John Patrick Shanley plans to bet $500 that he will not win the Academy Award for best original screenplay on April 11. “Then,” said the author of director Norman Jewison’s hit comedy Moonstruck, “if I lose, I win.” With that sort of backhanded logic, which also pervades his scripts, Shanley has emerged as one of the most sought-after writing talents to hit Hollywood in many years.
During the past six months the 37-year-old New York City playwright has seen his first two movie scripts, Moonstruck and 5 Corners, reach the big screen almost exactly the way he wrote them—a rare event in the movie industry. And his third feature, a black comedy titled January Man produced by Jewison, is now being filmed in Toronto. Moonstruck has already won the Writers Guild of America Award for best original script, and Shanley is favored to repeat the triumph at the Oscars in April. “He is very talented,” said Jewison. “There’s something oldfashioned about his writing that I can’t put my finger on. But it is always off-the-wall, always a little eccentric.”
Offbeat: Even more remarkable than Shanley’s success is the unorthodox way in which he has achieved it. Both Moonstruck and 5 Corners lack ingredients usually considered mandatory for hit movies. Without much action of any kind, Moonstruck's operatic romance about an Italian-American family in Brooklyn, N.Y., is almost solid dialogue. And 5 Corners, an offbeat drama about fear and loathing in New York City’s the Bronx, does not even have a central character. In selling his screenplays, Shanley has written his own rules, refusing to accept studio advances. “No one tells me what to write,” he said. “If I were to make a deal with a studio, then everything I wrote would be owned by them, which is not a good feeling. I don’t want to be an employee.”
Screenwriters, who recently went on strike in the United States for more creative control, are among the least powerful members of Hollywood’s creative hierarchy. But when Jewison, 61, first tried to obtain the rights to Moonstruck, Shanley insisted on interviewing the veteran director to see if
he could trust him. They met for the first time last year in Jewison’s Manhattan apartment. Recalled Shanley: “About half an hour into the conversation he became very nervous, and his eyes began to shoot around in his head. Then I realized that he was experiencing his first job interview in 30 years.” Added Shanley: “He was a
good sport. I just wanted to make sure that he wasn’t crazy or evil.”
Tough: Shanley acquired his tough bargaining stance while growing up in a violence-prone Irish-Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. His father was an Irish-born meat-packer, his mother a telephone operator. As a 10-year-old, he recalls, he was hung upside down from the roof of a five-storey building by two boys seeking vengeance after a snowball fight. On other occasions he was hit over the head with a baseball bat and choked with a steel bar. Shanley attributes the off-centre style of his dramatic dialogue to his childhood on the streets. “It did not pay to be overly clever with someone who was liable to hit you over the head,” he said. “So you had to be elliptical to get across.”
After Shanley had been expelled from three high schools in the Bronx, a Roman Catholic priest took him under his wing in 1965 and enrolled him in a
New Hampshire prep school. He went on to study arts at New York University and, at 19, joined the marine corps, which he describes as “a continuation of the Bronx—but more civilized.” Later Shanley graduated from university but, before completing a master’s degree in educational theatre, he dropped out to become a bartender. Moving on
to other odd jobs, he also wrote plays and poetry. And by his third produced play, 1983’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, his reputation took off. Shanley shifted from theatre to movie scripts for the money, he said. “I knew that I’d be back painting people’s apartments if I didn’t do something about it.”
Modest: With success, Shanley has been able to buy a leather jacket, eat in good restaurants and take taxis whenever he pleases. But the divorced screenwriter still lives in a modest apartment in Washington Heights on Manhattan Island, does not drive and considers a move to Hollywood unlikely. “I don’t feel particularly comfortable anywhere in the world that I have been, including where I am now,” he said. “New York is a place to struggle—and I intend to struggle for a while.”
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