Bombast: Carole Eastman
Writing about Monte Hellman’s 1966 deathtrip Western The Shooting in the pages of FILM COMMENT in 2000, Chuck Stephens refers to the name of Warren Oates’s character, “Willet Gashade,” as “a moniker Nabokov might have dreamt, its constituents breaking one way into Nietzschean determinism, the other into the elements, where sunlight, or a vapor from Hell, might tear holes in a soothing shadow.” It wasn’t Nabokov, however, but screenwriter Carole Eastman who thought of it—and it’s hard to imagine the Wizard of Montreux coming up with a piece of pure prairie poetry like “I don't give a curly-hair, yellow-bear, double-dog damn if ya did!” or “For all the dirty rotten gallin’ hate of a thing that ought-never-above-the-ground be called a woman! Nossir!”
Filmed when Eastman was 32 years old, The Shooting was the first of her scripts to go into production. Her own invented moniker, used here and many times again, was “Adrien Joyce”—according to Nicholson biographer Marc Eliot, a nod to her literary hero, James. Her debut would be followed by Five Easy Pieces, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (both 1970), and The Fortune (75), movies which taken together constitute her brief heyday as a screenwriter.
Along with Ride in the Whirlwind, also filmed with Roger Corman’s money in the wastes of Utah and also produced by and starring a young Jack Nicholson, The Shooting is newly available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. On the commentary track, Hellman takes a moment to honor Eastman’s contribution to the film, noting her script had the quality of a J.M. Synge play, and that she “was aware of the Germanic influence in the early settlers, and the grammar reflects that… There’s a kind of poetry, very much, about her dialogue.”
Hellman goes on to half-recall that Eastman had had a frontier-type background, though this would appear to be untrue, judging from the scanty biographical information on her that can be found. She was, we know, never much for the limelight. A May 2, 1971 profile of Eastman in The Los Angeles Times by Estelle Changas begins: “Judging from the total lack of information on screenwriter Adrien Joyce (Carole Eastman), Academy Award nominee for her original story and screenplay of Five Easy Pieces, I could have concluded that she did not exist.” This article, to the best of my knowledge, is one of the few if not only interviews with Eastman which do confirm her existence.
Carole Eastman was born on February 19, 1934 in Glendale, California, then still relatively countrified, and she died 10 miles away at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a week shy of her 70th birthday, purportedly from Epstein-Barr virus. Per the obituary that ran in The Los Angeles Times, Eastman’s family were industry people. Her uncle was a cameraman, her father was a grip at Warner Brothers, and her mother worked as a secretary for Bing Crosby. She had brothers; one, a few years older, was named Charles. He’s the burly, bearded fellow who appears in both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and he would also become a screenwriter, with credits on the films Little Fauss and Big Halsy (70) and Second-Hand Hearts (81).
If we go looking for little pieces of Eastman’s youth in her films, a scene in The Fortune, in which Stockard Channing’s character Fredrika is discovered amusing herself by dressing in drag, is of interest: “One time, I dressed up in my brother’s clothes. Very late at night, after everyone was asleep, I went promenading around the streets, devil-may-care, y’know, with my hands in my pockets. Of course there wasn’t a soul around to see me—they would’ve packed me off to an alienist—but… I did feel like a real individual.” There is also a perhaps-pertinent statement by Faye Dunaway’s shell-shocked ex-fashion model in Puzzle of a Downfall Child: “How I loved being out when I was young. I’d leave my family and run up into the hills alone. I had the best time being miserable… I was always a recluse.”
Eastman attended Hollywood High School, but didn’t matriculate, preferring to focus on studying ballet with Gloria Dance and Eugene Loring, a choreographer whose credits include The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Silk Stockings, and Funny Face. (Eastman appears as a “specialty dancer” in the last film.) From the late Fifties and into the early Sixties, she simultaneously conducted careers as a fashion model and actress. She appeared in the pages of Vogue, in little plays written by Charles, and can be seen in a Robert Bloch–penned 1962 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “Bad Actor,” as the much-deceived girlfriend of the titular struggling, alcoholic ham, played by a young Robert Duvall. He murders a rival for a part and dismembers his corpse, so to more easily dissolve the pieces with acid, but when the little lady shows up at his hotel and interrupts the process, he’s forced to stow the telltale head in a handy ice bucket. Duvall gets to do quite a bit of gutty emoting, while Eastman is mostly limited to unconsciously fingering the implicating bucket in front of a police detective. Between commercial breaks, Hitchcock bickers with an elephant.
