Original 'It Girl', Texas Mob D.A. + 6 Picks
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When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, I was excited (but not surprised) to see Salamishah TilIet’s name among the winners for her cultural criticism in the New York Times. We were acquaintances from my academic days and just when she started writing for newspapers and magazines, I recruited her to write a bit for The Hollywood Reporter (including this fun piece on Black Panther). I left THR soon after, and one of my regrets (along with no longer editing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was that no one (immediately) followed up on using her. I also want to flag this heartbreaking, beautiful and powerful piece in The Atlantic by Jennifer Senior which also won a Pulitzer about a young man killed on 9/11, and how his death reverberated over the next 20 years with his parents and his fiancée. It’s probably the single best magazine story I’ve read in a long time (and yes, it’s under development for screen). If you haven’t read it, you should at some point.
Now on to this week’s picks, which include one of the best books about football ever written, a biography of the original It Girl, a great crime drama set in 1970s and a super fun James Bond spoof.
BOOKS I LIKE (current)
Goldhammer by Haris Orkin (Black Rose Writing, June) Having just seen (and enjoyed) the action spoof The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, I instantly sparked to this charming James Bond-meets-Don Quixote homage/spoof action adventure which has some of the same vibes as the Nicholas Cage film. James Flynn has been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital for nearly two decades but he thinks he's a spy in Her Majesty's Secret Service, complete with the accent, sharp wardrobe and suave charm. Somehow he keeps stumbling into real adventures — Goldhammer is the third in the series, with a fourth in the works — foiling a drug lord intent on kidnapping the 10 richest people in the world in one; stopping a mad producer with a mind-control device in another. Like Cage in Unbearable Weight, Orkin does a good job maintaining the fine balance between Flynn's clear craziness and his definite spy skills. My first thought for this was Owen Wilson or Will Ferrell, but then I realized it needs someone a little more contained, a bit better at playing the action straight. What about Channing Tatum? Or maybe Brad Pitt, whose The Lost City cameo functions as a perfect audition for this (not that he needs one). Pair someone like that with Charlie Kaufman, one of the Coen Brothers or maybe Unbearable Weight director Tom Gormican and you'd have a winner. This series isn't from a big publisher but I'm honestly surprised no one has scooped it up yet. Rights to the whole series are available. REPS: APA
Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood by Hilary A. Hallett (Liveright, July 26) This is a fab story — one that speaks to a present-day, where underlying the effort to outlaw abortion is clearly an uneasiness over women's sexual independence. It’s a smart book that’s rich in detail. Hallett is a professor at Columbia; her previous book was about women in early Hollywood — perfect for a screenwriter looking to engage the present in a sly way. Imagine Lady Mary with the independence of Titanic's Rose and the literary imagination of EL James and that's what you get with Elinor Glyn, who as the author writes, “let loose the genie of women’s sexual liberation.” Born in England in 1864, she married a wealthy lawyer and landowner and had two daughters. It was a bad marriage. They weren't compatible; he was irresponsible with money and she chafed at Victorian expectations for women. In the early 1900s, she started writing novels, both as escape and moneymaking scheme. They were racy — she is said to have basically invented the modern sex novel. Critics hated them but they were huge hits. (You thought I was making up the EL James comparison?) Take Three Weeks where a thirtysomething Russian aristocrat seduces a younger British man — the climactic scene takes place on a tiger-skin rug. She traveled widely, wooing aristocrats from Paris to St. Petersburg with her beauty (bright red hair, green eyes) and charm. She had numerous affairs, often with men many years her junior. After her no-good husband died around 1915, producers lured Glyn to Hollywood where she was supremely influential in shaping the romantic aesthetic of the silent films of 1920s, became a hero to young actresses like Clara Bow and popularized the term "It Girl." What a life. REPS: ICM
The Swell by Allie Reynolds(G.P. Putnam's Sons, July) The Point Break meets And Then There Were None pitch for The Swell is catchy, but undersells some of the best parts of the story — the setting, the world building, the atmospheric tension and the characters. The set-up and location recalled The Beach for me — maybe not a great comp since the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation has a mixed reputation. But like The Beach this could look fantastic on screen. And also like The Beach it has that nice juxtaposition of atmospheric tension and dread and the beauty of a tropical paradise. It also captures that adrenaline junkie-meets-Lord of the Flies culture of macho high-stakes dares found in movies like Point Break, and does a better job developing the supporting characters. (Quick: how many members of the Point Break gang can you actually identify other than Bodhi?) Like a lot of thrillers, the set up is better than the payoff, but not enough to dim my overall enthusiasm. With publication not that far off, galleys of this are currently circulating. If you're interested, drop your hat in the ring now. REPS: APA
