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The Way He Was--and Is

Arthur Laurents writes with joy and bitterness in his memoir about a long career in stage and film.

March 19, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — In the early '70s, writer Arthur Laurents was on his way to Barbra Streisand's New York apartment to pitch the star on a idea for a film.

In the script he'd write for her, she would be teaching disabled children to sing in Brooklyn Heights: "The Sound of Music" meets "The Miracle Worker." But while talking to Streisand, whom he had directed in the 1963 Broadway musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," Laurents came up with a different idea. As Streisand gabbed on, he was suddenly reminded of a young woman he knew from his days as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

"Frizzy hair and sensible shoes, a brown skirt and blouse, a red scarf, handing out leaflets in 1937 on the Arts campus. 'Stop Franco!' 'Stop the war in Spain!' " writes Laurents in his "Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood," which will hit stores March 28. "Her name--the coincidence was surely an omen--was Fanny Price."

Fanny Brice, of course, was the character Streisand played in "Funny Girl." Fanny Price would be the inspiration for Laurents' brassy heroine in the 1973 film "The Way We Were." And the evolution of this original story--from scenes scratched out on yellow legal pads to a glossy Hollywood film starring Streisand and Robert Redford--is just one of the creative journeys traced in the book by Laurents, best known for his books for the classic musicals "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," and his screenplay of the 1977 film "The Turning Point."

Those journeys often left Laurents enraged and frustrated. No more so than during "The Way We Were," when the usual indignities suffered by writers in Hollywood were compounded by the fact that the movie was his most autobiographical work.

Hubbell Gardner, the tormented WASP, is a composite drawn from friends, including some of Laurents' male lovers. The Jewish firebrand, Katie Morosky, stems as much from the writer as from Fanny Price. Her clarifying rage at injustice and hypocrisy, which galvanizes the film, runs like a rich lode throughout Laurents' caustic and gossipy book as it ricochets from his early years as a screenwriter in Hollywood ("Snakepit," "Rope," "Anastasia") to his blacklisting in the '50s, to his heady, if turbulent, forays in theater ("The Time of the Cuckoo," "La Cage aux Folles").

"My father was a humanitarian, a great man; the anger I got from my mother," says Laurents. "She was a socialist atheist until she met my father, then she became a Jew with a vengeance."

*

Sitting in the placid surroundings of his posh art-crammed townhouse in Greenwich Village, the laughter and cries of children at play seeping in from the schoolyard across the street, Laurents shows no sign that the passion that infused much of his writing has diffused. At 82, this literary lion in winter may have mellowed, but he's hardly toothless. "I hope not," he says, settling his lithe frame, toned from skiing and regular exercise, into a chair. "If you don't have that, you don't have anything."

Indeed, Laurents has bounced back with remarkable productivity from the bruising debacle of the 1991 Broadway musical flop "Nick and Nora," which he wrote and directed and which closed soon after opening to negative reviews. He has since written four new plays, one of which, "Al Jolson Sings Again" about the Hollywood Communist witch hunt, will be done this fall, possibly starring Patti LuPone. His 1952 drama "The Time of the Cuckoo," later made into a film starring Katharine Hepburn and released as "Summertime," has been revived with Debra Monk at Lincoln Center Theater and plays through May 7.

Earlier this year, two more Laurents works were presented: "Home of the Brave," his first Broadway play in 1945 about anti-Semitism, was revived at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan; and "Do I Hear a Waltz?," a musical based on "Cuckoo" on which he collaborated with Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers, was revived at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., the same theater where "Jolson" premiered.

In his chapters on his theatrical adventures, Laurents aims barbs at Rodgers and others (the composer of such endearing classics as "The Sound of Music" and "The King and I" comes off as a mean-spirited egomaniac and boozer with an eye for the ladies). But Laurents reserves most of his venom for Hollywood.

While he doesn't exactly spare himself for his misjudgments, hotheadedness and sexual promiscuity, Laurents is wickedly frank in exposing the foibles and pretensions of the legends he either worked for or partied with, including Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock (who cut Laurents adrift when he chose not to write one of the master's pictures).

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