Thursday, April 3, 2014

Last of the Great Gadflies: Remembering Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1923-2014)

There are two kinds of legendary screenwriters: the folks on Olympus, who (like Robert Towne) pen masterpieces on subjects that are important to them, with every word in perfectly in place, and the gadflies, who live on the money they get for bringing some wit and craftsmanship to commercial assignments and eat out on their collection of great stories. (There is considerable overlap between the two camps.) Citizen Kane was written by a gadfly, Herman J. Mankiewicz; part of Towne’s legend is how much time he’s spent away from his own dream projects to parachute into film sets and work as a script doctor, sometimes on such projects as The Godfather and Bonnie & Clyde, more often on a vast wasteland of junk. Towne once tried to work out his feelings about his career as a much-sought-after, richly paid writer-for-hire, but he needed to assign the protagonist a profession that would reflect what he himself felt about the work but that seemed to him more glamorous, and maybe less morally reprehensible, than trying to tone up the screenplays of Orca and 8 Million Ways to Die. This is how he came to write and direct the 1988 Tequila Sunrise, a movie whose hero is a drug dealer.

Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who died last week at the age of 91, may have been one of the last of the great gadflies. A nephew of Philip Barry, Semple wrote plays and short magazine fiction when he was young, but he found his niche in his forties, when the producer William Dozier hired him to “create” the Batman TV series. Semple had previously worked with Dozier on a series spin-off of Charlie Chan called Number One Son, which was set to go into production when ABC decided it didn’t want a show with an Asian-American hero; according to Semple, the Batman job was Dozier’s way of making it up to him. Semple wrote the first four episodes and the screenplay for the 1966 Batman movie, and stayed on as “Executive Story Editor” throughout its three seasons on the air. He devised and and maintained the poker-faced, Pop Art campiness of the show—the mock-stolid Batman of Adam West pitted against the hamminess of the guest villains, the fight scenes punched up with written sound effects flashing on the screen. All of which is to say that he played an enormous role in making self-aware pop irony mainstream—a accomplishment that it’s easy to have mixed feelings about today, though it must have been fun and refreshing at the time.

Burt Ward and Adam West in Batman
Semple thought that Batman was the best work of his career. It wasn’t, though he probably had more control over it than anything else he wrote for TV or movies. It showed his campy sense of humor and appetite for semi-satirical pop culture reboots in full flower, qualities that, if history had taken a different turn, might have first sprouted, a bit differently, in the form of Number One Son. Along with Pretty Poison (1968), a delicious neo-noir cult film starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld that he adapted from a novel by Steven Geller called She Let Him Continue—and which Semple himself professed to regard as a little overrated—Semple’s best work was probably the two epic pop sprees he wrote for the producer Dino de Laurentiis, the 1976 King Kong remake (directed by John Guillerman) and the 1980 Flash Gordon (directed by Mike Hodges). Both are great fun, very funny, playfully respectful of their source material, and much less appreciated now than they should be. Semple once said that he thought that, of all the movies he’d worked on, King Kong was the one most undeservedly ill-treated by the press, and he was right.

If you look at Guillerman and Semple’s Kong today, and read the notices it got at the time, it seems clear that its cardinal sin was to have been made at the wrong time in film-geek history. Today, people expect everything that made any kind of splash in pop culture history to be brought back, and shrug it off when these blasts from the past don’t work. But in the mid-70s, film criticism was firmly in the hands of people who’d grown up on movies, worshipped them, and fancied themselves defenders of an undervalued and much-misunderstood art form. Many of them saw the new Kong as a vile act of sacrilege, an attempt to make money off the bones of a deathless classic. From the horrified tone of some of the reviews—and of a Saturday Night Live sketch in which John Belushi played a crass, mercenary De Laurentiis with a “me speak-a the English” accent, to Dan Ackroyd’s Tom Snyder—one gets the impression that many critics were under the impression that the producer-directors of the original Kong , Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, had been humble artisans who, with no commercial calculation or dreams of financial gain, has torn their deeply personal story of a hunt for a giant ape out of their loins. One might also get the impression that Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Charles Grodin were deadweight losers unworthy to steam open the fan mail of Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, and Robert Armstrong.

The mid-70s was also a time when, without the easy access to old favorites that home video can provide or the fact-checking resources of the Internet at their disposal, many pop critics were heavily dependent on their memories of the classics, which could be faulty and draw on things in the air that weren’t always in the films themselves. The 1976 Kong was scorned for not treating the chaste inter-species romance between Kong and the blonde from across the sea who is given to him as a sacrifice with the proper tender deference, the way critics who knew that Kong had developed into a beloved character thought they remembered from the original movie. But there’s no tender feeling between the ape and the blonde in the 1933 King Kong—not from her side, anyway. He’s just a menace who sends her into fainting spells and screaming fits, and who won’t leave her alone. And though the movie itself expects the audience to be awed by Kong’s size and power, there’s no indication that it expects it to feel anything for him beyond a frightened wish to stay out of his way.

