War of the Screenwriters

Excerpt from the literary biography Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain
by Reinhold Kramer

Richler’s friend, Ted Kotcheff, had the film rights to Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and allowed Lionel Chetwynd – a neophyte writer, Cockney-born, Montreal-bred – to adapt it. The script got them in the door at the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) but wasn’t good enough to actually fetch any CFDC money. Richler decided to do a new script; Chetwynd, however, refused to dissociate himself from the final product, even though Richler and the producers dangled an extra $10,000 in front of him. There were no real financial implications to a shared on-screen credit, yet prestige was at stake, so the case went to the Credit Arbitration Committee of the Writers Guild of America. The committee ruled that the credits should read "Screenplay by Mordecai Richler" and "Adaptation by Lionel Chetwynd." Kotcheff obeyed – Richler’s credit at the top of the frame in large letters, Chetwynd’s, tiny, at the bottom. Richler, who in later years would mock Quebec nationalists for measuring whether the English on signs was half the size of French (as required by law), was no stranger to the semiotics of public display. Subsequent events conspired to enrage him at even this small concession to Chetwynd.

Money wasn’t easy to get, but Richler’s name and Kotcheff’s persistence helped. At Cannes in 1972, Michael Spencer (the head of the CFDC), John Kemeny, Kotcheff and Richler worked out a deal. All told, they would have to hire fifty speaking parts and five hundred extras. The CFDC kicked in $300,000 of the $900,000 it took to shoot the film – this for a film by a writer who had written a magazine piece highly critical of the Canadian film industry and who had argued so passionately that nationalistic support for the arts was wrong-headed. "You pricks," Paramount Pictures President Frank Yablans complained, "if only you’d set this in Chicago we all could have made a fortune." The money wasn’t enough, and it fell to Montreal businessman Gerry Schneider to herd in the rest... and then to find more when costs escalated. Schneider had made his money in land development. He had had no interest in moviemaking but had gone to Baron Byng High School a year behind Richler, and although he had barely known Richler, when the opportunity came to immortalize the school and his former classmates, Schneider couldn’t resist. One of his colleagues maintained that Schneider wasn’t in it for the money but that he was afraid to admit that. Schneider disagreed, stating, "Emotion is wonderful, but we don’t invest on emotion." If he or Richler noticed the irony of a Montreal land developer making a movie about an immoral Montreal land developer, they never said so in public. Certainly Schneider wasn’t the original Duddy. Exaggerating only slightly, Kotcheff revealed that thirty-six different men had claimed that honour.

For his pains, Schneider got to appear in several scenes as an extra and was able to reward family members and business associates with movie immortality too. But being in the movies wasn’t as glorious as Schneider’s rich friends had imagined. Roused out of bed at 7:00 a.m., they were squeezed into bathing suits and (since it was summer in the script but fall during the shooting) sent out to enjoy the chill, autumnal air. A shivering few were even plunged into a Laurentian lake. Some of the women, made up in 1940s bright red lipstick, tried to soften its effects with pastels, eye shadow, and eye-liner, much to the dismay of the make-up artists. Twenty-five-year-old Richard Dreyfuss at the start of his career – he had just come from American Graffiti – starred as Duddy. Some people wondered why Kotcheff avoided Canadian actors, but it was difficult to get quality Jewish actors in Canada. Dreyfuss was perfect. He was Jewish, highly talented but not widely known, could pass as a nineteen-year-old and yet play poker with Kotcheff and Richler. If Dreyfuss made his character a little too lovable, he possessed Duddy’s manic energy. As intended, Dreyfuss stole the show – chattering, scratching his head, chewing his nails, moving, moving...

After the film’s completion, there were those who urged that it open in New York. But Richler wanted Montreal, where his books sold and where he was somebody. The premiere at Montreal’s Place des Arts was a black-tie, $50-a-plate affair, attended by Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, Israeli Ambassador Dr. Theodor Meron, and Secretary of State Hugh Faulkner. Kotcheff and even Richler rented tuxedos. The story has been repeated many times about how the two friends were stationed with their drinks in the foyer when liquor baron Sam Bronfman’s wife Saidye – "the Dowager Queen herself," in Kotcheff’s words – stepped over. "Well, Mordecai, you’ve come a long way from being a St. Urbain Street slum boy," she said. "Well Saidye," he returned, "You’ve come a long way from being a bootlegger’s wife." Florence told him afterwards that Saidye hadn’t intended to put him in his place, but nevertheless the comment had rubbed Richler the wrong way.

