Wednesday, August 25, 2021

This Day in Irish History (Brian Moore, Novelist-Screenwriter of Displacement, Born)

Aug. 25, 1921— Brian Moore, whose alienation from his ancestral faith and homeland took the form of a move across the Atlantic and a prodigious stream of novels, short stories and screenplays, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Like literary hero James Joyce, Moore found history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Though his father was senior surgeon at the Mater Hospital in Ulster, he was conscious of being a member of a beleaguered minority, the nationalist Catholic community of Northern Ireland. He felt doubly alienated when, at age 10, rebelling against what he saw as stifling church authority, he rejected his faith.

After serving in WWII with British Ministry of War Transport and early in the postwar period with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, Moore emigrated to Canada, where he worked as a journalist for four years. Along the way, he became a Canadian citizen—a status he did not relinquish even after residing in his last three decades in California.

When he turned his hand to fiction in his mid-thirties, Moore returned, if only in his imagination, to Ireland and what he saw as the repressive conformity and diminished prospects experienced in that  community. His first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1956)—adapted three decades later into a film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins—was inspired by an elderly spinster known to Moore’s family.

It was not a surprise, given the censorship regulations of the time, that the novel was banned for indecency in the Republic. Closer to home, Moore’s devout mother not only griped about its “sex parts,” but cut out any of these before she mailed a copy of the book to one of her daughters, a nun.

From early on, filmmakers sensed the dramatic possibilities of Moore’s novels, with four of them adapted for the screen (most notably, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, starring Robert Shaw). But in 1965, he had a more signature opportunity to make his mark in cinema when Alfred Hitchcock, intrigued by The Feast of Lupercal, contacted him about working on an original screenplay. 

At the time, the reputation of Hitchcock still had magic, as his TV show had only recently left the air and the film Marnie regarded as an interesting failure.

What most people did not realize at the time was that making the latter movie had turned out unexpectedly traumatic for Hitchcock, as he lost interest in making it halfway through when actress Tippi Hedren spurned his advances. The studio that had previously allowed him wide latitude in shooting, Universal, was now making demands on the nature of his next material, including a more pop-oriented musical soundtrack and top box-office stars (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) not necessarily to his liking.

Under these circumstances, Hitchcock felt more significant pressure than he had in years. According to a 2009 post on the blog Shadowplay, Moore had not felt especially interested in collaborating with the “Master of Suspense” on the screenplay, but his lawyer convinced him that he could use the money.

The team turned out to be a bad match. Moore was dismayed by Hitchcock’s lack of interest in character and the director was displeased by Moore's screenplay Moore. When Hitchcock tried to give screenwriting credits to the two men he turned to for a rewrite, Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse, Moore took the matter for arbitration to the Writers Guild, which awarded sole credit to the novelist. Because the window of time for using Andrews was limited, Hitchcock had to start filming before he was satisfied with the script, a significant departure from his practice on other films, according to Charlotte Chandler's biography of the director, It's Only a Movie.

The eventual movie, Torn Curtain, a Cold War thriller, turned out to be a mess for everyone concerned. Moore’s comments to the press led him to be disinvited from the set and premiere, and Hitchcock saw his commercial and critical reputation take another hit. About the only benefit, for Moore, was that he did, as his lawyer had told him, now had enough money, this time to move to Malibu, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Moore’s later experiences writing for film and TV, while not as high-profile, were more pleasant, including The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Black Robe, in which he also acted as executive producer for this adaptation of his historical novel about a young French Jesuit missionary in New France. 

Particularly prescient was his 1973 TV adaptation of his novel Catholics, with a plot—a representative from the Vatican is dispatched to deal with a conservative priest whose intransigence threatens to open up a schism within the Church—that feels like an anticipation of current tensions under Pope Francis.

Altogether, Moore would write 20 novels before he died in Malibu in 1999 from pulmonary fibrosis. Since his death, his books have passed in and out of print here in the U.S., though they have been accorded a better reception in the U.K. His reputation may well endure, however, because he acquired a reputation of a “writer’s writer,” much esteemed by the likes of Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Flanagan, and John Gregory Dunne.

Dunne’s wife and screenwriting partner, Joan Didion, was especially generous in assessing their longtime friend, telling the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten:

“Brian truly honored fiction, by his reading of it, by his respect for it, and most of all by the wit and intelligence and power he brought to the writing of it. He understood the craft, the discipline, and he understood equally the discipline required to practice it. He had no patience for the postures and quasi-celebrity of the literary life. Writing was just what he did most days of his life, and he never stopped being thrilled by it, taking risks with it, taking it to the far edge of where he knew it could go.”

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