Eastman appears spindly, frail, and angular here, her head, just as Robert Towne described it, “shaped like a gorgeous tulip on a long stalk.” Towne and Eastman had both attended the acting class that the blacklisted Jeff Corey taught out of his garage, and presumably met there. This was also where Eastman met Nicholson in 1957, some time before he would become a contract actor for Corman, and before she would decide that she wanted to be a writer. In 1965, Nicholson and Hellman were preparing to embark on their second back-to-back location shoot for Corman—the first, in the Philippines, had produced 1964’s Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for one of the proposed westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind. For the other, the job went to Carole, who Nicholson had nicknamed “Speed”—this was a bit of irony, a crack about the excruciating pace at which she worked, though The Shooting was reeled off in a matter of four to six weeks (depending on the source), and Five Easy Pieces took a hair over seven.
Eastman in “Bad Actor”
The role of Gashade, a bounty hunter-turned-unsuccessful prospector, went to Warren Oates. Will Hutchins played Coley, Gashade’s partner, slow on the draw and slow on the uptake. The drama, such as it is, begins when an unnamed young woman, played by Millie Perkins, arrives at their camp to hire them as guides, though in time they discover that they are acting as trackers—and being tracked themselves, by a gunman named Billy Spear (Nicholson).
“Carole had injected a lot of herself into the [Perkins] character,” Hellman says on The Shooting’s commentary track, “so Millie actually used her knowledge of Carole the person to help her understand the character she was playing.” This included, he says, “Millie’s aversion to being touched and things like that.” In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s 1998 chronicle of the rise and fall of “New Hollywood,” Biskind writes that “[Eastman’s] sexual orientation was a matter of endless debate… men hit on her all the time, but she never seemed to have a lover, of either sex.” When free love was the rage, she kept herself free of love. “Carole had a distrust of a lot of men,” Hellman concludes. And uneasiness between the sexes is at the center of every completed film from an Eastman screenplay, particularly her and Nicholson’s next collaboration, a study of a man who hardly trusts himself.
The Shooting led to work on the TV drama Run for Your Life, and then to Five Easy Pieces, which has Nicholson running for his. “I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay” Nicholson’s character, an often-loutish guy identified in the closing credits with the grandiose handle “Bobby Eroica Dupea,” says to his comatose father, by way of confession. When we meet Dupea he’s just plain ol’ “Bobby,” working as a hand in the California oil fields, but when his father’s illness draws him back to the family compound on an island in Washington State, we learn that Bobby was trained from the cradle to be a piano prodigy, before he dropped the concert hall for the honky-tonk. “Auspicious beginnings, I guess…”
Five Easy Pieces
Bobby is trailed along the way by Karen Black’s Rayette “Ray” Dipesto, a hash-slinger waitress whom he learns that he’s knocked up, though this doesn’t prevent him from double-timing her with impunity. Ray annoys him. He’s annoyed by her tone of voice and her homey little turns of phrase—“the ball just keeps goin’ cocky-wobbly on me,” she protests during an outing at a bowling alley, after she rolls yet another gutter ball. He’s annoyed by those gutter balls, because as hard as he has tried to forget himself, he can’t unlearn the demand for perfection that was drilled into him from an early age. He’s annoyed by Ray’s Tammy Wynette records, and by the fact that she really seems to believe that all she needs to do is Stand By Her Man for things to be alright. More than anything, he’s annoyed by his own unconquerable annoyance, because it’s a proof that the elitism he’d like to believe he left behind is still in him.
