Sargent, Alvin

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Writer. Nationality: American.Career: Writer for television; 1966—first film as writer, Gambit. Awards: Writers Guild of America WGA Screen Award—Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium, for Paper Moon, 1973; Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Academy Award, Best Screenplay British Academy Award, Writers Guild of America WGA Screen Award—Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium, for Julia, 1977; Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Academy Award, Writers Guild of America WGA Screen Award—Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium, for Ordinary People, 1980; Writers Guild of America Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement, 1991.

Films as Writer:


Gambit (Neame)


The Stalking Moon (Mulligan)


The Sterile Cuckoo (Pookie) (Pakula)


I Walk the Line (Frankenheimer)


The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (Newman); Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (Pakula)


Paper Moon (Bogdanovich)


Bobby Deerfield (Pollack); Julia (Zinnemann)


Straight Time (Grosbard)


The Electric Horseman (Pollack)


Ordinary People (Redford)


Nuts (Ritt)


Dominick and Eugene (Nicky and Gino) (Young)


White Palace (Mandoki)


What about Bob (Oz) (co-story only); Other People's Money (Jewison)


Hero (Frears) (co)


Bogus (Jewison)


Anywhere But Here (Wang) (co)



Other Films:


From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann) (ro as Nair, uncredited)


On SARGENT: article—

Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1973.

* * *

Alvin Sargent's aesthetic is firmly rooted in the best dramatic tradition of the early years of American television, the medium in which he honed his talent prior to commencing his screenwriting career in the mid-1960s. While that aesthetic cannot be labeled radical, it most certainly is progressive, intellectual, enlightened, committed—and, finally, humanist.

Sargent's works have dealt with political and societal themes: capitalist greed in Other People's Money, for example, or media manipulation in Hero (whose story he co-wrote) and judicial-system abuse in Straight Time. Nonetheless, he has most consistently been concerned with the effect of contemporary society on the individual. One of Sargent's dominant interests has been the structure of, and interrelationships within, the suburban American family. This is explored most notably in Ordinary People, the story of a controlled, controlling upper-class clan whose material comfort belies its members' spiritual barrenness and inability to communicate meaningfully. There is the son (Timothy Hutton), withdrawn, unhappy, and fresh from a suicide attempt after the accidental drowning of his older brother; the father (Donald Sutherland), passive, solicitous, and self-deluded; and the mother (Mary Tyler Moore), an all-American beauty who, beneath her cheerfulness, is icy-cold and unforgiving.

Nuts is the story of Claudia Faith Draper (Barbra Streisand), a woman with upper-class roots who is victimized by a less-than-ideal childhood. As a result, she has become a $100-an-hour hooker; and because she has not done what "good white girls" are supposed to, she is labeled by her mother, stepfather, and family lawyer as insane and irresponsible for her actions. Ultimately, her role within the scenario is that of speaker of truth in a world of everyday lies and hypocrisies.

A number of Sargent's screenplays focus on complex male characters: Dustin Hoffman's ex-con in Straight Time; the young intern (Ray Liotta) and his childlike twin brother (Tom Hulce) in Dominick and Eugene; and Timothy Hutton's teenager in Ordinary People. But his scripts (most of which are adaptations) more consistently feature complicated, interesting female characters of all ages and classes. Joining Nuts is Julia (based on the controversial Lillian Hellman memoir Pentimento), the story of a pair of women of action: Hellman (Jane Fonda), who was unconventional for her time in that she funneled her creative instincts into a career as a successful dramatist and carried on a long-term romantic relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards); and the title character (Vanessa Redgrave), Hellman's wealthy childhood friend, who becomes a political activist in Europe and involves Hellman in a scheme to smuggle bribe money into Nazi Germany.

In Other People's Money, a watered-down (but still-biting) version of Jerry Sterner's play, Danny DeVito's Wall Street corporate raider is contrasted to Penelope Ann Miller's equally cagey young attorney, who sets out to outmaneuver him when he becomes determined to devour a family-owned company.

Then there is Paper Moon, a fairytale in which a nine-year-old (Tatum O'Neal) unites with a con man (Ryan O'Neal) in Depressionera Kansas. This character is no sweet Shirley Temple, but rather a headstrong, tough-talking, cigarette-smoking scamp who loves to mug, and is determined to be corrupted. The Sterile Cuckoo is the coming-of-age story of Pookie (rhymes with kookie) Adams (Liza Minnelli), a brash, insecure college student. Here is one Sargent heroine who is not strong; still, she (rather than the boy with whom she falls in love) is the focus of the scenario.

Anywhere But Here is another coming-of-age tale, with the spotlight on a child and parent: Ann August (Natalie Portman), a young teenager, and her mother Adele (Susan Sarandon), who move from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills where they struggle to adapt to a new life—and clash with each other. The young characters in Ordinary People and The Sterile Cuckoo are troubled; here, the opposite is the case. Ann is settled and happy in the Midwest, and resents being needlessly uprooted by the restless, flirty Adele. In Anywhere But Here, the child takes on the role of the adult, while the mother acts more like the child.

Most intriguing of all is the heroine in White Palace, which chronicles the romantic relationship between Max Baron (James Spader), a twentysomething advertising executive with a fine education and an upper-class, liberal-elitist background, and Nora Baker (Susan Sarandon), a fortysomething waitress with limited education and a grim family history. Even though she would not know Gloria Steinem from Gloria Jean, Nora's integrity transforms her into a feminist heroine. She has lived in the world, and she knows what she likes and wants. She, rather than he, initiates their meeting, and their first sexual activity; even though Nora falls for Max, she will not be intimidated by his background, his income, or his family. (Here again is a scenario in which the "family" stifles the individual, who must assert him or herself and break away to ensure his or her happiness.) Max may be a regal "baron" to Nora's lowly "baker," but it is he who will have to accommodate her if their relationship is to survive.

That relationship is one of instinct versus intellect, and Sargent clearly prefers that the former prevail. Even in Julia, whose characters are by nature intellectual, it is the passion of the creative act that sparks the communication between Hellman and Hammett; in her political activity, Julia is a creature of emotion and zeal; and Hellman's choice to act, and risk her life, on behalf of her friend is instinctual rather than rational.

This is not to say that Sargent is anti-intellectual. Rather, he is anti-intellectual hypocrisy or pomposity. Whatever their sex or class, the best Sargent characters are those who transcend the barriers of intellectual passivity and become people who act, who take stands that transcend a mere nodding of one's head in response to injustice. The upper-class patriarch in White Palace, who babbles on about how the working class is exploited by Republican politics as he is served dinner by a maid, is shown to be a hypocrite; Julia, who forsakes her privileged background to take political action, and pays for this with her life, is shown to be a heroine. It is the contrasting personalities of these two characters that most acutely mirror the truth of Sargent's creative sensibilities.

—Rob Edelman