Behind the Scenes, Disappointment of a Writer Who Wanted to Direct
Joel Oliansky had just been told that in the cover story for the current issue of Esquire magazine, jazz historian and journalist Gary Giddins calls “Bird,” which Oliansky wrote, the best and most honest movie about jazz ever made.
“Is my name mentioned?” Oliansky said, with pointed sarcasm.
As a matter of fact, it is. But just barely.
Giddins, like most journalists, has shortened the credit on “Bird” from a Warner Bros. presentation of a Malpaso Production, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Joel Oliansky, to simply . . . “Clint Eastwood’s ‘Bird.’ ”
You’ll note, as Oliansky has, that it was Eastwood and the actors whom Warner Bros. took to the Cannes Film Festival with “Bird” last May. It was Eastwood at the Museum of Modern Art screening in New York last week, and it will be Clint again Monday when the film is screened as part of the New York Film Festival.
But it is more than the Hollywood tradition of crediting directors for the good films and writers for the bad ones that has Oliansky’s nose askew.
As a contract writer- director at Columbia Pictures, he wrote the script about jazz great Charlie Parker as a vehicle for himself to direct.
“I was well paid and I’ve got no kick coming,” he said. “But I can’t say I’m happy I didn’t make it. Sure, I wish it had been me.”
Oliansky, 52, has watched the making of “Bird” from a bemused distance, even though his office is just steps from Eastwood’s on the campus of the Burbank Studios.
He said he pitched the idea of a film about Parker to Columbia executives as a follow-up to “The Competition,” a 1981 Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving love story that he had written and directed.
“They said, ‘Great, we want it,’ and the next day they sent it to (director) Bob Fosse. The next day!”
By studio reckoning, Fosse must have seemed a perfect choice to direct a film about the late jazz sax player. Two years earlier, Fosse had had a big hit with a film titled “All That Jazz.”
That the film had no jazz in it is just one of several ironies that Oliansky would observe during his script’s courtship.
At one point, he said, Warner Bros. wanted to get the property for rock star Prince. And Ray Stark, an independent producer at Columbia, discussed making it with a musical score by Jackson Browne.
But the only chance Oliansky really had of directing it was when Richard Pryor expressed an interest in it.
“I don’t mean anything at the box office, and Charlie Parker means less than I do,” Oliansky said. “But if Pryor had said, ‘I want to do it and I want you to direct,’ the picture would have been made.”
Oliansky said Pryor was quoted somewhere as saying, “It would be the sine qua non of my career to do this film.”
“It doesn’t sound like Pryor,” Oliansky said, “but I knew what it meant and I told the studio, ‘Fine, give me a green light,’ and they did.”
Oliansky had already looked up Charlie Parker’s last companion, Chan, in the small town of Champs Motteaux, an hour outside Paris, and enlisted her help. She had written an unpublished biography called “Life in E Flat,” which included a lot of detail about her life with the hard-living, self-destructive sax player who died in 1955 at the age of 34.
Oliansky had also met with Red Rodney, a trumpeter who played with Parker in the late ‘40s, and he talked with Parker’s wife, Rebecca, who knew him in Kansas City when he was a teen-ager.
The material all meshed with Oliansky’s own impressions as a jazz buff growing up in New York and became an engorged first-draft screenplay that would have run more than three hours.
Oliansky said it was fashioned after Ken Russell’s biographical film “Mahler.” Oliansky said the movie was meant to celebrate the music of the era, not--as most previous jazz films had done--to perpetuate the myth of jazz as pain.
“Jazz rises above the unhappiness of musicians,” he said. “It says, ‘Look what I can do; life is really kind of wonderful.’ Movies like ' ‘Round Midnight’ make you think jazz is something where you go to a night club and listen to some guy suffer.”
Oliansky said he intended to do some major rewriting on his script, to cut it considerably and do some restructuring, but no one ever asked him to.
When Pryor pulled out of the project, saying he had his own demons to purge (he purged them in the autobiographical “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling”), the project languished.
Later on, long after his contract with Columbia had expired, Oliansky said he heard that “Bird” had gone over to Warner Bros., but it was another year before he learned that Eastwood was going to make it.
Oliansky said Eastwood came by his office one day and they spent two hours swapping stories about their passion for jazz and their parallel teen-age experiences, on opposite coasts, seeing Parker perform. Oliansky offered to do more work on the script, but said Eastwood declined.
The last time the two saw each other, he said, was at a recording session that Eastwood invited him to before filming started.
“A weird thing happened that day,” Oliansky said. “In 1983 or 1984, I saw a film called ‘Wolfen’ with Diane Venora. I said, ‘She’s Chan Parker.’ When Eastwood told me he had cast her as Chan, I couldn’t believe it. It was the spookiest thing that ever happened to me.”
Oliansky admits it’s hard to evaluate “Bird” objectively. Having the relatively unknown Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker removes the distraction that Pryor’s comedic background might have been.
He said he “was riveted by Diane Venora’s performance and by a lot of things in the film.”
“Eastwood knows as much about jazz as I do, if not more,” he said. “He has as much passion for jazz as I do, if not more. Where we may differ is in how much we know about screenplays. Eastwood cut 20 pages from my script and he did a wonderful job. But what I saw was a film of my first draft.”
First drafts don’t often get produced, but it had happened, under strange circumstances, to Oliansky before.
“I wrote ‘Masada’ as a feature and the first draft was 400 pages long,” he said. “I cut it to 185 pages over the next year. Then Universal took it to ABC as a miniseries and the first draft was the only one long enough.
“They sent it to Peter O’Toole and he said, ‘Don’t cut a word.’ So they didn’t. They spent $23 million on my first draft.”
There are reasons for rewriting, some of them pretty mundane. Oliansky said he chuckles every time he sees the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that Warner Bros. lifted from the title page of his script and adopted as the “Bird” marketing theme.
It is on the film, in the press materials, on billboards. It reads: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Oliansky said he pulled the quote out of his head one day as he was walking out of his office and had his secretary type it on the title page of his script. He knew the quote wasn’t quite right, but because he never worked on the script again, he never thought to check it.
Apparently, no one else did, either. If they had, Warner Bros. might have gone to something different.
What Fitzgerald said was, “There are no second acts in the lives of American writers.”