Duncan, Patrick Sheane 1947(?)-
DUNCAN, Patrick Sheane 1947(?)-
PERSONAL: Born c. 1947; father worked as a migrant farmer; married (separated). Education: Grand Valley State College, earned history degree.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Putnam Berkley Group Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
CAREER: Former district manager of a movie-theatre chain and accountant for film producer Roger Corman. Screenplay writer, director, and novelist, 1989—. Military service: U.S. Army, served in Vietnam.
Courage under Fire (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
A Private War (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
(And director) Eighty-four Charlie Mopic, New Century/Vista, 1989.
(And director) Live! From Death Row (teleplay), Fox, 1992.
(And executive producer) A Home of Our Own, Gramercy Pictures, 1993.
(And director) The Pornographer, Charlie MoPic Co., 1994.
Nick of Time, Paramount, 1995.
Mr. Holland's Opus, Buena Vista, 1996.
Courage under Fire (adapted from his novel), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: After growing up under trying circumstances, Patrick Sheane Duncan has made steady advances throughout his career, becoming, in the mid-1990s, one of the most highly sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. Among the films to his credit are Nick of Time, Mr. Holland's Opus, and Courage under Fire, the last based on his 1996 novel.
As a child in Los Angeles, Duncan endured both poverty—his father was a migrant farm worker—and tragedy. When Duncan was ten, his father was stabbed to death in a barroom brawl; the boy's mother packed the growing family off to Michigan, where she worked picking fruit for a living. Duncan grew up helping raise his eleven younger siblings. After high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army, but soon found himself in a stockade, sentenced for "assault with intent" after a fight with another soldier. "I'm not proud" of that episode, the writer later told Gary Arnold of Insight on the News. "But if you're poor in this country, you get angry. You're bombarded with images of stuff you don't have that other people seem to have." Eventually Duncan found himself in Vietnam, where he got a different education in class consciousness: "Bullets don't discriminate between rich and poor," he told a People interviewer.
Duncan's Vietnam experiences matured him to the point where he was named a squadron leader. He graduated from college on his return home, and got his first show-business job booking movies for a theatre chain. "I'd often go to New York and see several movies in a day," Duncan recalled to Arnold. "Most of them [were] pretty rotten, so I'd bitch and moan. I repeatedly told my wife that I could write better crap than what I was seeing. Being the kind of woman she is, she called my bluff." To prove he was right, Duncan began drafting his first script.
Ambition brought Duncan to Hollywood, where he got an accounting job with producer/director Roger Corman. By the late 1980s Duncan had started his film career with low-budget movies he directed from his own scripts. The first, Eighty-four Charlie Mopic, was termed "one of the more remarkable films about Vietnam" by Variety reviewer Emanuel Levy. In 1992 Duncan wrote and directed the television film Live! From Death Row, a criticism of television news sensationalism. The premise is that a convict on death row takes a newswoman as hostage, threatening to execute her on live TV if not freed. The film starts off "sharply" in the opinion of People contributor David Hiltbrand, but then succumbs to flaws which included miscasting. For Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker, the film lacks originality in its presentation of the stories of convicts. Variety's Van Gordon Sauter found the plot premise hard to swallow, and felt that the prison scenes are marred by unreality and by the characters' philosophizing. He maintained, as well, that it is impossible to decide whether the film is social criticism with exploitative overtones, or vice versa.
Duncan's next project was the working-class melodrama A Home of Our Own, directed by Tony Bill with Duncan acting as executive producer. In this film Kathy Bates stars as a divorced mother who, in 1962, quits her assembly-line job because of sexual harassment, then drives with her six children to Idaho, where she buys a rundown house. She succeeds in setting up a good life for her family, despite obstacles, with the assistance of a kindly Asian-American neighbor. Variety contributor Levy found the story idea excessively familiar, comparing A Home of Our Own to such film successes as Places in the Heart and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Entertainment Weekly critic Ty Burr wrote, "Duncan's memory-movie at least feels honest in its sentimentality."
In 1994 Duncan wrote and directed the low-budget Pornographer, which Levy interpreted as a "meditation on art vs. commerce in American life." Levy found this tale to be "intellectually pretentious" and "simplistic," its screenplay overloaded with "stereotypes and cliches." Although he enjoyed the first half-hour of the film, the script is in need of "dramatic streamlining" to rid it of trite Freudian and melodramatic aspects, Levy maintained.