As the movie ends, the best Bobby can figure to do is leave Ray behind—he leaves her his wallet and car and ditches her at a gas station, himself lighting off for parts unknown. Eastman wrote the ending as a compromise—she’d originally killed her protagonist off in a car crash. Today it’s hard to imagine the movie any other way, though some of Eastman’s comments on her conception of the script are intriguing, particularly with regards to Catherine Van Oost, the character played by Susan Anspach. “I had originally conceived Catherine as an [older] European woman,” Eastman told the Times, “capable of having an affair with a man like Bobby without it altering the course of her life. She is not swept off her feet; she has the capacity that only men in our society are supposed to have.” As for Bobby, the article reports that he was a composite of Nicholson, one of Eastman’s brothers, Teddy Kennedy (!), and the writer’s “own deep personal beliefs.” I imagine that this extends to Dupea’s discomfort with attachment, as well as his perfectionism which manifests itself as surrender—“You know I don’t believe in doing something if you can’t do it right,” as Dunaway’s character in Puzzle has it.
If I set my mind to finding Eastman in her script, she turns up everywhere. She might, for example, be having a little sport at her own expense in the character of a highbrow party guest (Irene Dailey) at the Dupea estate who goes into ecstasies over Ray’s lower-class patois (“The choice of words, ‘squashed flat,’ juxtaposed against the image of a fluffy kitten…” she coos), before Bobby jumps in and cuts her off at the knees. And perhaps there is something of Eastman in the hitch-hiker who Bobby picks up, an intense, severe, paranoiac woman (Helena Kallianiotes, a friend of both Eastman and Nicholson’s) who’s thumbing her way to Alaska. (“I saw a picture of it. Alaska is very clean. It appeared to look very white to me…”) All descriptions of Eastman tend to emphasize her cocktail of anxieties. She was an agoraphobe. According to Biskind, she “wouldn’t leave Los Angeles, wouldn’t ride in someone else’s car unless she drove. She was phobic about having her picture taken, obsessive about food at the same time that she coughed continuously from chain-smoking. Even in Los Angeles, she rarely went to places with which she was not already familiar.”
Puzzle of a Downfall Child
Jerry Schatzberg, who filmed Eastman’s script Puzzle of a Downfall Child for his feature debut, doesn’t like the choice of words. “I don’t know why people call it neurosis,” he told me when we recently spoke at his Upper West Side apartment. I’d e-mailed him to the effect that I was writing something about Eastman, and he was quick to clear a spot in his schedule. “She was a private person, she worked most of the time, but everybody who knew her loved her. Other people might’ve thought it was neurosis, but maybe she just didn’t want to be with people.”
A renowned commercial photographer just getting his start in films, Schatzberg conceived of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as a vehicle for his then-paramour, Faye Dunaway. It’s a character study of former top model Lou Andreas Sand, employing a radical, back-and-forth chronology. After a crack-up, Sand has retired to a secluded island cottage—accessible only by ferry, like the Dupea homestead. She is visited by a friend (Barry Primus), a photographer who’s known her since she was just starting out, and as she spills her life story, he tape-records her monologue with the stated intention of making some kind of film from the results. This is, presumably, the movie that we’re watching, another layer of fiction added to the proceedings by the fact that the flashbacks prove Sand a highly unreliable narrator. I mention to Schatzberg, who worked with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne on his next film, Panic in Needle Park (71), that there’s much in Puzzle that reminded me of Didion’s novel Play It As it Lays, published within months of the movie’s release, and he confirms that Didion and Eastman were friendly, and shared a mutual admiration for one another’s work.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child is the only finished film from an Eastman script with a female protagonist, and I’d rather lazily assumed that the character’s hang-ups were Eastman’s own. She is uneasy with intimacy and, as Eastman was said to be, mortified of airplanes. (“She wouldn’t step on a plane if you put a gun to her head,” Buck Henry is quoted as saying in Easy Riders, “She was born to be an eccentric old lady.”) Schatzberg dissuaded me of this notion. The origin of the film, he said, was three and a half hours of audio recordings he’d made of the model Anne St. Marie speaking extemporaneously, taken as she was “coming back to herself” from a breakdown. He’d met Eastman when he and Dunaway were out in Los Angeles from New York, looking for a writer who could make something out of this raw material. A chance acquaintance, producer Ray Wagner, who’d read Eastman’s (ultimately unused) work on Richard Lester’s Petulia (68) recommended her, and Schatzberg and Eastman set up a meeting. She dropped by while on her way to—so she said—take Kallianiotes to the dentist, and wound up staying to listen to the full length of the recordings. It is unclear what happened to Kallianiotes’ toothache, but a fine film came out of that powwow. American audiences, unfortunately, don’t at present have the means to see it—despite containing one of Dunaway’s finest performances, Puzzle is currently unavailable on domestic DVD.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child and Five Easy Pieces were both released at the end of 1970. This period would turn out to contain the largest cluster of successfully completed, credited projects in Eastman’s career. Along with director Jacques Demy, “Adrien Joyce” was credited for the “English dialogues” of Model Shop, released in the spring of 1969, some of which presage Five Easy Pieces in their air of lovelorn frustration: “I expected a lot from you, George, I don’t know why. I really thought it was possible, a simple, happy life. I didn’t know that you didn’t want it, that you didn’t love me anymore. I’m a little bit stupid.” The next completed film from an Eastman/Joyce screenplay didn’t appear until 1975.
