The finest whiner: Screenwriter Frederic Raphael's journals are a study in disillusionment
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 September 2004)

Actors like to be treated as intellectuals, so long as it doesn't entail having to be intelligent. When Frederic Raphael wrote that delightful sentence, he was discussing Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, though he could have been thinking about almost any performer he's encountered during four decades as a screenwriter. As one admirer has already pointed out, his remarks about colleagues suggest a British heterosexual version of Gore Vidal.

Raphael, who is 73 this year, has flourished as a writer of movies, TV scripts, novels (21 of them), essays, and translations of Catullus, Aeschylus and Euripides. Still, like Vidal, he feels neglected. That may be why he takes pleasure in deftly concocted disparagement.

Lately he's made two short, sharp and fascinating books out of his old journals -- Personal Terms: The 1950s and 1960s (Carcanet), published in 2001, and now Rough Copy: Personal Terms II (Carcanet). Clearly, being his friend involves risk. No one can ever guess what he'll write in his diary. An apparently amiable encounter may later appear in print as an indictment.

Of playwright Arnold Wesker he writes: "You feel ashamed not to love him; he does want it so." He finds Mordecai Richler "a humorous writer but a humourless man." The kindest adjective he can apply to Norman Jewison is "able." He lived through the era when everyone, including even Raphael, had to pretend C.P. Snow was a gifted writer. Now we find that in the privacy of his diary, he compared Snow the novelist to "a snail trying to imagine how it would be to be a greyhound."

Raphael's big success was his script for Darling in 1965. That film arrived not long after the Beatles and starred Julie Christie as a miniskirted model who makes her way upward, one bed at a time. She moves swiftly from television news reporter (Dirk Bogarde) to wealthy public relations man (Laurence Harvey) to rich Italian widower. "Your idea of fidelity is not having more than one man in bed at the same time," someone says to her.

Today we seldom hear of Darling, though Camille Paglia calls it a great classic that allowed the "coltish, mercurial Julie Christie" to represent the restless new women of the 1960s. It won Academy Awards for both Christie and Raphael.

No one will be surprised that Raphael treats with special harshness the director he collaborated with on Darling, the late John Schlesinger. Raphael believed Schlesinger was desperate for admiration; he pretended to seek the truth "while really caring only for the approval of his audience." For Schlesinger Raphael also adapted the unsuccessful Far from the Madding Crowd. Raphael felt taken for granted: "He has never offered one word of appreciation ..."

Raphael invented Two for the Road, a successful Stanley Donen film with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. For Clive Donner he wrote a much-admired TV adaptation, Rogue Male, starring Peter O'Toole. He rewrote Daisy Miller, by Henry James, for a Peter Bogdanovich movie that didn't work, despite or because of the presence of Cybill Shepherd in the title role. (Raphael says Bogdanovich habitually mentioned himself in a tone of awe, "a name-dropper who drops his own name.")

Raphael was born in Chicago, the son of a British oil executive. When he was seven the family moved home to England, making it possible for him to attended Charterhouse School, over his hysterical and well-founded objections. His parents considered it their duty to send him and his duty to go. There he felt the sting of anti-Semitism. "I had no sense of belonging to a society. I was a so-called Jew parked among so-called Christians ... I claimed no friends." He moved on to Cambridge, where he majored in the usual Oxbridge subjects -- condescension, arrogance, lordliness, classics and philosophy.

His novels often deal with talented men who fail to realize themselves, sometimes through their own flaws. Was this his view of himself? At one point he says the movies "were turning me into a writer with more credits than achievements." He admits to being one of those scribblers for hire who tiresomely pretend they are above that kind of thing.

In 1969, he acquired a farmhouse with white shutters in the Dordogne. This second family home "has become the place where I can write unintimidated by fashion and uncorrupted by the desire for applause." Not really. Rough Copy contains a long anecdote about entertaining the books editor of The Sunday Times in France for 10 days, after which the editor treasonously assigns the new Raphael novel to a critic who has already twice attacked his books.

Raphael suffers from painful self-consciousness, but his insecurity appears negligible beside that of his most recent famous collaborator, Stanley Kubrick. In 1994, Kubrick invited him to help write a film based on Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The results were dire, and Raphael did his best to evade responsibility by writing Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick (Orion, 1999), which was in essence a Not Guilty plea.

From the beginning, Kubrick showed a weird addiction to secrecy. Before he faxed Raphael a copy of the Schnitzler story, he cut off the title and the author's name, so that no one would know what material he was working with. At first he preferred to keep even Raphael in ignorance, and refused to answer when asked if this was, in fact, a Schnitzler piece.

Raphael signed on anyway, flattered by the idea of working with a genius. He eventually realized that Kubrick "didn't want my signature on what we did." He wanted a writer to supply ideas that could be converted into Kubrick ideas, and even tried to cheat Raphael of his credit on the film. Then, as the film was about to appear, Kubrick died.

When the Raphael book was published, he told an interviewer that "Kubrick was a great filmmaker, and I hope that comes across." Well, no. The book leaves the impression that Kubrick had no idea what he was doing but wanted everyone to know that whatever he did was done without help from Raphael or anyone else. Eyes Wide Shut became one more profitable disillusionment in the screen career of Frederic Raphael. If Raphael whined about it, he did so, as always, in an engaging and stylish way.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page