Ramblin' man

Emma writer-director Douglas McGrath jumps from Midland to Jane Austen

I don't know what I expected Douglas McGrath to look and sound like after I had been told the writer-director of Miramax's sterling new version of Emma was born and raised in Midland, Texas. But the last thing I imagined was the polite, dapper, dandyish man with the glittering eyes who greeted me at the Melrose Hotel. McGrath jumps into conversations with a childlike giggle and an eagerness to be funny. His rapid-fire, self-deprecating sarcasm is not just his calling card but a gesture of generosity from a man one suspects is passionate about the loss of civility in late 20th-century American public life.

This Princeton-educated Texas native from a privileged family who possesses no trace of twang in his voice may be gracious, but he is clearly not interested in graciousness for its own sake, as anyone who views Emma will attest. An artful rudeness percolates inside this sprightly version of Jane Austen's 1816 novel, the writer's fourth, that might seduce those members of the movie-going population who found themselves gamely trundling through Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility with an enthusiastic, "I'm afraid to look like I just fell off the melon wagon" smile through clenched teeth.

"I wasn't scared of following 'the Jane Austen bandwagon,'" McGrath insists, referring to those features and an American PBS TV broadcast of Pride and Prejudice that preceded Emma, "but you can believe I kept one eye on it. If anything, I was inspired by the success [of those films]. Jane Austen wrote such incredible characters, delicious dialogue, and smooth narrative, you'd have to be an idiot not to make a hit movie out of her work. Writing the Emma script was a piece of cake. The scenes just leapt out of her book and into my mind like they'd already been filmed."

Still, he admits his production crew was responsible for at least one turf invasion. "We went location-scouting through rural England for the film and arrived at this incredibly beautiful old manor. The owner drew us into a breathtaking parlor. We stood there silent, in awe, thrilled at the atmosphere. And to help sell the place, the owner announced proudly, 'This is a very famous room. The makers of Sense and Sensibility shot here.'"

While it might at first seem like a long distance from Midland to Jane Austen, these are only two of the points on Douglas McGrath's eclectic trajectory. He co-wrote and won an Oscar nomination for Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway ("I met him over dinner one night, and we immediately hit it off; we both loved talking about gangsters"). He continues to write political satire for The New Republic, including a column called "The Flapjack File" that explores White House shenanigans through the eyes of a fictional secret-service agent.

But perhaps most pertinent to the hair-trigger lunacy in Emma is McGrath's experience writing sketch comedy for the 1980 and '81 seasons of Saturday Night Live. "I didn't think a TV show could get much worse," McGrath says. "Until I tuned in for the '82 season." However horrendous his early efforts, McGrath credits the exacting form of sketch comedy for instilling an early sense of discipline and economy of expression. "When you've got four minutes to set up and resolve a situation, you can't bother with the chaff. And when you've got to make at least a minute's worth of that material expendable, because you're performing with commercial breaks and a live audience, you've got to balance all the elements so a last-minute edit won't disrupt the piece. It can be a mentally exhausting process, and when people don't laugh, it's very discouraging."

Further adventures in the trade continued to dampen his enthusiasm for screen-writing. He wrote the script for 1993's update of the Garson Kanin classic, Born Yesterday. McGrath admits he had better memories of the original story (thanks to Judy Holliday) than Kanin's play actually deserved. "It was moralistic and high-handed," he says. "And plus, Disney had this gangster come on board as a producer, breathing down everybody's neck. This guy really was a gangster; he even looked and sounded the part. I'll never forget one of the few times he spoke to me. It was a criticism of some part of the script. He said, 'Doug, you really oughtta do something about this dialogue. It's tedium-some.' That pretty much summed up my experience with Hollywood studios up to that point."

Austenophiles need not worry about Douglas McGrath's sincerity--or his ability to make celluloid magic out of their goddess' lemon-tart character studies. "We're sisters!" McGrath gushes about his involved, worshipful relationship with the 19th-century scribe. But those who exulted in the serene, tragic tone of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, read carefully. Emma is woven with wilder, punchier, more devilish thread than those tear-stained doilies. The embryonic Anglophobes among us--ticket buyers and critics who swear somebody is gonna get hurt if we witness one more Englishman or -woman suffer in silence--are made positively giddy by this cast of virtuosic clowns.

This new version of Emma draws laughter from skeptical audiences precisely because it emphasizes the worst side of each classic character. Even Emma herself, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is rendered somewhat ridiculous by McGrath's script and character-conscious direction. While fairly bursting with good will, Emma is self-indulgent, self-involved, unrealistic, and has confused money with accomplishment and privilege with wisdom, like the heroine of John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm.

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