The film was the unfortunate The Fortune, starring money-in-the-bank guarantees Nicholson and Warren Beatty and directed by the late Mike Nichols. It was meant as a sure thing for Columbia Pictures, so much so that Beatty had included it as part of a package deal with his “risky” proposition, Shampoo—if you wanted The Fortune, you had to take both. In retrospect, it’s difficult to see what about the project, other than the star casting, was ever considered a sure shot. Beatty and Nicholson were to play two perfectly vile men, Nicky Wilson and Oscar Sullivan—Nicky a gruff bully, Oscar a feckless jackanapes—united by an equally unlovable woman, and by their shared greed and duplicity. As the film begins, Nicky is preparing to run off with Fredrika Quintessa Bigard (Channing), the scion to a ladies’ sanitary napkin empire. Because Nicky is already inconveniently married, he “buys” small-time con-man Oscar by paying off his debts, and hires him to sham-marry “Freddie,” so that they can all travel to the other side of the country without risk of prosecution under the Mann Act. Once arrived in Greater Los Angeles, they set up an uneasy ménage à trois in a courtyard apartment complex where the grass is so dead you can scarcely believe it was ever alive—the film depicts Los Angeles as less promised land than miserable, dusty, drought-parched backwater—and Nicky and Oscar set about scheming on how to knock off their shared wife before she can give away her money.
As with the cowboy-speak of The Shooting, Eastman obviously had a gas with period lingo here: “Frenchies” (condoms), “cream-catcher” (moustache), “up in the saddle” (having “monthlies”), and so forth. The film suffers somewhat from an unresolved tension between intention and execution, the sour satire at the heart of the script rubbing up against the rather more knockabout farce that has been put before us—the buoyant jazz soundtrack seemingly a deliberate attempt to recreate the tone and success of The Sting (73). Nevertheless, the movie has a great deal to recommend it—Nicholson is very funny with his light bulb dome and crown of clownish hair, and there are a half-dozen intricate, irresistible gags—and has gradually grown its small cult, with Joel and Ethan Coen, perhaps unsurprisingly, expressing a particular fondness for it.
For Biskind, however, box-office success is very often the absolute measure of success, and so The Fortune was a failure, and the onus for that failure, in his telling, seems to rest on Eastman’s shoulders. She’d submitted an “unfinished” 240-page script with “no third act.” She “refused to rewrite,” and “had an extremely high opinion of her abilities, [regarding] herself as a Virginia Woolf.” She quarreled with Nichols, as she had with Rafelson. Biskind quotes line producer Hank Moonjean: “If the director had been Jesus Christ, I don’t think she would have been pleased.”
When Eastman refused to write an ending, Biskind continues,
“The only thing Nichols could do was try to reduce the length. He had hired Polly Platt to design the production, and she was in on the meetings between Nichols and Eastman at the Beverly Hills Hotel. ‘He kept cutting all the good stuff out of the movie,’ recalls Platt, who took Eastman’s side. ‘She would suffer over it, but she couldn’t do anything about it. She had this curious habit of putting both of her hands inside of her t-shirt and grabbing each of her tits, like she was protecting herself. Mike was trying to make the movie for a price—he’d gone very far over budget on those other movies, and they were flops—so this time he was going to prove to the studio that he could bring it in on budget.’ Platt argued with Nichols, as was her way, and he fired her, hired Dick Sylbert.”
