81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Gentleman’s Agreement

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments · 1947, Adaptation, Anti-Semitism, Black and White, Composer: Alfred Newman, Dean Stockwell, Drama, Elia Kazan, Gentleman's Agreement, Inciting Incident, Marriage and Divorce, Mid-Point, Not Released In United States, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Screenplay Structure, Smoking, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

Gentleman's Agreement And the winner is…another adaptation! What a surprise.

This makes three adaptations (a movie based on a novel, short story, or play) in a row. And a total of 13 adaptations out of 20 Oscar-winning films, which is a whopping 65%.

Gentleman’s Agreement, the movie, is based on the novel of the same name, written by Laura Z. Hobson (1900-1986), and directed by Elia Kazan (1909-2003), who also directed A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and the 1954 Oscar winner On the Waterfront.

The subject matter of the film is anti-Semitism (hatred and prejudice toward Jewish people). Apparently, this was a groundbreaking movie in its time because (a) all of the major studio heads were Jewish, but were against the movie for fear it would backfire against them, and (b) the “gentleman’s agreement” between adults was “No Jews allowed” and any movie that sought to expose the rotted underbelly of American life was gauche at best and heretical at worst.

I don’t like blatant “message” movies, ones so heavy-handed in their telling that I feel like I’m being lectured to. This movie falls into that category largely because (a) the dialogue is stiff and corny, and (b) the acting is hammy. In fact, this movie harkens back to earlier Oscar winners that seemed more like filmed stage plays, with actors over-acting to get their point across.

More than any movie before it, I can see the mechanics of the screenwriting process. (Screenplay: Moss Hart, 1904-1961).

Contemporary screenplay structure looks something like this:

Inciting Incident – happens within the first 1-15 minutes of the film. It happens to the protagonist or is about the protagonist. In this case, Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck, 1916-2003), a writer, is given an assignment by his editor: “Write about Anti-Semitism.” This happens at minute mark 6:22 of the film when magazine editor John Minify (Albert Dekker, 1905-1968) invites him into his office and tells him, “I’m going to talk to you. For about an hour. Maybe two. I’ve had an idea.” Fade to black.

However, an Inciting Incident, to truly be one, must not happen off camera. The audience must see it. Since Mr. Minify didn’t exactly tell Mr. Green what his idea was – so the audience didn’t see it happen – this is only a Inciting Incidentquasi Inciting Incident. The real Inciting Incident happens at minute mark 8:22. Mr. Green, Mr. Minify, and Minify’s daughter, Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire, 1916-2001), sit in a hotel lobby. Kathy, whom her father introduced as “divorce” to explain the different last name (another heavy-handed, expositional way to work information into a movie), asks Mr. Green what he’s writing now. Mr. Green says he’s not writing anything just now. Then Mr. Minify strides back into the room and announces, “I’ve asked him to do a series on anti-Semitism. Break it wide open. Been wanting to do it for some time.”

So there it is: The Inciting Incident: Mr. Green is given a writing assignment, which sets the rest movie in motion. Think of the Inciting Incident as a movie’s raison d’être – its reason for existence.

Plot Point I – happens somewhere between minutes 25 and 30. It is an event that spins the movie in a different direction, propels it forward into Act II. In Gentleman’s Agreement, this happens precisely at the 29-minute mark. Mr. Green has been struggling to find an angle for his writing assignment. After his Plot Point Imother falls ill with heart trouble during the night, he sits by her bed the next morning and talks about his professional career and how when he wanted to write an article about someone or something, he became that person, or he put himself in that situation. As he’s saying this to his mother, at exactly 29 minutes into the film, he gets that light-bulb-over-the-head look and realizes that if he wants to write a series on anti-Semitism, the only way to really do it is to be Jewish himself.

So, Plot Point I is Mr. Green’s idea to pose as a Jewish person to really experience what Jewish people experience. Think of Plot Point I as a push into Act II. Without it, audiences wouldn’t be intrigued enough to continue watching. The first Plot Point provides a teaser, a hook. It raises the question that the audience needs to answer: “What will happen next?”

