There are writers who have a direct and intimate connection to the innate complexities of the human condition. Instead of dabbling in easy archetypes for instantly categorized mainstream consumption, they dig deep to explore exactly why people engage in even the most nonsensical or self-destructive acts in order to instill universal empathy in their characters. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who passed away in May, was one of those scribes. From the intimate drama of Ordinary People to the broad blockbuster strokes of Spider-Man 2, his focus was always on understanding what made us the exceptionally fallible and in turn thoroughly unique creatures trying desperately to relate to one another. He left behind over forty TV- and feature-writing credits for future screenwriters to study, an invaluable guideline for building relatable and three-dimensional work. In honor of his passing, let’s dig into seven of his best scripts in chronological order.
Considering the story’s time period and the nostalgic black-and-white cinematography, one might expect a heartwarming Capra-esque dramedy that celebrates the wholesomeness of the human spirit. Yet also considering the premise, and realizing that it’s a ’70s drama, one might also expect a bleak counter-culture experience that sets out to crumble America’s tendency to depict the Depression era with rose-colored glasses. Sargent, adapting Joe David Brown’s novel, Addie Pray, finds a refreshing middle ground in this bittersweet tale of a weathered con man named Moses (Ryan O’Neil), who’s forced to take up a stubborn and wise beyond her years ten-year-old girl named Addie (Tatum O’Neal, who won a supporting Oscar for her part and is still the youngest winner in the award’s history), who may or may not be his daughter.
A more traditional tear-jerking narrative arc would see the “father and daughter” hate each other at first, staying with each other for convenience, only to eventually confess their love for one another and become a clear-cut family unit. Sargent, understanding the bitter conditions of the Depression, justifiably builds an almost impenetrable emotional wall between the duo. The cracks in the wall are revealed in subtle ways, like Moses stopping a beat after he admits Addie is a “pretty face” while explaining how he can use her in his cons. Sargent expertly builds on these small moments until we get to the climax, where a simple picture depicting the titular carnival attraction ends up a far more effective emotional punch than an outwardly expressive finale full of artificial tears and melodramatic bravado.
Based on author Lillian Hellman’s autobiographical novel (which sparked its own controversy), Sargent’s adaptation focuses on the friendship between Hellman (Jane Fonda) and the titular character (Vanessa Redgrave), a compassionate soul who leaves behind her rich lifestyle in order to help the anti-Nazi resistance movement and rescue as many Jews as she can during World War II. Over the course of the war, Lillian occasionally uses her clout as a successful writer to help Julia with funds, while worrying about the increasing dangers befalling her friend in the process. The most common criticism lobbed against both the novel and the movie is that it centers on the fairly passive Lillian when the meat of the tale’s heroics lie with Julia. If the story was told from Julia’s perspective, we could have gotten yet another traditionally inspiring story about sacrifice for the greater good. But by shifting the main narrative to Lillian’s perspective, Sargent deftly explores the difference between the romanticized ideal of heroism and the stark reality. Peppering flashback sequences that showcase the emergence of Julia’s idealism while the two were teenagers, Sargent builds an enviable image in Lillian’s mind about her friend. Yet as she becomes more intimately connected with Julia’s plight, Lillian begins to discover the true personal cost of such selfless acts, as well as the importance of pursuing them against all odds.
Based on the memoirs of criminal-turned-writer-turned-actor Edward Bunker, a.k.a. Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, Sargent’s adaptation of Straight Time is a raw and painfully on-the-level dissection of how hard it is for ex-cons to reenter society and “go straight” within a system that seems designed for immediate relapse. Dustin Hoffman is at his hopeless and battered ’70s best as Max, a recently released robber trying to play by the rules and avoid a return to prison. Sargent isn’t interested in a clearly redemptive moral journey for the character, nor is he particularly concerned whether or not the audience likes Max. As for Max, his motivations to stay clean come from the sheer exhaustion of dealing with the draconian system and not from any moral desire to turn into an upstanding citizen. As the system keeps screwing Max, we might not condone his eventual slip back into crime, but Sargent makes sure we at least understand it. Max’s relationship with a younger woman (Theresa Russell) who romanticizes the Hollywood allure of a hardened criminal only to be forced to face the grim reality also adds some meta commentary on fact vs. legend without hitting us over the head with it.
