x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Should actors write? That is the question

We look at where Tom Hanks, who has just published a short story collection, fits into the pantheon of actors who have taken to writing

Tom Hanks. Taylor Hill / Getty Images
Tom Hanks. Taylor Hill / Getty Images

There’s a scene midway through Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, is lounging in Central Park, poking fun at passers-by.

"The winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest," Alvy quips as someone in a pale suit and straw boater saunters past. The unspoken gag is that the well-dressed promenader is none other than Truman Capote, world famous author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Plenty of novelists have made movie appearances, often cameos in screen adaptations of their own books. Peter Benchley turns up in Jaws as a TV news reporter. Stephen King regularly sidles into the manifold filmed versions of his work: he was a minister in Pet Sematary and, more aptly, a cemetery worker in Sleepwalkers.

Now and then, however, the tables are reversed, and an actor tries their hand at writing for the page. The candidates veer from the woeful to the great. Many might dispute Pamela Anderson’s credentials as an actress, and even more will contend her right to be called a writer. Indeed, her debut novel Star was ghostwritten by Eric Shaw Quinn, who has elevated sycophancy to an art form: "Despite her stellar performance in school and her place in the hearts of all those who knew her, Star had been unable to afford college and tried hard to make her way in the world."

Representing the higher brow is Allen, who produced enough short stories to fill four collections: Without Feathers, Getting Even, Side Effects and Mere Anarchy. Published initially in The New Yorker, these mixed surreal flights of nonsense and ideas that feel like first drafts of later movies. The Kugelmass Episode, in which an unhappy humanities academic magically enters Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and embarks on a passionate affair with the novel’s heroine, feels like a dry run for his subsequent masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Echoes of Allen’s on-page experiments resound in Uncommon Type, the latest foray into fiction by an A-list Hollywood star: Tom Hanks. The title prods mild irony at its creator’s expense. Hanks has won two Oscars and become a global superstar by playing Common Types: the mildly eccentric everyman (Forrest Gump) or the understated hero (Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan).

Hanks, like Allen, has written for The New Yorker, and like Allen has now collected his vignettes, albeit with an interlinking motif: the presence of a typewriter (also hinted by that playful title). Hanks is a typewriter fanatic: ‘I use a manual typewriter ... almost every day,’ he admitted in 2003. ‘The tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop.’

Also like Allen, Hanks’s prose is light but witty, diverse in genre (comedy, science fiction, gently nostalgic historical fiction) and keen to fix the minutiae of life, relationships and time: more than one story involves time-travel to the past, both literal and imaginative.

He is formally ambitious, too. While it is no surprise that Stay with Us is a film script, Three Exhausting Weeks is a diary detailing the transformation of a friendship into romance. A Junket in the City of Lights mimics a movie star’s publicity schedule, and two helpings of Our Town Today with Hank Fiset convincingly parodies a local newspaper column. The range of characters is impressive, too. In addition to the film stars and millionaires, there is a Pomak (a Slavic Muslim from Bulgaria) in Go See Costas and Steve Wong, a Chinese-American 10-pin bowler.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks published by William Heinemann. Courtesy Penguin UK
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks published by William Heinemann. Courtesy Penguin UK

That Uncommon Type ranks high in the stratosphere of books by actor-writers is hardly a surprise. Hanks may not be as revered, nor as prolific, a screenwriter as Allen, but he has written scripts (That Thing You Do!, Larry Crowne), and in interviews come across as genuinely funny and intelligent.

Indeed, what both Allen and Hanks propose is that comic performers tend to make the most natural prose writers. Most top 10s would include Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller, Stephen Fry’s The Liar, David Baddiel’s The Secret Purposes, Michael Palin’s The Truth, Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing and Albert Brooks’s 2030.

What these artists share is a long history of writing their own material, most often for stand-up, before attempting fiction. But even without this background, it is not difficult to understand why actors give novels a whirl. Most are trained in theatre, and are therefore exposed to many of the finest works of literature from across the world. The quality may be more mixed once they graduate to television and cinema, but perhaps the sheer awfulness of so many scripts provides its own motivation.

As Anderson proved, an apprenticeship in stardom has inspired many thespianic novels. Someday, Someday Maybe follows the travails of Franny Banks, a struggling stage actor in 1990s New York. Its author, Lauren Graham, star of the Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, was – you guessed it – a struggling stage actor in 1990s New York. For others, it isn’t acting per se, so much as the roles they have played. Gillian Anderson, most famous for playing Scully on The X-Files, has produced a series of science-fiction novels, under the Earthend banner. At least she had the good grace to admit she received help, from veteran author Jeff Rovin.

Similar generosity to ghostwriters was also displayed by two Hollywood grandees, who, oddly, both composed pirate adventures. Gene Hackman worked with Daniel Lenihan on Wake of the Perdido Star, a gritty, accomplished homage to Treasure Island. Far stranger is Fan-Tan, a salacious, frankly mind-boggling collaboration between Marlon Brando and outré screenwriter Donald Cammell, set on the South China Seas. A typically surreal line is: "He wished he could write this down in his schoolbook, but the socks made it impossible."

I feel some pity for the actor-author. Fans like their stars in pigeonholes, and mock the pretensions of anyone with Renaissance-like ambitions. In recent years, there has been plenty to deride, as a new breed of earnest Hollywood intellectuals with literary aspirations has arisen. Moody actors such as Jesse Eisenberg, Ethan Hawke and the laureate of all things pompously Bohemian, James Franco, have all produced moody novels or collections. Most, to be fair, seem sincere in their aims, and have been generally well-received. David Duchovny, who at one time could not stop talking about Samuel Beckett, bucked the trend with Holy Cow, a refreshingly silly cross between Flaubert and Jasper Fforde. Even Brat Packer Molly Ringwald jumped on her literary high horse. Her first book, When It Happens to You, was blurbed as: "A stunning novel in stories in the tradition of Jennifer Egan by the iconic actress Molly Ringwald."

Nevertheless, it is hard not to smile at novels as silly as William Shatner’s TekWar, John Travolta's Propeller: One-Way Night Coach or Chuck Norris’s The Justice Riders. Perhaps it is the sense that, for many actors, fiction is the last roll of the show-business’s dice: Mistress by British performer Martine McCutcheon, for example, was published only after her once high-flying career as an actress and singer hit the doldrums.

Which leaves one question: are any of these actor-novels any good? I would certainly recommend both Allen and Hanks. Fry’s fiction is as competent and intelligent as everything else he does. I admired Craig Ferguson’s frankly bonkers Between the Bridge and the River, which at times gives Irvine Welsh a run for his money.

But probably the best of the lot is Carrie Fisher, who was funnier in print than many of her screen-roles allowed her to be: Princess Leia had her moments – "I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie" – but she wasn’t exactly a comic Katharine Hepburn. Postcards from the Edge is a fine piece of fiction no matter the author, and subsequent works such The Best Awful and Surrender the Pink propose her as the equal of Candace Bushnell. It is just as shame that there will be no more.

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