Given the “Virginia Woolf” crack, it seems evident who Biskind believes. Schatzberg, for his part, remembers Eastman’s overwriting. She’d submitted a 300-page first draft of Puzzle of a Downfall Child, and made him promise to destroy it. (He didn’t.) But while Schatzberg calls Eastman a “perfectionist in her work,” he also remembers her as a good collaborator who winnowed down her script to order, and who was delighted at the final product.
The abovementioned Polly Platt, of course, was the ex-wife of Peter Bogdanovich. In many quarters she is believed to have been responsible for a great deal of what distinguished Bogdanovich’s early directorial outings, including the Depression-set Paper Moon (73), the success of which almost certainly influenced her hire on The Fortune. After divorcing Bogdanovich in '72, Platt continued a successful career of her own as a production designer and producer. “She’s Done Everything (Except Direct)” ran the title of a 1993 Premiere Magazine profile of Platt by Rachel Abramowitz, who writes that Platt was “of a certain generation and temperament, and… she plowed all her energy and brilliance into making men brilliant.”
For all the touted barrier-toppling that went on in New Hollywood, it was no more common then than now for women to achieve sustained directorial careers—as Changas writes in her profile of Eastman, “you can count on the fingers of one hand women [directing]—Elaine May, Barbara Loden, Susan Sontag, Shirley Clarke.” May, of course, was Nichols’s old comedy partner, and in the back-and-forth of their films one can almost see a continuation of their stage dialogue. If May’s The Heartbreak Kid (72) may be taken as her reply to The Graduate (67), than The Fortune is Nichols’s answer to May’s A New Leaf (71), which she wrote, directed, and starred in, both being films concerned with mercenary men marrying for money, their homicidal intentions only foiled by their incompetence.
Of course someone would have to answer for incompetence when The Fortune failed, and while Beatty and Nicholson would emerge from the film unscathed, it was a catastrophe for both Nichols and Eastman. He wouldn’t direct again until 1983’s Silkwood, while she didn’t have another screen credit, under any name, for the better part of two decades. (It is unclear as to if she needed to—Beatty had bought The Fortune for $350,000.) When she finally reappeared on the scene, the experience was less than blissful. A 1992 Los Angeles Times postmortem of Man Trouble, Eastman’s reunion with Five Easy Pieces collaborators Nicholson and Rafelson, her first completed project in 17 years, and her last of any note, quotes her at length. “There were four or five volatile personalities on the shoot,” Eastman tells the paper, “and knock-down, drag-out fights over certain issues. Maybe it was inevitable. A male director has a very different set of eyes and experiences which lead to distortions in the translation.”
Given Eastman’s distrust of directors, it’s natural to wonder if she’d given some thought to taking a shot at the job herself, as brother Charles did with 1973’s The All-American Boy. Schatzberg says he “never got the feeling” that Eastman was a thwarted director. The Los Angeles Times profile, however, states that she was then developing a film to star Jeanne Moreau, at the behest of Warner Brothers producer John Calley, which Eastman would direct herself. This arrangement, she says, grows out of her “basic dissatisfaction with writing which is not at the same time made complete by directing.”
Neither this unnamed Carole Eastman/Jeanne Moreau Project, nor the sundry other projects mentioned in the piece—“another western, a script based on prison life, and a treatment titled Interval, dealing with political paranoia, which excited the interest of Universal’s Ned Tanen and Monte Hellman”—ever came to pass. Schatzberg recalls that, after decades of working uncredited on re-writes for the likes of Scott Rudin, Eastman had finally found another project which she believed she could collaborate with him on. The property was Boomer: Railroad Memoirs, a 1990 book by Linda Niemann, in which the author recounts her decade as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific line. “She just liked the idea of a woman working in the railroad yards,” says Schatzberg, who remembered Eastman envisaging a scene where we see the women’s lockers decorated with “giant penises,” in contrast to the men’s Playboy collages.
This, and much more, was left undone, and the specter of unfinished work haunts us. When Nicholson spoke for 20-odd minutes at Eastman’s funeral, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She was, in the words of Fredrika Quintessa Bigard, “a real individual,” and I have a feeling that what I’ve gotten down here is even a fraction of the story. The Carole Eastman Papers are housed at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center. Get cracking.