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Patt Morrison Asks: Inside guy, Buck Henry

The co-screenwriter of 'The Graduate' says great films are still being made today, but that audiences have not always turned out for them.

August 06, 2011|Patt Morrison

Buck Henry arguably made his showbiz debut at the age of 2, when his mother, the silent film star Ruth Taylor, took him to the Paramount lot to show him off. She denied then that she wanted him to go into movies. Sorry, Mom. Henry has become a polymath of directing, acting, and for my money, especially writing -- "The Graduate"; "Catch-22"; that fine dark comedy of manners, "To Die For"; TV's "Get Smart," with Mel Brooks; and a generation later, the seminal "Saturday Night Live" -- which he hosted for a then-record-setting 10 times. He beavers away on screenplays, plays and sundry prose; I pestered him into a lunch interview in West Hollywood. It was engagingly packed, with talk of the pleasures of "Hamlet" in German and a Hollywood/not Hollywood commentary on passing paraders, delivered with spare humor as dry as the natron used to stuff mummies. Hey -- isn't there a script in there somewhere?

Credits: In some editions of The Times, the list of Buck Henry's screen and TV writing credits in Patt Morrison's Aug. 6 interview of Henry included "The Player." Henry appeared in "The Player" but did not write it. —

You've spent years making films -- and looking for one in particular, the original, silent "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," from 1928, starring your mother as Lorelei Lee.

It's been lost all my life. My mother and father came out here -- it must have been in the '60s. They went to Paramount and my mother got them to bring the master print out of the vault, and when they opened it, it was ashes.

Once upon a time you derided showbiz autobiographies, yet now you're writing yours.

I did and I do. Many, many trees are gone, particularly because of show business stuff, although actually I've never read one. There's that show in New York where they read excerpts from movie people's books. It's hilarious. And now I am compelled to put [mine] down on paper because a publisher has been leaning on me.

I hate to ask the inevitable question about being writer versus director versus actor -- I think of you as a writer rather than as an actor.

Well, you can think of me however you want to. No part in acting distresses me except when I can't learn lines. No part of it depresses me. I don't worry about it, I don't have bad dreams about it, and when I'm on a [theatrical] run I'm deliriously happy. [I think] I'll write during the day and then, of course, I don't. I'm very lazy and use every excuse. I'll go through and see what all the headlines in all the major European papers are. Why? I don't know. Like a moron I look at a lot of newspapers, many of which I can't read, to see what the pathetic Greeks are saying about themselves. What else do I do? I could make a run to Target just to see if they've got that section, "As Seen On TV."

What's your assessment of film writing today?

The good films are still pretty damn good. But in some cases the really good films are just too remote from the big audiences. The films have plunged ahead, but the audiences have dropped behind.

Then there's the pop culture echo chamber in film and TV; everything is a reference to something else, as if it's embarrassing to be authentic.

That's the horror of it. The great films were generic to themselves. I see it as the Conan O'Brien effect. He's like the senior in your college class who always knows how to make a joke about whatever it is you say or read, until it becomes an end in itself. College kids 50 or more years ago wanted to become Hemingway. Thirty years ago they wanted to come here and write a series that would make them incredibly rich. [Now] the highest possibility is to work for a late-night talk show and maybe even become [a host] themselves. All these Harvard guys who just want to make late-night jokes about the culture.

And it seems as if there are films built entirely around fart jokes.

Sitting in "Horrible Bosses," I was admiring the actors and laughing at the jokes and thinking, "I couldn't have written this." I was 20 or 30 years in before I got to [curse]. In "Catch-22," I have [Alan] Arkin yelling at Jon Voight, "Milo, you prick!" And I thought, "I'm curious to see whether it will stay in."

We also regard film as commerce more than art.

When the business end of it changes that radically, the other end has to change too. The miracle is, we still get good, even great, films.

I hate that the New York Times does a piece on the grosses virtually every day, in the arts section. They're doing it for theater now too, and it makes me sad. It makes it more difficult for difficult things to get done. And filmmakers and playmakers have to keep an eye out for the people online who consider themselves critics. Mostly they're illiterate -- and I'm awfully sorry about this -- everyone who writes for the Huffington Post and particularly the stuff on AOL, it is totally illiterate. They cannot write a complete sentence.

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