Calder Willingham - Writer

Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 23 December 1922. Education : Attended The Citadel and The University of Virginia. Family : Married 1) Helen Rothenberg (divorced), son Paul; 2) Jane Marie Bennett, five children. Career : First novel, End as a Man , was a popular success. Published nine others. 1957—brought to Hollywood to write screenplay for film version of End as a Man .; worked in Hollywood until 1974, when he retired to write fiction full time; 1978—wrote with Del Reisman the teleplay Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. Died: Of lung cancer, in Laconia, New Hampshire, 19 February 1995.

Films as Writer:


The Strange One (Garfein)


Paths of Glory (Kubrick) (co with Jim Thompson and Kubrick)


The Vikings (R. Fleischer)


One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando) (co with Guy Trosper)


The Graduate (Nichols) (co with Buck Henry)


Little Big Man (Penn)


Thieves Like Us (Altman)


Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (co with Del Reisman—TV)



End as a Man , New York, 1947

Geraldine Bradshaw , New York, 1950

The Gates of Hell , New York, 1951

Reach to the Stars , New York, 1951

Natural Child , New York, 1952

To Eat a Peach , New York, 1955

Eternal Fire , New York, 1963

Providence Island , New York, 1969

Rambling Rose , New York, 1972

The Big Nickel , New York, 1975

The Building of Venus Four , New York, 1977

On WILLINGHAM: articles—

Millichap, Joseph, in Dictionary of Literary Biography , edited by Randall Clark, Robert E. Morsberger, and Stephen O. Lessner, vol. 44, Detroit, 1986.

Obituary in Facts on File , 23 February 1995.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 27 February 1995.

Obituary in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1995.

Obituary in Psychotronic Video (Narrowsburg), no. 20, 1995.

Loggia, Cynthia, " Graduate Scribes Work Together After Decades," in Variety (New York), 24 January 2000.

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Calder Willingham's first novel, End as a Man , proved a success with critics and readers alike, who appreciated the novelist's finely detailed study of military school life (based on Willingham's own years at The Citadel) and his exploration of male codes of conduct. A sudden shift of representational modes, to an expressionistic black humor, probably doomed his next book to a disappointing reception. Four novels published in quick succession likewise failed to make the favorable impression of Willingham's initial effort, and with a growing family to support he was happy to be hired by Columbia to adapt End as a Man for the screen; the story was retitled The Strange One for a marketing campaign that emphasized the bizarrely charismatic but cruel behavior of the main character, played with Method angst and power by Ben Gazzara. With its strong support of institutional convention and traditional pieties, the film was conservative in a late fifties, Cold War sense, offering no challenge to the military status quo despite the focus on an exceptional loner who tellingly probes the weaknesses of "the system" from the inside and reveals the limitations of following the rules. The film bears interesting comparison to From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953), which treats, with quite different conclusions, a similar encounter between an exceptional individual and the military system that cannot accommodate his individuality.

The Strange One proved Willingham's ability to write tight and effective screenplays, a rare ability in novelists, who often find the restrictions of the form overwhelming. What Willingham's first effort showed in particular was a flair for staging in brief dramatic scenes what the novelist needed quite different narrative techniques to express. Willingham, in essence, showed how he could create bold and arresting character with an economy of effort, an important skill in adapting novels, the film versions of which must always be summaries in some sense. Though he despised film work and never took it seriously, Willingham stayed in Hollywood in order to support his growing family. His work for The Strange One had caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, then a young director working on the margins of the industry, who engaged Willingham to, first, attempt an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's story "The Burning Secret," a project that was never realized. Instead, Willingham soon set to work, along with pulp writer Jim Thompson and director Stanley Kubrick, on adapting Humphrey Cobb's novel about the French army mutiny of 1917, Paths of Glory . The resulting film is an interesting and effective mixture of authorial interests. Paths of Glory exemplifies Kubrick's fascination with the interaction between men and environment, Jim Thompson's obsession with elemental differences in character and ethics, and Willingham's concern with the struggle against, but ultimately necessary accommodation to a flawed institution. In particular, Willingham's influence on the film's literate, highly dramatic script—unusual for what is in essence an "action" picture—is most clearly seen in the character of Colonel Dax, a man of conscience who protests against suicidally stupid orders and venal, self-serving general officers, but who willingly shares the undeserve and brutal fate of the men under his command, finding some consolation in the basic human quality—a desire for comradeship and love—that binds them. With its art house black and white photography, self-conscious stylization, and political tendentiousness (the film was banned from the screen in France), Paths of Glory was a prestige project that offered Willingham a suitable opportunity for his considerable talents, despite his reluctance about film work in general.

Willingham's ability to create complex, interesting character was tested more severely in his next project, which was to write a screenplay from Dale Wasserman's "treatment" of Edison Marshall's The Viking . The film that eventually emerged as The Vikings was not intended for art house exhibition or to please a literate film audience; it was instead a big-budget, star-studded, action-packed, wide-screen, full-color epic in the proven fifties mold of historical recreations. And yet Willingham, though unable to reproduce the novel's interesting complexities of setting and custom, does a more than credible job of re-imagining it in terms of brotherly ties and loyalty to a shared code of masculine conduct; what distinguished the finished film from other costume spectaculars of the period, including Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), is the deep sense of character that effectively motivates the action set pieces.