True Crime/Courtroom Drama
Last Gangster in Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle, and the End of a Junkyard Mafia by Jesse Sublett (University of Texas Press, May 17) Ronnie Earle became a Texas legend during his three decades as Austin's D.A. and he always said that the prosecution of local crime kingpin Frank Hughey Smith was his biggest case. Austin today is a shiny, bright boomtown with a hip music scene and some of the best food anywhere. But before the boom it was still the kind of scrappy frontier that was "wild, wonderful and as crooked as the dirt road to paradise" and where mob boss Frank Smith ("Don Corleone as reimagined by Hee Haw”) could team up with corrupt city officials to build a criminal empire centered on auto salvage and bail bonds. Smith was a Bible-quoting preacher's son with ethics that might make Tony Soprano blush. When a rival threatened his dominance, Smith hired someone to burn their place down and when they screwed that up, he sent a trio of gunmen in to take them out but they made a bloody mess of the job. Everyone in town knew who did it. No one thought he'd get punished for it. Enter the newly elected Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle, a former Eagle Scout and a man so honest he once prosecuted himself for a minor campaign finance violation. He was a protegé of the legendary governor John Connally (the other guy shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in the JFK motorcade), the youngest judge in Texas at 27, and now, at 35, Austin’s chief prosecutor. This is a great story that goes from the backrooms of Austin's juke joints to the state capital and everywhere in between and features a colorful cast of hitmen, hookers and a great crusading journalist — plus a Willie Nelson cameo! — but at the center are Smith and Earle, the yin and the yang of it. There's a series here with at least a couple of seasons focused on Earle and Smith. Sublett told me he sees his earlier book, 1960s Austin Gangsters, as a sorta prequel to this. The rights are available to that as well, so there's a chance to go backwards with the story or forward to follow Earle as he tackles public corruption. An awesome later season could focus on his prosecution of Congressman Tom Delay for money laundering. (After reading about him I'd have loved to meet Earle, but sadly he passed away in 2020.) This is such a rich, rich world that someone could have a field day creating a show. REPS: If you're interested, ping me and I'll put you in touch. Jesse also happens to be in L.A. for a bit, so perfect to set up a meeting.
The Movement Made Us by David Dennis (Harper, May 10) This just came out this week and I had been intending to feature it for a long time but it fell by the wayside for other choices, as things sometimes do. But when I finally dove into the galley last week, I regretted the delay because this is such a great layered story that's part war story and part PTSD memoir, combined with a beautiful meditation on fathers and sons. The last part is why I'm optimistic this can also be successfully marketed to a less-attuned mass audience who might not normally tune in for a civil rights story. The father/son story is universal, even if the civil rights part feels particularly aimed at African Americans. Dave Dennis, Sr. is one of those semi-sung heroes of the civil rights movement, known and admired by those who really know the history but little recognized by the broader public. But he was deep in the thick of things as a Freedom Rider, as an organizer in Ruleville, Mississippi (the hometown of Fannie Lou Hamer; that no one has made a Hamer biopic is a crime), and as one of the organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. But working in the movement took a toll and Dave Dennis suffered the after effects of that trauma for the rest of his life. He got re-involved with activism in the ’90s when his friend Bob Moses (I should say the legendary Bob Moses) recruited him to work on the Algebra Project, which taught poor kids of color advanced math, just as Dave, Jr., born in the late ’80s, was growing up. There was a lot of tension in that father-son relationship. The things that make you a good activist, the willingness to sacrifice for a cause, aren't necessarily the things that make you a good parent, especially if you're still trying to process the trauma of being on the front lines of the civil rights movement. So Dave, Jr. admired his dad but didn't always like him. There's a great narrative here about Senior's activism and Junior's childhood, but what I love about this book and why I think someone should make is how it gets at the emotion of the movement, the emotion of survivor's guilt, the emotion of a fractured familial relationship. As my TV writer pal Marc Bernardin would say, “this has all the feels,” and that makes thinking about the linear story beats seem less important. But in terms of narrative structure, I think I'd frame the story around Dennis' writing of the book and tell the story in flashback. In fact, I wouldn't even do the flashbacks in straight linear fashion but ping pong between the present, Senior's activism and Junior's childhood. Casting will be crucial. Getting the right actors to play the Dennises at various ages will be important. REPS: CAA
