Gems, Jonathan (Malcolm Frederick) 1952-

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GEMS, Jonathan (Malcolm Frederick) 1952-


Born January 7, 1952, in London, England; son of Pam Gems (a playwright); married Catherine Hall, 1981. Education: Attended Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, 1970-71, and Exeter College of Art, 1971-72.


Home—197 Hammersmith Grove, London W6 0NP, England. Agent—Curtis Brown Group Ltd., Haymarket House, 28/29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England.


Playwright, screenwriter, director, and novelist. Capricorn Graphics, managing director; Jonny and the Gemstones (music group), founder; It's All Lies (adult comic), editor, 1970-73; Portobello Hotel, London, England, deputy manager; Holland Mirrors, London, managing director, 1973-75; Open Space Theatre, London, stage manager, 1975; Jean Collette Seel fashion company, managing director, 1975-76; Half Moon Theatre, London, stage manager, 1976-77. Director of plays, including The Treat, 1982, and These Foolish Things, 1983.


George Devine Award, 1980; Critics Circle Award, 1986; Aspen Film Festival Award, 1992; Best Comedy Award, Los Angeles Film Festival, for The Treat.



Jesus Rides out, produced in London, England, 1978.

The Shithouse of the August Moon, produced in London, England, 1978.

Rinni Bootsie Tutti Frutti, produced in London, England, 1978.

The Dentist, produced in London, England, 1979.

The Tax Exile (produced in London, England, 1979), Playwrights Press (London, England), 1986.

The Secret of the Universe, produced in London, England, 1980.

Naked Robots (produced in London, England, 1980), published in Gems Plays, 1988.

The Paranormalist (produced in London, England, 1982), published in Gems Plays, 1988.

Doom Doom Doom Doom, produced in London, England, 1984.

Susan's Breasts (produced in London, England, 1985), published in Gems Plays, 1988.

Gems Plays (includes Naked Robots, The Paranormalist, and Susan's Breasts), Oberon Books (London, England), 1988.

Also author of a musical, Back to Nature.


Nineteen Eighty-four (adaptation of the novel by George Orwell), Virgin, 1984.

(With Michael Radford) White Mischief, Columbia, 1987.

(And director) The Dress (short film), Pink Onion Films, 1990.

Mars Attacks!, Warner Bros., 1996.

(And director) The Treat, Seven Arts, 1998.

Also uncredited screenwriter on Batman 1989; screenwriter and director of short film, The Clown.


Mars Attacks! (based on screenplay of the same title), Signet (New York, NY), 1996.


Jonathan Gems is a British playwright turned screenwriter and director and son of well-known British playwright Pam Gems, the "grande dame of the West End," according to Giles Whittell in the London Times. Gems began making his own way in the London theater world in the late 1970s with plays that feature a mixture of "high comic spirits and a strongly moral core," as a contributor for Contemporary Dramatists described Gems's early work. His first breakthrough on the London stage occurred with the 1979 production The Tax Exile. The contributor for Contemporary Dramatists noted that Gems "made a big stir" with this play which "traces the destruction of a decent middle-aged man by the venality of his family."

Gems followed up this early success with several other groundbreaking plays. Naked Robots, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, was "one of the company's key achievements in new writing," according to the contributor for Contemporary Dramatists. The play deals with the world of young London and its concerns, including squatters, pop music, abortion, and sex. Gems looks at a dysfunctional family in The Paranormalist, as well as at paranormal experiments. In 1985 Gems produced Susan's Breasts, a play that angered London's feminists enough to picket the theater where it was playing. Gems takes on the theme of love in this play, focusing on a mysterious young man named Lemon who falls in love with the supposedly sterile Susan, an aspiring actress. Susan becomes pregnant by Lemon and, faced with losing a movie role because of the pregnancy, decides to abort the fetus.

Gems by this time had already made a move into films with his screenplay for the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. Following the success of this initial screenwriting venture, Gems moved to Los Angeles, where he devoted himself to screenplays.

Gems's next project was as coauthor with Michael Radford of the screenplay for White Mischief, an adaptation of a nonfiction book by James Fox that details the sexual goings on in Kenya's Happy Valley colonial community during the early days of World War II. Central to the book and film is the murder of the notorious womanizer, the twenty-second earl of Erroll, not long after he brings his young mistress back to the home she shares with her much older and impotent husband. The subsequent murder trial ushered in the end of the Happy Valley years of decadence. Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Tribune, felt that the screenwriters, "not content with mere decadence, want to show decadence in its decadent phase." Similarly, Sheila Benson, writing in the Los Angeles Times, felt that Gems and Radford "decided—fatally—that decadence and languor were interchangeable qualities." However, Time's Richard Schickel found the movie "deliriously erotic," and went on to note that it would "shock some of the innocent, titil-late others and amuse the sophisticated."

Inspired by a set of bubble gum cards from the 1950s he found in a Los Angeles junk shop, Gems came up with the idea of a satirical science-fiction romp about Martians attacking Earth. He convinced director Tim Burton of this idea, and Gems came up with the script for Mars Attacks! in 1995. Then difficulties arose, with the studio bosses firing Gems and bringing on another writing team for rewrites. Finally, with the movie almost cancelled, Gems himself came up with an acceptable rewrite, and Mars Attacks! was filmed in 1996, featuring Jack Nicholson as the president who seeks advice from his staff and wife to battle an invading fleet of Martians. The subsequent film was successful neither at the box office nor with critics. Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, complained that the director and screenwriter made an error in assuming "it is funny simply to be doing a parody." Ebert noted that "in fact the material has to be funny in its own right." Similarly, Newsweek's David Ansen found Gems's script "surprisingly feeble" and the resulting movie a "goofball alien-invasion parody that is … defiantly inconsequential." Other reviewers, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing for the Chicago Reader Online, found more to like. Rosenbaum praised the film for being "in love with silliness."

Gems made his directorial debut in 1998 with The Treat, adapted from a play by his mother. The story of three prostitutes who have their own dreams, the film is a black comedy that won the award for best comedy at the Los Angeles Film Festival.



Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Chicago Sun-Times, December 13, 1996, Roger Ebert, review of Mars Attacks!, p. 43.

Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1988, Dave Kehr, review of White Mischief.

Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1988, Sheila Benson, review of White Mischief, p. 1.

Newsweek, December 23, 1996, David Ansen, review of Mars Attacks!, p. 67.

Time, April 25, 1988, Richard Schickel, review of White Mischief, p. 94.

Times (London, England), February 25, 1997, Giles Whittell, "'I Spent Too Much Time on Wine and Women,'" p. 15.


Chicago Reader Online, (December, 1996), Jonathan Rosenbaum, review of Mars Attacks!

Doollee Database, (September 27, 2004), "Jonathan Gems."

UKscreen Web site, (September 27, 2004), "Jonathan Gems."*