In The Vikings , the hero and his antagonist are bound together by the very brotherhood (kept secret from them until the plot's climactic moment) that lends them the impulsiveness and self-assertion that makes them mortal enemies. Willingham's screenplay for One-Eyed Jacks , based on Charles Neider's novel The Authentic Death of Hendry James , re-structures that familial conflict in Oedipal terms. Handsome young Rio (Marlon Brando) robs banks with the aptly named Dad (Karl Malden) until the older man, saving his own skin, leaves Rio behind to be captured by the Mexican police. Escaping from jail, Rio seeks revenge on the now-respectable Dad, who has married and become a sheriff, by seducing his former friend's step-daughter and subjecting him to public shame. Dad replies in kind, publicly whipping Rio after a trumped up charge and then mutilating his gun hand. Forswearing further vengeance because of his genuine love for Dad's stepdaughter, Rio is forced to confront Dad in a final shootout and kills him. The film emphasizes Brando's compelling Method performance as the betrayed young man who finds a better way to live, but the ethical dilemma and the way it works to discover the goodness in Rio and moral emptiness in Dad was Willingham's substantial contribution. Like Colonel Dax, Rio discovers in authentic human connections a reason to live in a world otherwise characterized by the immoral and ruthless pursuit of self-interest.

Much the same can be said of Willingham's script for The Graduate , his most masterful and acclaimed screenwriting effort. Paired perfectly with Buck Henry, whose penchant for black humor and arresting character matched his own, Willingham here vastly improves on Charles Webb's weakly structured novel. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), confused about what direction to take now that he has graduated from college, lets himself be seduced by a sexual predatory older woman, who only takes an interest in his body. Where Rio has to break his self-destructive attachment to a vicious father figure, Benjamin must abandon his infantilizing connection with a substitute mother; in both instances, the protagonists discover a conventional Hollywood adulthood in the arms of a faithful, loving woman. Henry and Willingham deepen the significance of this bildungsroman with an acerbic look at contemporary American society, whose adult establishment is populated by plastics salesman out to make a killing, horny housewives, pathetically indulgent parents, and mindlessly materialistic adolescents. The film's antiestablishmentarianism perfectly caught the mood of the late sixties (though the more obvious social and political issues of that period rate nary a mention).

More engagé was Willingham's next project, the adaptation of Thomas Berger's anti-western, Little Big Man , also starring Hoffman, who effectively recycles the naive righteousness of Benjamin Braddock. His Jack Crabb is a picaresque figure whom Willingham, following Berger closely, utilizes as a narrative entrée into various aspects of Western life, whose conventional meanings are debunked as the white settlers are shown to be venal and stupid, while the Indians the helplessly innocent victims of an overpowering social change. Usually presented as a tragic hero, Willingham's George Custer is a bloodthirsty savage, demented by his hatred of the Indians and his own delusions of grandeur. The story was episodic even in its original form, and Willingham's Little Big Man appears too much the summary of a larger, more coherent work. Yet the film works largely because of the writer's skillful imagining of dramatic encounters and the virtuoso performance of Hoffman, who portrays effectively nearly eighty years in Jack Crabb's life.

Little Big Man represents a thematic departure for Willingham, whose characters previously had chosen to live within the flawed structures of a society they cannot improve. Perhaps this change was due to alterations within the industry as a whole, where angry youth pictures became the rage after the success of Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), a maturation story that took its rebellious heroes to a very different political and personal destination than Benjamin Braddock discovers at the end of The Graduate . But it may be that Willingham himself had begun to take a more jaundiced view of the American establishment. That this is the case is certainly suggested by his next and final Hollywood project, an adaptation of Edward Anderson's forties novel Thieves Like Us , a social realist examination of class structure and criminality in American life, previously filmed by Nicholas Ray in 1949 as They Live by Night . Anderson's novel examines what happens to an essentially moral if underprivileged country boy named Bowie who finds himself convicted of a murder that was likely simple self-defense. Escaping from jail, he forms a criminal gang of the similarly dispossessed, only to fall in love with a good woman, Keechie. Willingham's version not surprisingly emphasizes the ethical dilemma that Bowie finds himself in: yearning for a better life with Keechie, Bowie cannot escape from his life of crime to working class respectability because of his loyalty to his criminal comrades. Unlike Benjamin Braddock, Bowie cannot break cleanly with the criminal past because it holds real value for him, an authenticity that proper society had denied him.

Though he always deprecated his film work, seeing it simply as a way of paying the bills, Willingham must be counted one of the postwar era's most successful screenwriters. Because he was talented and reliable, he more readily made a name and reputation for himself in screenwriting. Working steadily and profitably during the late sixties and early seventies, that period of American commercial film art usually termed the "Hollywood Renaissance," Willingham gave important literary value to the films of several noted directors. Ironically he was denied the same kind of success from novel readers and reviewers. The American cinema was impoverished by his decision in 1974 to resume a novel writing career full time, but, in any event, the turn of the American cinema away from character-driven drama to various forms of sexual and violent spectacle would have likely left him underemployed in Reaganite Hollywood.

—R. Barton Palmer

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