Backlist Gems (books deserving a second look)
The Courting of Marcus Dupree by Willie Morris (Doubleday, 1983) Alongside Friday Night Lights, this stands at the top of the pyramid of books about football. The basic story follows the recruiting of Marcus Dupree, one of the greatest high school players ever, the pressures on him, the hangers on trying to get a piece of him, the coaches wooing him, and the small town alternately invested in his success and neglectful of him. The book’ll be 40 years old in 2023 but we're still dealing with all the issues in it — the role of sports in American life, the hypocrisy of the NCAA, the power of white coaches to mess with the lives of Black athletes, and the ways race and power function in a small town. The canvas of this story is fantastic. It is set in one of the most notorious towns in the civil rights movement: Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young activists were lynched during Freedom Summer and where the past wasn't very past — despite being 30 years on from Brown v. Board of Education. And it features a colorful cast of characters like Dupree and Barry Switzer, the rollicking rule-breaking college coach. There was a 30 for 30 documentary about this that owes a huge debt to this book (and showed in my mind the possibilities for a movie), but can't hold a candle to it because Morris understood the dynamics of race and small town like only a native son could. Morris has faded from the culture in the 20 or so years since he died, which is a shame. Two of his books were adapted for the screen, Good Old Boy (aka River Pirates) in 1988 and My Dog Skip in 2000, both of which deserve remakes. The rights to his other books are also available and his memoir North Towards Home, which is a beautiful account about coming of age is particularly ripe in my mind. The divide between the South and the rest of the country, politically and culturally, seems great and unbridgeable but that was even more true in the mid-twentieth century. Something like North Towards Home helps us grapple with that divide without losing hope that it can be bridged. Plus, it is just a damn fun read. REPS: Raines & Raines
"The Korean Immigrant and Michigan Farm Boy Who Taught Americans How to Cook Chow Mein" by Cathy Erway (Taste, May 3)This is a fascinating story about how a couple of unlikely people in the 1920s created America's first big Chinese food franchise, La Choy. It had me thinking about the venerable business creation biopic Tucker, of course, but also Jennifer Lawrence's Joy, about the Miracle Mop ($101M gross) and Greg Kinnear's Flash of Genius, about windshield wipers. Lately it seems like those have been replaced by the business grifter show (WeCrashed, The Dropout, Super Pumped). Here, a recent Korean immigrant, Ilhan New, and a Michigan farm boy, Wally Smith, who became friendly when they were both undergrads at U. of Michigan, teamed up to can and sell a kind of Chinese food to American consumers (those crunchy chow mein noodles). The partnership didn't last — New returned to Korea in the mid-’20s to take over his father's business and founded a pharmaceutical conglomerate before dying in 1971; Smith was killed by a lightning strike in 1937 — but the origin story could make for a fascinating cross-cultural movie. REPS: Rights to this go through Taste, but there’s some underlying material l like this cited in it that might also work.
“The Secrets Ed Koch Carried: To many New Yorkers, he was their brash and blustery mayor. But friends are now describing the private strain endured by a public man laboring to conceal his sexual orientation” by Matt Flegenheimer and Rosa Goldensohm (The New York Times, May 7) I didn't grow up in New York but Ed Koch was the mayor when I was a kid and he'll always be "The Mayor" to me, a larger-than-life figure who embodied both what a New Yorker was and what a big city politician was. He was also gay. That doesn't seem like a big deal today but back in the 1970s, Koch thought coming out would be career killer. How — and why — he tried to hide his sexuality is a fascinating and heartbreaking story that this New York Times story is one of the first to really explore. It could be the basis of a fascinating biopic, one that deals with the specificity about being gay before being out was (mostly) socially accepted. But in my mind, it’s relatable to everyone who has ever felt the need to compartmentalize their public and private lives, or has wondered if sacrificing some personal happiness for professional success was really worth it. The way in might be to center the story on Koch’s first mayoral run in 1977 where his campaign director was secretly investigating his sexuality and he defeated Mario Cuomo, which gives it a nice tight narrative and the drama of a hard-fought campaign. REPS: Anonymous Content
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