesser hands, Ordinary People could have been a glorified TV movie. There are no explosions. No obvious “go for the Oscar” scenes. It is remarkably refined and human at the same time. The film not only won Sargent an Oscar, it also took home statues for Best Director (Redford), Best Supporting Actor (Hutton), and Best Picture. Moore received a Best Actress nomination for her revelatory work. Hirsch got the a nod in the Best Supporting Actor category. The film was a huge commercial success as well, coming in as the 11th highest grosser of 1980.

It’s also oddly become a victim of its own success. It often gets lumped in with Rocky and Dances with Wolves as films that denied Martin Scorsese Oscar wins in years that he produced three of his greatest works. Rocky beat Taxi Driver, Dances defeated Goodfellas, and Ordinary People bested Raging Bull. It’s a terribly unfair perspective to assume. Whoever anyone thinks should win whatever award has nothing to do with the quality of the film that did. Of the three films that kept Marty from the podium, Ordinary People is the strongest. If it came out now, the only thing you would need to change about it is the clothes on the character’s backs along with the addition of cell phones in their hands. It is that universal. That timeless.

Sargent would never reach such heights of critical acclaim again. It would be another seven years before a film he wrote would reach the big screen, 1987’s largely forgotten psychological drama starring Barbra Streisand, the unfortunately titled, Nuts. But other fine films did follow. 1988’s Dominick and Eugene, a lovely film about a man (Ray Liotta) trying to make a life for himself while looking after his mentally impaired brother (Tom Hulce) is an oft-overlooked gem. 1990’s White Palace starring James Spader and Susan Sarandon as a mismatched pair in a May-December romance deserved a wider audience as well. 2002’s Unfaithful earned Diane Lane her sole Best Actress Oscar nomination as a bored housewife whose extramarital affair leads to tragedy. I caught Unfaithful recently and was stunned by Sargent’s humane approach to a film that could have otherwise been a Cinemax After Dark potboiler.

That is the thing I will remember most about Sargent. The humanity of his voice which came through with seemingly every word he wrote. Sargent’s greatest commercial success would come with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Even when writing about a (now twice rebooted) comic book character, Sargent’s sensitive touch with character came through. It makes almost no sense that Sargent would be a part of the Marvel Universe. But then it makes no sense that the same man could write Julia, Straight Time, and Ordinary People while making the disparate subjects and characters they covered feel like they could come from one magical set of fingertips.

That’s how I will remember Alvin Sargent. As a man who wrote about people. All kinds of people in all sorts of genres. All of them boldly real.

Alvin Sargent died on Friday. He was 92 years old.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s