Buck Henry 9th December 1930 – 8th January 2020

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The death has taken place of Buck Henry (Zuckerman), chiefly regarded as one of the best satirical screenwriters of the last 60 years, gifted with an eye for a good gag and a smart line. After an upper class education at Choate, Dartmouth and Harvard’s military academy, he became an actor and soon migrated to TV to write on Steve Allen and Garry Moore’s shows. He co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks and then forged a big screen career with The Graduate. One of only three director-collaborating teams to be nominated for an Academy Award (with Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait) his contribution to the culture is both prolific and immense. Rest in peace.

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

The Graduate (1967)

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It was Mike Nichols’ second film and his second adaptation, this time with Calder Willingham and Buck Henry translating Charles Webb’s brilliant satirical short novel. Willingham did the first draft, which Nichols discarded in favour of a rewrite by Henry. The Writers Guild determined the shared credit. And yet if you read the novel you can see that it’s a pretty straight lift and most of the film’s acclaimed dialogue is right there! Nichols had learned all he knew about making movies from watching A Place in the Sun one hundred and fifty times or more plus three days of tuition in lenses from Haskell Wexler on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Billy Wilder gifted him with his supervising editor to put this together but he quit in high dudgeon because Nichols didn’t follow his theoretical scheme – he couldn’t because he simply didn’t understand it. He needed to edit according to where he felt the camera should be. His brother had sent him a copy of an LP by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel and he played it each day in his apartment before he went to the shoot then he had a lightbulb moment and Sounds of Silence became the movie’s soundtrack after he used it to pace the editing, but it needed a new song about Mrs Robinson. The performers huddled in back of the studio for a few minutes and came back and performed their famous paean – it transpired that Simon had been working on something called ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ and they just changed the words. Dustin Hoffman is panic incarnate, Anne Bancroft’s role was offered to Doris Day but she turned it down and Katharine Ross is the lovely Elaine (sigh!). Everything Nichols had learned from George Stevens is on the screen:  the framing, the size of the shots, timing, placement, staging, the immaculately sustained tone, the perfectly judged performances that seem to radiate ordinariness and yet are precisely its opposite, these are all here in just the right measure in the story of returning college grad Benjamin Braddock and his affair with the mother of the girl he thinks he loves. This is so brilliant it simply has to be seen, again and again.