Appreciation: Film critic Kenneth Turan remembers Josh Greenfeld, a screenwriter who taught him about life
I always knew I’d write about my friend Josh Greenfeld. I even started to take notes, long lost, about the piercingly acute things he’d say about Hollywood and the movie business, but I never thought it would be this hard.
Best known in the business as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Harry and Tonto,” the film that won a best acting Oscar for Art Carney in 1974, Josh (who died last month at age 90) was an under-the-radar insider and consummate professional, deft, gifted and successful in a wide range of writing disciplines.
Aside from screenwriting, Josh worked as a novelist and critic, key to helping launch Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” with a rave in the Sunday New York Times.
And as a nonfiction writer he wrote heartbreakingly about life with a severely brain-damaged son, and his groundbreaking trilogy of books, starting with 1972’s “A Child Called Noah” and continuing with “A Place For Noah” and “A Client Called Noah,” were crucial in bringing profound autism to mainstream notice.
Josh was also a successful playwright, with a New York stage career that ranged in time from a 1976 Broadway run of “I Have a Dream,” a play with music about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. starring Billy D. Williams, to 2003’s rowdy “The Last Jews of Kabul” at off-Broadway’s La Mama.
More than all that, on a personal level Josh was complicated the way other people think they’re complicated. Sharp, funny, irascible and contradictory, he was almost impossible to sum up, not the least because I can hear Josh’s mischievous voice in my head gleefully pulling apart my every attempt.
Josh was like that, a born contrarian, a man who would regularly knock on my door (we had offices in the same building) after coming back from an unsatisfactory Hollywood memorial service to flatly announce “I don’t want (fill in the blank) to talk at my funeral.”
Josh and I met soon after I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 and we were drawn together despite a significant difference in age because, as first-generation sons of Yiddish-speaking parents, we had remarkably similar childhoods. His mother resisted a move from the Bronx to Brooklyn, he once told me, because she worried, “how do we know what the weather is like there?”
Paradoxically coexisting with Josh’s dismissive side was his great gift for warmth and friendship. Starting in New York as part of the Actors Studio’s playwrights unit, he knew almost everyone worth knowing in his generation of artists and intellectuals: Arthur Miller, Roth, Elia Kazan, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, “The Godfather’s” Mario Puzo and others.
He stayed close to them even when he moved west, becoming, he told me near the end of his own life, the only non-family member besides Frances Ford Coppola to speak at Puzo’s memorial. “Mario told me that the best thing about being wealthy,” he said, “was that you can die at home.”
In Los Angeles, Josh was part of a group of writers that included his great friends John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Brian Moore, perhaps the last generation of writers drawn to Hollywood the way Herman J. Mankiewicz drew his friend Ben Hecht in 1926 with a celebrated telegram that read, “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Josh made money in the movie business, but he was never happy with the compromises that had to be made to succeed. When he turned down a job rewriting trash because “I couldn’t figure out how to type and hold my nose at the same time,” another writer teased him, “what’s the matter, you never heard of a clothespin?”
Once when I asked Josh why he’d agreed to work with a producer with a terrible reputation, he succinctly explained, “I’d rather work with people whose jackets say ‘Thief’ on the back than people whose jackets say ‘Art’ on the back but say ‘Thief’ over the inside pocket.”
Thinking about it now, I can see that Josh’s anger at the Hollywood system came from a kind of idealism, a belief in the Platonic idea of writing that did not abide compromise of any sort. When people he knew produced good work and prospered, Josh could not have been more pleased.
When in 1986 his wife, the writer and painter Foumiko Kometani, won the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s top literary awards, Josh was transported. “My dreams,” he told me, smiling, “have moved to the other side of the bed.”
Though he worried when his son, Karl Taro Greenfeld, now an accomplished novelist, journalist and television writer, said he wanted to write, he was proud of his successes, frequently knocking on my door to let me know about stories he’d especially liked. “The kid is good,” he said to me, shaking his head in pleased disbelief at how well it had all turned out. “The kid is good.”
Overhanging everything, of course, was younger son, Noah, whose care and well-being presented tremendous difficulties that were so painful that Josh spoke about them only sparingly, sometimes turning his grief into caustic wit. Noah, he told me once with a bleakly impish gleam, would never live by himself or even take care of himself, “but I still hope that someday he can run a major studio.”
This kind of merciless eye on Hollywood was Josh’s default position, and some of his observations, like telling me that the movie business was “the only game where at-bats count more than hits,” still sting today.
But finally what held us together was the shared experience, ever-present if not always articulated, of our sons-of-Jewish-immigrants childhoods.
“So good to see you,” Josh said the last time we were together. “It’s like a letter from home.” Now that he’s gone, that home seems even further away.
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