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On May 9, one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters, Alvin Sargent, died, unheralded and almost unnoticed. Sargent, 92, had won Oscars for 1977’s Julia and 1981’s Ordinary People; he was an expert at excavating the hidden film buried within another writer’s work, a master at adapting novels, short stories and plays.
I still remember the thrill I felt on reading his script for Julia, the tale of two women (Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave) whose relationship unfurls against the backdrop of World War II; I still recall how he tossed out a throwaway line, “It’s a risky business, love,” then picked it up later, when the plot had turned somber, using it in an altogether more serious context and establishing it as the theme of his work.
Sargent perhaps was not an original along the lines of a Billy Wilder or Quentin Tarantino, writers and directors who’ve stamped their viewpoint on subjects as diverse as the Western and World War II — but how many people are? Rather, he was a superb craftsman whose expertise can still teach us today.
Laura Ziskin knew this. That’s why the producer asked him to help write 2002’s Spider-Man and three sequels, creating a series that has brought billions of dollars to Sony. How ironic that an octogenarian should have become the most prominent writer on one of the first modern-day franchises.
I mention this not merely to sing Sargent’s praises but also to point out that Hollywood is overlooking an entire generation of talented craftsmen. True, Sargent was a towering figure, but there are dozens if not hundreds of other, older writers who are shut out, dismissed as ineligible for jobs, just as Sargent might have been if Ziskin hadn’t been his wife.
And yet the need for their skill is greater than ever. With the plethora of scripted series now airing or streaming — some 500+ in all, if FX’s John Landgraf is right — producers are desperate to find men and women who can deliver solid work. They don’t have to be giants; they don’t have to possess that ineffable sense of the zeitgeist, which strikes a lucky few then vanishes, leaving them wondering what went wrong. They just have to know how to tell a story.
With streamers targeting more narrowly defined audiences and starting to make shows aimed at an older demographic (The Kominsky Method, Grace & Frankie), there’s hope this might change. But it hasn’t changed yet. The first Inclusion Report Card, published by the Writers Guild in April, showed how dire the situation is. While women now represent 36 percent of the TV-writer workforce and persons of color 27 percent, the report noted, “writers over 50 face the same ageism in TV staffing that pervades all of Hollywood – and the near-total absence of staff writers over 50 is clear evidence of systemic age discrimination.”
I was reminded of this last week when I got a call from a friend in his early 70s who spent years writing solid TV movies until that business evaporated; now he writes all the time without being paid. He’s had to sell his house and move upstate to lower his expenses, and he’s trying his hand at novels. But screenplays are his passion — and yet nobody will read them. No executive. No producer. No agent. And why should they? Why would anyone try to sell his stuff when Hollywood isn’t buying?
Another friend left town a decade ago when she could see, so to speak, the writing on the wall. She’d had enough of hotshot employers asking her, “What’ve you done lately?” That was the same question Fred Zinnemann was asked. In the 1980s, a cocky young executive held a meeting with the four-time Oscar winner (and the man who directed Julia).
“Tell me some of the things you’ve done,” he said.
“No, no,” replied Zinnemann. “You first.”
Men and women over 55 make up 29 percent of the population, but only a fraction of the characters we watch on TV and in the movies. This isn’t just hurting the writers; it’s hurting the audience, which rarely gets to experience things through the eyes of the late-middle-aged and older. That’s having an economic effect as well as a human one, which will only grow as we enter the subscriber era, when streamers will need to capture viewers of every demographic.
What’s astonishing is that Hollywood should know better. It’s led by men (and a few women) who are massively older than the audiences they’re pleasing. Consider the major studios: two are headed by executives well into their 60s, two by guys in their mid-70s. You’d think they’d take action, lead the charge against ageism just as others — quite rightly — are leading the charge for women and persons of color.
And yet they’re silent. The very people with the greatest power to speak are holding their tongues. Why?
Because they’re afraid. Afraid that if they hire someone old, they’ll be perceived as old, too. Afraid that if they make too much noise, they’ll be overwhelmed by the din. Afraid that if they pave the way by regularly bringing in people others deem over-the-hill, they’ll be deemed over-the-hill themselves.
Deep down inside them lurks the same fear so many people are feeling in our winners-take-all society: They’re expendable, too.
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