Jessica Lange and the ape in King Kong (1976)

The idea that King Kong is a love story is one that came straight from the audience, and that became attached to the movie over the years; Semple was the first screenwriter to tell the story while taking into account that the audience would relate to Kong’s desire to level the metropolis that tried to enslave him for its own amusement, and want his love for the blonde to be reciprocated. And Jessica Lange, in a charming and funny movie debut that got her roundly mocked as a failed model turned actress, was the first actress to play the ape’s hostage as fond sidekick and would-be partner. The humor that Semple introduced into her lines—after she punches the ape in the nose, she tries to assure him that her lashing out is just a defense mechanism, “like when you knock down trees”—doesn’t prevent the script from being the most heartfelt work of Semple’s life. The movie makes invites the audience to laugh at the warm, romantic feelings it arouses in them, without mocking or devaluing those feelings. Unlike the remakes that embalm old commercial pictures in sacred reverence, it’s perfect in scale and tone.

Flash Gordon got much better reviews when it was released in 1980, but when it was released on DVD and Blu-ray a few years ago, I discovered that it’s now widely taken for a bad joke, a totem of failed kitsch, which is how it was treated in Seth MacFarlane’s dirty-talking-teddy-bear movie Ted. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is insane, especially in a world where many professional critics regard Caddyshack and the oeuvre of John Hughes as classic contemporary cinema, apparently because they grew up watching them on their VCRs too many times to not love them. Flash Gordon is Semple’s funniest movie, an explosion of Pop Art and camp sensibility on the big screen, yet effective on a simple, rousing adventure-story level that Batman never tried for. As designed by Danilo Donati and shot by Gil Taylor, it’s also one of the most successful adaptations of comic-strip style to film, bringing the lush, sensual look of Alex Raymond’s artwork to life.

Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon

Maybe Flash Gordon’s reputation has slid during the same period that King Kong’s reputation has been shored up a bit, because it’s too true to the luxuriant, trashy fun of Raymond’s comic strip. A major percentage of the audience for comic book movies and sci-fi epics doesn’t want wit and fun, they want epic solemnity and the appearance of contemporary relevance served up with a sledgehammer, the sort of thing that Christopher Nolan packaged in his Batman movies. Semple wanted to entertain; today, much of the audience, and the critics too, want to be impressed, and made to feel that they’re getting something that at least takes itself seriously. Generations of comic book fans have never forgiven the Batman TV show for making their passions look silly; the comics press had a collective aneurism in the late ‘80s, when Tim Burton was hired to direct the 1989 Batman movie with Michael Keaton in the lead, because they assumed that the collaborative team that had made Beetlejuice would be likely to update Adam West’s moves for a new decade and further put off the long-awaited day when the four-color adventures of stiff-chinned crime-fighters wearing their underwear on the outside would be officially recognized as Serious Literature. The Burton Batman, with all its jack-in-the-box touches and sick jokes, turned out to be dark and dour enough to seem like the height of self-serious big-screen comic book moviemaking in 1989, though it looks like Duck Soup compared to Nolan’s films.

Semple was always less inclined to take whatever material he was working on in the direction of solemnity than anyone else who was liable to be brought in on the project. Among his other credits, he helped define the template of the ‘70s despairing-liberal conspiracy thriller by writing the screenplays for The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, but the scripts he turned in were probably looser and less pompous than the finished version of either. (The latter was adapted from a book called Six Days of the Condor, but as Semple explained, not enough happened in it to justify six days, so he cut it in half.) The hero of Semple’s Parallax View script was a baseball player; the director, Alan J. Pakula, and the star, Warren Beatty, turned him into an investigative reporter, instantly increasing the contemporary relevance and also getting a jump on the movie version of All the President’s Men. In a wide-ranging and hilarious video interview he gave last year, Semple talked about such watermarks in his career as writing the treatment for Never Say Never Again that persuaded Sean Connery to come back for one more go-round as James Bond, and then being scapegoated and turned into a sacrificial victim, fired by the producers to appease Connery after they’d angered the star by cutting some of the planned action sequences. Semple insisted that he didn’t mind, and approved of their action; it was necessary, and, anyway, he’d been paid for the treatment and didn’t really want to have to go through the production itself. He had been fired from every good script he’d ever worked on, he said, but so what; it was the writing he enjoyed—let somebody else suffer through the hell of making the movie. About the only evidence of any kind of streak of pretentiousness in Semple was his decision, after Batman ended, to abandon his lucrative TV writing career for what was then seen as the more prestigious world of movies, a choice that he himself now seems bewildered by. His last screen credits were twenty years ago, and one doesn’t normally think of the death of a 91-year-old in terms of wasted potential. But there are so few smart writers in TV and movies now who think of pop culture as something that should be fun that it’s a great shame to lose one of them.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.


  1. "Maybe Flash Gordon’s reputation has slid during the same period that King Kong’s reputation has been shored up a bit, because it’s too true to the luxuriant, trashy fun of Raymond’s comic strip."

    Semple's Flash Gordon was a witless, maladroit piece of shit that doesn't come close to approximating the elegant art deco look and romanticism of Raymond's comic strip. The old Universal serials came closer, especially nailing the casting of Flash, Dr. Zarkov, and Ming the Merciless, and didn't cynically play it for laughs. With the exceptions of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, which are good if not great (due possibly to the input of uncredited writers and their directors), Semple was a cynical hack. It's no surprise that his genre work was so poor--he thought that science fiction and fantasy were trash, and his work in those genres reflects his low opinion of the source material. He deserves no tributes.

  2. Of course Flash Gordon plays it for laughs: how could any sane adult take Flash Gordon seriously?