My 10 All-Time Favorite American Screenwriters

It interesting how many became writer-directors, in part to preserve and protect their vision — and how unfortunate that there’s not a woman among them

Last Updated: July 14, 2011 @ 10:41 AM

When asked to come up with a list of my 10 all-time favorite American screenwriters coupled with a signature credit, I thought, “Wow, how am I gonna narrow it down to just ten?”

So with sincerest apologies to the dozens of others who rightfully belong on this list, in alphabetical order, here goes:

>> WOODY ALLEN “ANNIE HALL”

The most prolific mainstream filmmaker of the last century is also our greatest chronicler of urban neurosis. With “Annie Hall,” the great comedian found his narrative voice, at the crossroads where Charlie Chaplin intersects with Ingmar Bergman.

>> PADDY CHAYEFSKY “NETWORK”

With a brilliant command of language, and dramatist’s eye for character, relationship, and place, his body of work is the stuff of great literature. In “Network” he saw the future of commercial television, when Entertainment and News would get in bed together, and become impregnated with Reality TV.

>> JOEL AND ETHAN COEN “FARGO”

Masters of the colloquial quirk, and the absurdities that motivate, their voice is uniquely American. In “Fargo,” with its moronic used car salesman villain and nine months pregnant cop heroine, they walked the tight wire between gut-wrenching tension and side-splitting hilarity.
Trivia question: What was the source of the title of the Coen Brother’s film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (the answer’s found at #8)

>> FRANCIS COPPOLA “THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER II”

More than any other filmmaker, Coppola defined the direction of American film in the 70s. With “The Godfathers,” based on a best-selling pulp fiction, he created an epic, operatic family tragedy, disguised as a noir, of Shakespearean proportions.

>> HORTON FOOTE “TENDER MERCIES”

While his adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is most beloved (and my own personal all-time favorite movie), it is perhaps “Tender Mercies” that speaks most deeply from his voice. And his voice, that of a poet, was American film’s most lyrically eloquent.

>> JOHN HUSTON “TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE”

The Ernest Hemingway of screenwriters, he was an adventurer who was also one of the great directors, and most durable character actors. His best screenplays, “Treasure” among them, were often literary adaptations depicting failed masculine pursuits. Like their source materials, the majority have become classics.

>> CHARLIE KAUFMAN “ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND”

Part surrealist, part existentialist, and part exhibitionist, he is the most personal of all American screenwriters, and the first to create a body of work that could arguably be considered literature since Chayefsky. In “Eternal Sunshine,” externalizing the internal, he created a modern morality tale about the fragility of relationships, and being careful what one wishes for.

>> PRESTON STURGES “SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS”

On the surface a master of screwball comedy, deep down inside he was a social realist. And no film demonstrated this more clearly than “Sullivan’s Travels,” where a Hollywood filmmaker hits the road to learn what real Americans need, and discovers what they need is to laugh. Answer to trivia question in #3: At the beginning of “Sullivan’s Travels,” he’s pitching a social realist novel to studio execs that he wants to direct. Its title – “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

>> QUENTIN TARANTINO “KILL BILL I & II”

With a reverence toward homage, and an obsession with popular culture, Tarantino is arguably the most influential screenwriter of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century. Watching the “Kill Bill” movies is like eavesdropping on a precocious kid who’s dumped every toy he’s got out of his closet, determined to play with every single one of them.

>> BILLY WILDER “SUNSET BOULEVARD”

The best saved for last. As a German immigrant escaping Nazi persecution, writing with collaborators because of his insecurity with the English language, he became a screenwriter of astonishing versatility, and our finest cinematic chronicler of American mores. “Sunset Blvd,” a pitch-black comedy, is the greatest movie ever made about Hollywood.

Looking over my list, I find it interesting to note how many became writer-directors, in part to preserve and protect their vision, and how unfortunate it is that there’s not a single woman among them.

Mark Evan Schwartz is associate dean of the School of Film and Television, Loyola Marymount University.  He is also an associate professor of screenwriting and author of “How to Write: A Screenplay” 2nd Edition (Continuum Int’l – New York & London).