The next major hook in a well-crafted, contemporary script is the Mid-Point, which is an event that occurs mid-way through Act II. It’s necessary because the second act is the longest. In a 120-minute movie, it could be as long as 60 minutes. That’s a long haul to ask of an audience. So a compelling event should be dropped into the middle of Act II to keep the audience engaged.

I’m watching for a Mid-Point twist. I’m up to 55 minutes into the movie. So far, I haven’t spotted what I’m looking for.

It’s now 59 minutes into the movie. Mr. Green and his now-fiancee Kathy Lacy are at a party. They’re talking to a Jewish scientist, a “world-renowned physicist” named Professor Fred Lieberman (Sam Jaffe, 1891-1984). Professor Lieberman asks Green if he can speak to his fiancee alone. Green goes into the kitchen and has a brief chat with Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm, 1917- ). Their conversation may be a Mid-Point twist. After Green asks, “How do you like my girl?” the two make small talk. Then Anne (at 1 minute 39 seconds into the movie, which is approximately the Mid Point) asks,

Mid Point AAnne: Have you met her family yet, her sister and the rest?
Green: No. Not yet. Do you know them?
Anne: Slightly. You going to meet them soon?
Green: Next week, I think. Why?
Anne: Oh, I’d just like the newsreel rights, that’s all.
Green: Now, what do you mean? What’s the matter with them?
Anne: Nothing. I just think it’s a fine idea to meet the family first, don’t you? It saves wear and tear afterwards.

Anne exits the scene leaving Green blinking, wondering what she meant.

Cut To: Green and Kathy enter Kathy’s apartment. Green, probably thinking about what Anne hinted at, says, “Now, I’ve been thinking. Maybe it would be better if we didn’t tell your sister after all.”

The ensuing conversation takes a turn and escalates to an an argument when Kathy lets slip that her sister and her friends would be upset if they found out Green was Jewish.

Kathy: But, Phil, you’re not Jewish. It’d just ruin the party for Jane if she had problems with it. Why can’t I make you see that? I know I promised [not to tell anyone he's not really Jewish]. No exceptions. And you were being reasonable to stretch it to Jane. But it just seems so silly to start a thing for her up there when it’s not true.
Green: Then why not tell Jane to just call off the party?
Kathy: Why, it would seem so queer. Her only sister getting married and if you were I’d manage.
Green: Thanks.
Kathy: Now, Phil. I’m not asking you to make loopholes where it counts. At the office. Meeting people, like at Anne’s tonight. But to go up to Connecticut, to a party, and, if we were to use my house next summer and, besides, Jane and Harry -
Green: I thought you said they were so grand!
Mid Point BKathy: They are! But they can’t help it if some of their friends are, and besides it would just make a, a -
Green: A thing, a mess, an inconvenience.
Kathy: Well, it would!
Green: Just for Jane and Harry? Or for you too?
Kathy: I’d be so tensed up all the time I wouldn’t have any fun, either! Oh, Phil, if everything’s going to be so tensed up and solemn, I -
Green: I think I’d better go now.

He gets up from the couch, gets his hat, and turns back to the couch. Kathy gets up, turns away from him, and slams a door behind her. He walks out of her apartment. My DVD timer says 1:04:05. One hour and four minutes, five seconds.

There it is: The Mid-Point twist, or plot thickener. The set-up insinuation (“Have you met her family yet, her sister and the rest?”) and the pay-off (“I think I’d better go now”) both happen within a five-minute span smack-dab in the middle of the movie.

Why do I think this is the Mid-Point plot element? Because it again sets up the question, “I wonder what happens next?” More specifically, “What will happen to this couple? Is she really anti-Semetic at heart? Will Green’s pretense at being Jewish cause their engagement to implode?”

