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Donofrio's Unique Life Is, at Last, a Film

October 19, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Beverly Donofrio was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Wallingford, Conn., in the 1960s, she would never have imagined that her life story would one day be "a major motion picture from Columbia Pictures starring Drew Barrymore." But that's what it says on the latest edition of her 1990 memoir, "Riding in Cars With Boys," and as further proof, there's a glossy photo of Barrymore emblazoned on the cover.

"They picked it up when it was still a manuscript," recalls Donofrio of decade-long film industry interest in her book. The long and winding development road began at 20th Century Fox, which first optioned the material. At that time, Donofrio was living in New York, and she was flown to Los Angeles to meet writer-director-producer James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "As Good as It Gets"), who was attached to the project.

"We had this incredible meeting," she says on the phone from her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "It was a marathon talk, a conversation that continues to this day."

For his part, Brooks says of Donofrio: "You don't meet many people in the course of your life who have lived an original life."

"Riding in Cars" tells the story of Donofrio's teenage pregnancy, hasty marriage and years of struggling to keep things together financially and emotionally. (Barrymore plays her in the film.) When her husband, Ray, becomes a drug addict, Beverly leaves him and then raises her son, Jason, alone. She's hardly more than a child herself, and the story alternates between comedy and pathos. By her own admission, Donofrio was never a candidate for mother-of-the-year accolades. And, according to reports, the drama depicted in the film was matched by much off-screen contention between Brooks and director Penny Marshall. But Donofrio says her experience on the film, which opens today, was positive.

"I had a blessed position," she asserts, belying more-often-heard tales of woe from writers who say their books were lacerated by Hollywood. "From the start, they've been so respectful and inclusive of me." And she's happy with the finished product. "It tells the heart of the truth that I told in my book," she declares. She is sorry, though, that no mention is made of her determination to go to college. "I would have liked to have seen that in the film, because to me that's the payoff to the story." Donofrio attended Wesleyan University and then received a master's in creative writing from Columbia.

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When he left Fox and set up his production company, Gracie Films, at Sony, Brooks continued to shepherd "Riding in Cars," picking up the book's option after it expired and remaining as the film's producer. Brooks brought in screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward, who met at length with Donofrio. "When Morgan began to produce drafts, whenever they thought they were at a critical juncture, they'd give it to me and ask for input," Donofrio notes. "Jim liked to say, 'It's like going back to the mother's breast."'

Donofrio, 51, also spent a lot of time with Barrymore. "And Penny had me come to her house and watch the casting tapes," she adds. "We'd watch her home movies too and have lots of discussions because she had been a young mother herself."

In the film version of "Riding in Cars," Beverly and a now grown-up Jason go to see Ray, who has been absent from their lives for years, to have him sign a release for the publication of Beverly's book. This present-day framing device is not in the book, but it is based on a real-life occurrence. "I had to get the release signed for the movie," Donofrio remembers. "So I went off to find my ex-husband. But I didn't go with my son."

Brooks picks up the story: "Bev wrote me an e-mail about a day in her life when she saw her ex-husband about the film rights. And that became our story. When you adapt a book, you try to literally adapt it at first, and then a process takes over about what's possible and what's not. In this case, Bev's life continued to inform us."

"Riding in Cars" is about Beverly Donofrio, but it also tells the story of her only child. "I always come out as the hero," Jason Donofrio notes with amusement when asked how it feels to have his childhood on such public display. "So it's pretty cool."

But watching his life played out in the film provided a surprising discovery for Jason, now 33. "I never saw my father as a real person before the movie," he says of the man he met only once, when he was 11. "It really brought home to me that he was somebody who went through something really hard too, and it made him much more real to me." Ray died several years ago.

One strictly fictional element of the film involves a romance for Jason. "I was a little annoyed about that at first," he admits. "But I came to accept it. I had talked to Morgan before he started writing the script, so this was really an encapsulation of all of my relationships." In an unintentional "life imitates art" moment, Jason was married in August. He's currently working on his own memoir.

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