Grief is a personal journey all of us will undergo at various points in our lives. Sargent’s Oscar-winning screenplay, adapted from Judith Guest’s novel, deeply explores the seemingly insurmountable grief suffered by a well-to-do WASP family who recently lost one of their sons to a tragic boating accident. Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is a suicidal wreck because he blames himself for his brother’s death. During heart wrenching therapy sequences with his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), he bemoans the fact that characters in TV shows would have simple answers about how to deal with such loss, yet he’s lost on how to even deal with his emotions. Thus, Sargent builds another contrast between the easy solutions provided by pop culture and the complexities of the true human spirit.
This approach extends to other characters, such as Conrad’s emotionally distant mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore in a then-uncharacteristically understated performance), who seems to show clear disdain and resentment towards her only remaining child at a time when he needs a mother’s compassion the most. In a more traditional drama, Beth would have been written as a clear antagonist, the heartless mother who pushes the innocent teenager further into suicidal tendencies. Yet Sargent shows immense empathy towards Beth. Even at her worst, we see not a soap opera villain, but a truly broken human being whose reserved social upbringing disables her from processing her grief. Meanwhile, the father, played by Donald Sutherland, tries to find meaning in his life by moderating between the mother and son. Ordinary People still stands as one of the most multifaceted dramatic studies on the nature of grief, and Sargent’s script is its emotional key.
Sargent and lifelong partner and eventual spouse Laura Ziskin are only credited with writing the story, which means that the final script is considerably different from their draft, so let’s focus more on the brilliant and increasingly prophetic premise: Dustin Hoffman is a selfish lowlife and deadbeat dad who happens upon a horrific airplane crash while trying to rip off some shoes, and ends up rescuing a majority of the passengers from certain death. The media predictably tries to find this mysterious hero in order to manufacture their feel-good story, and find their perfect specimen in a compassionate and selfless homeless man (Andy Garcia) who’s mistaken for Hoffman’s character.
As the truth begins to unfold while the homeless man is put on a pedestal as an inspirational American folk hero, the media is faced with a tough decision: Does the real identity of who actually did the heroic deed, regardless of his lack of moral character, matter, or does the moral of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence—“When legend becomes fact, print the legend”—apply tenfold to our media-saturated culture? In true Sargent fashion, Hero does not have easy answers for this dilemma, wisely choosing instead to turn a mirror to the audience and asking us which reality we’d be more comfortable with.
Sargent’s adaptation of Mona Simpson’s novel is a slight return to his Paper Moon roots, since this underrated drama also examines what it truly means to be a family unit within a contentious and emotionally disconnected parent-child relationship. Adele (Susan Sarandon) is a divorcee who moves to Beverly Hills in search of her idealized and more than slightly delusional piece of the glamorous American dream. Since Adele has bought into her Hollywood fantasies hook, line and sinker, her teen daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), is forced to become the adult in the family, increasingly resentful that she’s missing out on her carefree days of youth because she has to support her mother’s midlife crisis.
Just as with Beth in Ordinary People, Adele could have been portrayed as a destructive force lost in her self-centered behavior, but Sargent understands where the character is coming from and how we can relate to someone who seeks some form of a fairly tale ending after a lifetime of disappointment. Yet that doesn’t get her off the hook, as Sargent also depicts Ann’s increasing neurosis brought on by her mother.
Director Sam Raimi’s superior sequel is still regarded as a seminal breakthrough in its genre. That’s mainly because of the then-fresh way it broke down the gods-on-Earth grandiosity of the superhero archetype and turned Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) into a fully relatable protagonist with down-to-earth problems, thus fulfilling the allure of the comic through a wholly entertaining and captivating package. Sargent’s usual approach of digging up the human element in his characters, regardless of the genre, of course contributed immensely to Spider-Man 2’s success as true populist fare. Parker might have to come face to face with the tentacled villain Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), whose empathetic motivations also create a layered villain, but he also has to struggle with everyday problems like his unfulfilled crush on Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), balancing his studies with work, and even an existential crisis about his place in the world. As Sargent continues to humanize the characters, Raimi delivers on bombastic blockbuster set pieces, creating a perfectly complete mainstream fare that’s rarely topped to this day.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.