Plot Point II is the next thing to watch for. It occurs toward the end of Act II (in a two-hour movie roughly at the 85-95 minute mark). It is the teaser that pulls the audience into the final act, which is almost always the shortest act of the three. Like Plot Point I, Plot Point II is a bit of a twist the pulls the audience into the final act.

So far, at 1 hour and 32 minutes into the movie, I’m not seeing anything that could be Plot Point II.

Hang on (as Harry Potter would say). Here it is. The lead-up and the pay-off:

Following another emotional scene – this one involving Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell, 1936- ) who had been beaten up at school because the other kids thought he was Jewish – Kathy and Green have a contentious conversation, which she begins:

Kathy: Phil, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m pretty tired of feeling wrong. Everything I do or say is wrong about anything Jewish. All I did just now was to face facts about Dave [Green's Jewish friend] and Darien [Connecticut]. And to tell Tom just what you’ve told him -
Green: About just what. You’ve only assured him he’s the most wonderful of all creatures in White Christian America. You instantly gave him that lovely taste of superiority, the poison that millions of parents dropped on the minds of millions of children.
Kathy: You really do think I’m an anti-Semite.
Green: No, I don’t, Kathy.
Kathy: You do. You thought it secretly for a long time.
Green: No. It’s just that I’ve come to see that lots of nice people go on. People who despise it and detest it and deplore and protest their own innocence and help it along and then wonder why it grows.

After the two exchange more heated words, Kathy says this:

Kathy: I know what you’re thinking about marrying me. I saw it on your face when I said that to Tom. And don’t treat me to any more lessons of tolerance. I’m sick of it. I’m not going to marry into hot-heat shoutings and nerves. And you might as well know it now.

She spins on her heels and storms out of the room. Green follows her to the door and apologizes. But she says:

Kathy: It’s not just the shouting, Phil. It’s everything. You’ve changed since that first night I met you at Uncle John’s. It’s no use, Phil…You are what you are for the one life you have. You can’t help it if you were born Christian instead of Jewish. It doesn’t mean you’re glad you were. But I am glad. There, I’ve said it. Be terrible. I’m glad I’m not. But I could never make you understand that. You could never understand that it’s a thought like being glad you’re good looking instead of ugly, rich instead of poor, young instead of old, healthy instead of sick. You could never understand that. It’s just a practical fact, not a judgment that I’m superior. But I could never make you see that. You’d twist it into something horrible, a conniving, an aiding and abetting a Plot Point IIthing I loathe as much as you do. It’s better to finish it now, get it over with right now. I hate you for doing this. We could have been so happy. We had so much to enjoy, and so much to share. And I hate you for taking it away from both of us. I hate you for that.

She walks out the door and slams it behind her. The counter on my DVD player reads 1:36:41 (one hour, thirty-six minutes and forty-one seconds in the movie, approximately 96 minutes).

And you thought I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Why is that Plot Point II? Because now the audience is asking, “What next? Is it really over for them? Or will they resolve things?” The act of asking those questions keeps the audience on the edge of its collective seats – right into Act III. They want to know what happens. And to discover what happens, they have to continue watching.

Act III is the wrap-up of the movie.

And it does. Kathy and Dave Goldman (John Garfield, 1913-1952) sit in a restaurant, talking. She realizes she failed Green. She emotes.

Kathy: I’ve been getting mad at Phil because he expected me to fight this instead of getting mad at the people who help it along…it all links up, Dave. Phil will fight. He can fight. He always will fight. And if I just sit by, feel sick, then I’m not a fit wife for him. It was always on those deeper issues that we had our quarrels. Always. And I never knew it until now.

Dave: Sure. A man wants his wife to be more than just a companion, Kathy. More than his beloved girl, more than even the mother of his children. He wants a sidekick, a buddy, to go through the rough spots with him. And, she has to feel the same things are the rough spots. Or they’re always out of line with each other.

In spite of the fact that Kathy was a turd throughout most of the movie, the film ends with Green going over to Kathy’s apartment. He rings the doorbell. The door opens. They pause for a moment, and then embrace in the doorway. The credits roll.

Fade to Black.

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