Duncan's career got new impetus in the mid-1990s with the commercial success of three screenplays: Nick of Time, a 1995 thriller starring Johnny Depp; Mr. Holland's Opus, a 1996 tearjerker in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a high school music teacher; and Courage under Fire, a 1997 film starring Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington about the Persian Gulf War that was based on Duncan's own 1996 novel. In Mr. Holland's Opus, Dreyfuss, in the title role, has seen his lifelong dream of becoming a serious composer diverted into a career of helping youngsters learn a bit about music, and about themselves; in the process, he has, however, shunned his deaf son. Through a series of learning experiences, the movie covers his career from 1965 to the 1990s, climaxing at his retirement ceremony, when his grateful former students unite to play Holland's own composition, conducted by him. In talking to Duncan, Arnold decided that "Holland's origins are far more personal than topical." Though he faced rough times, the screenwriter described himself in the interview as an optimist: "Life is difficult and tough, but you can achieve a lot if you want it badly enough and apply some common sense."
Both a New Yorker reviewer and Richard Corliss of Time responded to the film as a successfully crafted but unsubtle melodrama—a "schmalz fest," in the New Yorker critic's words—that would succeed at the box office due to its ability to make audiences cry. Calling the script "reductive and repetitive," Corliss labeled the movie, which boasted a fully loaded soundtrack, "a greatest-hits album, with Kleenex," and wryly observed that foremost among the lessons of the film, audiences "will learn that films avoid the problems they pretend to confront."
Duncan's next major project, Courage under Fire, was greeted with considerably more respect by critics. It is a Rashomon-like story of attempts to discover the truth about a military skirmish during which several soldiers are killed by investigating different participants' versions of the same events. The investigator, Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling (Denzel Washington), has been drinking hard and alienating himself from his family because of his guilt after a friendly-fire incident in which he was involved. Now he is assigned to investigate the case of a female pilot (Meg Ryan), killed in action and now in line to become the first female combat soldier ever to receive the Medal of Honor. Suspecting that the deceased pilot is being used posthumously for political purposes, Serling asks tough questions of her crew, and finds complicated truths about courage and cowardice underlying the facts of her death. Calling Courage under Fire the "first major film [of the Persian Gulf War]," New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann remarked that the "real subject" of Duncan's screenplay "is not a specific war but the military ethos itself." "What's interesting about Duncan's take," said David Ansen of Newsweek, "is that it's neither a knee-jerk put-down of the military nor simply a patriotic salute. He has bones to pick with the army's duplicitous protection of its own image, but it's the critique of an insider who believes in military values."
Duncan based the Courage under Fire screenplay on his own novel, which a Publishers Weekly reviewer found to be "exciting" and constructed "with the slick cinematic skill that has made [Duncan] a top Hollywood screenwriter." Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor and Library Journal reviewer Charles Michaud viewed the book as a slickly conceived prelude to the movie, which, on release, was widely applauded as a serious and well-crafted piece of work. In 2002, Duncan released the novel A Private War. In this tale Lieutenant Colonel Meredith Cleon "arrives at Fort Hazelton, Indiana, half-convinced that someone important doesn't like her," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor put it. The soldier—a law-enforcement officer—faces even more worry when a woman's corpse is found on the firing range. It is up to Meredith to solve the crime and cope with army politics, sexual harassment, and the hijacking of guns. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that Duncan's "most pointed observations are those of a military run like a corporation," adding that this whodunit seems "practically begging to be made into a film."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July-August, 2002, Michael Phillips, review of A Private War, p. 78.
Booklist, February 15, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of Courage under Fire, p. 990.
Commonweal, May 5, 1989, p. 278.
Current Cinema, January 29, 1996, p. 93.
Entertainment Weekly, April 3, 1992, Ken Tucker, review of Live! From Death Row, p. 40; November 19, 1993, Ty Burr, review of A Home of Our Own, p. 70; February 7-13, 1994, p. 40; July 26, 1996, Owen Gleiberman, review of Courage under Fire, p. 32.
Insight on the News, February 19, 1986, Gary Arnold, review of Mr. Holland's Opus and author interview, p. 32.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1996, p. 9; April 15, 2002, review of A Private War, p. 513.
Library Journal, February 15, 1996, Charles Michaud, review of Courage under Fire, p. 174; October 1, 1996, p. 47.
National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996, Joseph Cunneen, review of Courage under Fire, p. 10.
New Republic, July 29, 1996, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Courage under Fire, p. 24.
Newsweek, July 15, 1996, David Ansen, review of Courage under Fire, p. 59.
New York, July 22, 1996, p. 94.
New Yorker, January 29, 1996, review of Mr. Holland's Opus, p. 93.
People, April 6, 1992, David Hiltbrand, review of Live! From Death Row, p. 13; February 12, 1996, "Mr. Duncan's Opus" (author interview), p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, January 22, 1996, review of Courage under Fire, p. 61; May 6, 2002, review of A Private War, p. 34.
Rolling Stone, August 8, 1996, p. 68.
Time, January 22, 1996, Richard Corliss, review of Mr. Holland's Opus, p. 64; July 22, 1996, Richard Schickel, review of Courage under Fire, p. 94.
Variety, March 30, 1992, Van Gordon Sauter, review of Live! From Death Row, p. 81; November 1, 1993, Emanuel Levy, review of The Pornographer, p. 37.*