Ring Lardner Jr.
How's this for a film festival excitement? Jim Hoberman, critic of The Village Voice, recently told me the Bunyanesque tale of how, one year at the closing night party of the Havana Film Festival, he Stood Tall Against Fidel. Earlier in the week, Hoberman had attended a Cuban major league game, and now, several drinks sucked down, he was speaking loudly about his disillusionment with the neo-Marxist version of el beisbol. "They use the designated hitter rule!" a horrified Hoberman complained.
Within seconds, Mr. Castro was ushered over, and peered into the face of the Ugly American who had found fault with his country. The crowd hushed, as Hoberman dared repeat: "Why in Cuba do you use a designated hitter?"
Patiently, El Presidente explained to the misguided New Yorker, "In Cuba, we follow the international rules of sports!"
Wrong! "That's not the international rule," Hoberman corrected him. "That's only the American League rule!"
Silence in the ballroom! What would Fidel do? Concede before the important gathered that a brazen American film critic was right? Of course not. Castro went instead into rhetoric-drive, delivering an abstract, rambling, officious talk about workers and the revolution, or something off-the-subject like that, and then moved on.
We can assume that Castro has long buried those few tense minutes, but not Hoberman, who has mulled them over through the ensuing years. Although many on the Cuban trip congratulated him for a (liquor-fortified) display of cajunes, he still kicks himself for not squeezing in the final word.
"Fidel is a pitcher," Hoberman reminded me. "I should have asked him, 'What happens when it's your turn to bat? Do you step aside for a designated hitter?'"
Nothing so eventful happened in my long-ago attendance at the Havana Fest. Castro was a no-show at the closing party, but I was satisfied anyway. I had a conversation, and my photograph taken, with Cuba's finest filmmaker, Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment). And amidst my own American tour group, I met, and spent quality time, with one of my left-wing culture heroes, screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.
A soft-spoken, preppyish man with horn-rimmed glasses and a hearing-aid, he made his way gamely on long bus trips to rural Cuba despite an advancing arthritis. At one faraway beach, Lardner, showed me how to scuba dive. I wish I remember his take on Fidel and Communist Cuba. Obviously, the long-time Hollywood pinko remained some kind of softened Stalinist, or he wouldn't, in his mid-60s, have been there. However, there's no mention of his time at the Havana Fest, only his pride at a Writer's Tribute Award at the 1998 Nantucket Film Festival in a newly published, posthumous autobiography, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (Nation Books: $22.95).
Son of Ring Lardner, the great American fiction writer, Lardner,Jr., was the Hollywood screenwriter of, among many distinguished films, Woman of the Year, M*A*S*H, and the underrated, self-starring Mohammed Ali bio, The Greatest. Lardner, Jr., was a founding member of the Writers Guild, a Hollywood activist in the 1930s against the Fascists in Spain and Germany. Most important: Lardner, Jr., was one of the martyr-like Hollywood Ten of screenwriters and directors who, in 1947, took a stand in Washington against the cretinous House Committee on Un-American Activities. They went to federal jail for refusing to answer Congressional questions about their political beliefs.
Here's Lardner's famous exchange with right-wing Committee head, Parnell Thomas, which provided a book title:
Thomas: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?"
Lardner: "I could answer..., but if I did, I'd hate myself in the morning."
A Communist Lardner was, which meant, he admitted, that he attended lots of intensely boring political meetings during his Hollywood stretch. How could he remain true to his convictions while making piles of studio money and writing compromised screenplays? Definitely a problem. When not union organizing, he drank a lot: a revelation of Lardner's book is how rampant alcoholism was among the Hollywood left community. He picketed the hand that fed him famously, as when Warner Brothers gates were opened in friendship to the son of Mussolini. Occasionally, he stood up to studio moguls against the reactionary pap being readied for the screen, i.e., trying to coax David O. Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because the book was pro-KKK!
Lardner's autobiography is as modest and straight-forward as the self-effacing man I met in Cuba. He admitted that he'd come to enjoy the adulation in recent years of being the last survivor of the Hollywood Ten, and not always correcting people who don't know precisely why they honored him. Lardner: "But from time to time I try to suggest that we weren't as heroic as people make us out to be. It would be more analytically precise... to say we did the only thing we could ... short of behaving like complete shits."
(Boston Phoenix, April, 1999)