Less well-known and without a smart punchline is another story, which apparently occurred that same evening. For a long time, relations between Richler and his mother, Lily, had been deteriorating. Richler could not in all conscience isolate his children from their grandmother, even if she weren’t the sort of person he wanted them to associate with. From the distance of London, which allowed only relatively short visits every year or two, Lily could be endured... and then laughed about. On Richler’s return to Canada, however, Lily proposed a more immediate haunting: she conceived the idea of moving in with him. He demurred. At some point, she wrote him a nasty letter, and he returned the favour, revealing what he had witnessed as a boy between her and Frankel. After that, she no longer visited the Richler house. Intermittently, on Sunday evenings, however, Richler dropped the children off at her place on Stayner St. in Lower Westmount. Mesmerized by North American TV, the kids could watch their fill there. She’d ply them with food and Adams Wild Cherry chewing gum and cousins, who considered the Richler children, with their British accents, very strange. To the children, who rarely saw any members of their extended family, it was Lily who seemed slightly exotic. Richler himself wouldn't set foot inside her house. In London, he had put up with her manipulative personality and unpredictable outbursts, but seeing her so often in Montreal, he could no longer abide her. Sometimes Lily was merely unintentionally funny. Once when Emma tried to move an armchair, Lily rushed forward and waved her arms, "Don’t! You’re in pubberty!" [sic] Mostly, however, Richler was dismayed by his mother and didn’t want her to influence the children. According to Noah, his father even tried to keep the filming of Duddy from her. When she surprised him and showed up at the Duddy gala premiere, he gave her the snub – stuck her in a corner and ignored her. After that, for the last twenty-three years of Lily’s life, she and Richler would have nothing to do with one another, and she would say of say of her life, "It is so sad, you see I am very lonely."

If The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz wasn’t the "breakthrough" film that Richler had assured the CBC it would be, that was only because there weren’t a horde of Canadian films capable of following in Duddy’s footsteps. Audiences loved the film, and it was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar. Of course, if Richler won, he’d have to smile and share the award with Lionel Chetwynd. Galling – time for Chetwynd to feel Richler’s wrath. For New York Magazine Richler wrote an article claiming that he and the filmmakers had chosen – not naming any names – a certain screenwriter because they had no money to hire an established writer and that, when Richler rewrote the screenplay, he could only "salvage" seven pages of the first version. The Credit Arbitration Committee of the Writers Guild wrote Kemeny to express dismay that Richler seemed intent on subverting the arbitration and harming Chetwynd’s reputation. The Guild insisted upon a retraction and a written promise that Richler would behave. I can't control Richler’s freedom of speech, Kemeny replied, and Richler, in his next salvo, wasn’t quite as guarded as he had been in New York Magazine. Writing to The Montreal Gazette, Richler said that, true, Chetwynd had gotten an adaptation credit, "which is to say, he ripped out a good many scenes from my very own novel before I did, and by the convoluted reasoning of the screenwriters Guild they became his property... Had his screenplay not been so sadly inadequate there would have been no need for me to step in and rewrite it." John Kemeny had refused to put money into the film with the Chetwynd script, but the real credit that would always be Chetwynd’s, Richler conceded, was for taking scenes from the novel and typing them out neatly. Nevertheless, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz launched the leaden Chetwynd, who afterwards would refer back, without qualification, to his "Best Adapted Screenplay" Oscar nomination. Chetwynd went on to a screenwriting career, and became, rara avis, a conservative activist in Hollywood. Among his many docudramas is a film about President George W. Bush on 9/11. "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me," cries Chetwynd’s Bush, "tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home! Waiting for the bastard!... We start with bin Laden. So let’s build a coalition for that job." Then Bush prophesies the Iraq War, still a few years in the future, "Later, we can shape different coalitions for different tasks."

As for Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz made $2 million in Canada alone. At the Berlin Film Festival it won a Golden Bear, the top prize. Kemeny got his prestige film, but not much money because Paramount and Famous Players netted most of the profits. Kemeny, Kotcheff, and Richler got their original salaries plus the right to turn another Richler novel into a movie. Richler expected The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to resurrect the old charges of anti-Semitism, but the charges came from surprising places. Montreal Jews, if they had any misgivings, generally kept quiet, but one anonymous complaint did arrive: "Duddy Kravitz is a disgrace to all Jew [sic]. You who went to Baron Byng, belonged to Habonim, belong to that good Richler family, how could you? To show it erev Yom Kippur! May God punish you. Judas! May you rot in Hell!" Some members of the American Jewish intelligentsia arrived at the same conclusion, even if they were able to phrase their misgivings in a more sophisticated way. At one special screening for opinion makers, the movie was applauded, a rarity. At another screening, a couple of US journalists called the movie anti-Semitic, John Simon of Esquire magazine saying, "It will do very well in Saudi Arabia." The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was slated to go to Cannes, but the chef of the Cannes Film Festival, Maurice Bessy, too, decided that the film was anti-Semitic. To guard against racism, the sensitive Bessy deleted a talented Jewish author and an excellent Jewish film from the program and replaced them with Michel Tremblay’s Il etait une fois dans l’est.

When the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, Richler had initially phoned his British editor, Tony Godwin, to tell him. Godwin, master of the sly putdown and aware that Richler thought that movies were overvalued, asked, "Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you won?" In the event, there was no danger of embarrassment, since the blockbuster Godfather, Part II won both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola. But the duo of Mordecai Richler and Lionel Chetwynd did win a Writers Guild of America comedy screenplay award. From different tables, the twain converged on the podium. Richler, well-oiled, said, "I’ve never seen this man before." The black-tie audience howled with laughter, unaware that Richler was simply telling the truth.

© McGill-Queen's University Press. Used by permission.

Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain received the Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Gabrielle Roy Prize from the Association of Canadian and Quebec Literatures, and was named one of the "Top 100" pop culture mementoes for 2008 by CBC.ca. Reinhold Kramer is Professor of Canadian Literature and Critical Theory at Brandon University.

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