In Memoriam: Alvin Sargent, Golden Globe Nominee, 1927-2019

by Yoram Kahana May 28, 2019
Screenwrirter Alvin Sargent, Golden Globe nominee

stephen shugerman/getty images

Twice a Golden Globe nominee Alvin Sargent, who died aged 92, was arguably one of the most versatile (and prolific ) screenwriters to toil in Hollywood. His screenplays ran the gamut from intellectual, literary adaptations and original works to entries in the Spider-Man popular series that hit the zeitgeist as American audiences re-discovered long time popular heroes, refashioned for the current public mood. Sargent contributed (uncredited) to the 2002 original and wrote the best of them, Spider-Man 2 (2004), about which critic Robert Ebert said: "Now this is what a superhero movie should be". He co-wrote part 3 (2007) and contributed to the reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, (2012), the last of his screenplays to be filmed.

 

The producer of the series was Laura Ziskin, Sargent's partner since 1987, whose Pretty Woman (1991) was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Comedy or Musical category. They married in 2010 when he was 83, a year before Ziskin died of cancer.

Sargent's two Golden Globe-nominated scripts were as far removed from Spider-Man as imaginable. Julia (1977), was drawn from a chapter of playwright Lillian Hellman's memoir, Pentimento, about the friendship of Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, and an anti-Nazi activist, played by Vanessa Redgrave, before the onset of World War II. It garnered seven Golden Globe nominations, Fonda won the Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama Golden Globe and Redgrave, the Supporting Actress Golden Globe.

 

Sargent adapted his other Globe nominated script, Ordinary People (1980) from Judith Guest’s 1976 novel about a family in turmoil - the idolized older son has drowned in a boating accident, his surviving younger brother is tormented by guilt and tries to commit suicide, while the mother is in denial and the father is aloof. Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times called it “a moving, intelligent and funny film. The real achievement of (...) Alvin Sargent is that (they) become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronized or satirized.”

Ordinary People collected seven Golden Globe nominations and won five, including Best Motion Picture-Drama, and Best Director for Robert Redford, in his directorial debut. The producer and writer J.J. Abrams, a frequent Golden Globe nominee and co-winner for the TV series Lost, credited the Ordinary People screenplay as his writing inspiration: "I wanted to try to fill pages with the same kind of spirit and thought and emotion that that script did.”

Sargent was born Alvin Supowitz in Philadelphia to Jewish immigrants. He enlisted in the Navy as World War II was nearing its end, and did not see action. "It wasn’t about heroism,” he said later, “my passion was typing, not writing. I used to practice typing and then I started writing dialogue – ‘people talking to each other’ is what I called it."

Discharged from the military, Sargent moved to Hollywood to pursue acting, supporting himself by selling ads for the trade paper Variety.

Acting accidentally led to screenwriting: “I never saw a script until 1952 when my agent got me a small acting job and handed me a plane ticket to Hawaii and a copy of (the one for) From Here to Eternity. I read it on the plane. It was beautiful.”

Sargent played a soldier in the World War II military drama starring Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, directed by Fred Zinnemann who, 24 years later, would direct Sargent's Golden Globe-nominated script for Julia, getting a Globe nomination himself.

Sargent soon forgot his small and un-credited acting role, but not the Oscar-winning screenplay, by Daniel Taradash. The veteran typist became a budding writer.

In the early 1960s, he would earn enough from his writing, mostly for television, ranging from medical dramas (Ben Casey) to crime yarns (Naked City), adventure (Route 66 ) and mystery (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). He soon got his first big screenwriting credit, as Alvin Sargent (having changed his name from Supowitz, because “It’s an easier name to sell in Hollywood,” he said).

His quirky crime caper Gambit (1967), was nominated for three Golden Globes, propelled by his sharp writing: the movie won the Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical Golden Globe, and the Best Actor and Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Comedy, cat burglar Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, his showgirl squeeze.

More features followed, most notably a horror yarn in a Western setting, The Stalking Moon with Gregory Peck (1968), and a doomed love affair drama set in a college, the emotionally fraught The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). It gave Liza Minnelli her first Golden Globe nomination (she would win one for Cabaret two years later).
 
Soon came Sargent's first widely successful screenplay adaptation. Paper Moon (1973) featured father and daughter, in life and on the screen: Ryan and Tatum O'Neil, as a con man on the road in the 1930s, with a precocious girl who may or may not be his daughter. The crackling and sharp-witted script was directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Tatum received rave reviews, becoming the youngest actor to win an Oscar. The HFPA concurred, awarding  Tatum a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer  (a discontinued category), and also nominating both O'Neils, the movie, and the director, but not honoring Sargent for his screenplay, which had propelled all that.
 
Following his two Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated films, the prolific and versatile Sargent was much in demand, adapting, co-writing, re-writing and creating original scripts for an A list of Hollywood and some foreign directors: Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer, Paul Newman, Martin Ritt, Norman Jewison, Stephen Frears and Wayne Wang. Many major stars spoke his lines, some of them in more than one movie: Eva Marie Saint, Joanne Woodward, Maggie Smith, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, Danny DeVito, Gérard Depardieu, Natalie Portman, Richard Gere.
 

The steamy thriller Unfaithful, (2002) which Sargent co-adapted from Claude Chabrol's La Femme Infidele, was well received and earned $120 million worldwide. It was the last of Sargent's features before a major shift and the last phase of his long career: the four  entries in the Spider-Man franchise, from the 2002 launch to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) which was the last Sargent filmed script to be released before his death in Seattle, May 9, 2019.

Fellow screenwriter Larry Gross spoke for the film community: “Alvin Sargent was almost universally regarded by writers, producers, agents, everybody in Hollywood as the gold standard for serious, creative screenwriting."