For your consideration: Joe Keenan’s 1988 screwball comedic novel Blue Heaven for the screen. But how? When to set it? With whom?
After Mr. Lousy’s reading list was published, followed by the shocking (to Lousy) revelation that Doris W and I had dined with the book’s author Joe Keenan, I dug around the house for my own dog-eared paperback copy, which I found nestled between some film review compilations by Pauline Kael.
I re-read the novel (personally autographed – I had no idea that I’d brought it to dinner!) for the first time in 20 years, and perhaps as my copy spent at least a decade on a shelf fermenting with Pauline Kael, I have been wondering why the story never found its way onto a screen.
I do believe that this came up during dinner, though I don’t remember the specifics being discussed. Joe Keenan has gone on to have a career writing for TV, so surely an adaptation must have been floated at some point, and just as surely he himself must have been considered to write or supervise the script. What happened?
It’s the screwball comedy that the eighties never rightfully got. Until the late nineties, I doubt a gay screwball comedy would have gotten produced. Ellen and Will & Grace had some paving to do, and even now, Steven Soderbergh couldn’t get his Liberace pic a distributor (too gay) and had to turn to HBO to get it produced. I imagine cable is where I would prefer Blue Heaven to take shape: where the story could stay truest to form.
And by true to form, I wonder if that means setting it in the eighties. I can envision an easy update to 2013, a 25-year jump from 1988, the year it was originally published. But will it lose any charm? Or could the late eighties give it a good shot at a fun period piece without sending it over the top into campy nostalgia?
1980s-specifics that struck me upon re-reading Blue Heaven:
- Cocaine! While rather casual in use, the drug does factor heavily into the denouement with The Duchess. Ecstasy too!
- No smart phones. Any shift to the present day would entail some re-writes to carry plot twists that would have been cut dead by ubiquitous smart phones, not to mention Skype.
- Italian mafia. This seems a little dated even for ’88, though we hadn’t even been subjected yet to The Godfather III, which sort of put the nail in the coffin for me. Now a Mexican drug cartel might work better, but making the dynamics comedic would be daunting.
- The art and the fashion: both are outlandish and satired in the book. The outlandishness and satire would need new targets for art and fashion, which really wouldn’t be a challenge, for although both are always changing, both always offer a generous field for target practice.
One NY 1980s-specific not found in the book was any mention whatsoever to AIDS. When I turned up in NY around 1990, it was completely inescapable. Maybe AIDS doesn’t have a place in screwball comedy, and maybe in 1988 gays needed a respite, but in retrospect, the absence of any reference is striking, more so now than then.
I do believe at our dinnerJoe Keenan brought up casting, though I don’t know that he made any specific recommendations. Now they would all have to be shifted at any rate. Maybe some of the same players, but in different roles to account for the quarter century elapsed.
Some characters would need to be cut for time, but some simply can’t be sacrificed. So please consider who might take on:
- Gilbert – The part has the now typed, put-upon, barely-coping-surrounded-by-disfunction, grimacing-but-going-along-with-it Jason Bateman from 2003 written all over it. Who’s the 2003 Jason Bateman in 2013?
- Philip – Someone has to make a selfish and lazy character magnetic, if not likable.
- Moira – Who can cackle with cruelty and still present a winning smile? This one is key.
- Claire – I’m going to nominate Melissa McCarthy right outta the gate.
- Vulpina – This role can be more cartoonish and demands that presence.
- Gunther – See note on Vulpina.
- Philip’s naïve mother: Ditsy like Goldie Hawn but not cloying like Goldie Hawn.
- Philip’s mafioso stepfather: Murderous, affable, and attractive.
- The Duchess!!! (really two characters): I refuse to consider Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, though I think he would draw an audience. Too easy. Let’s be inventive here!
- Freddy Bombelli: the ancient mob boss controlling three families. I don’t want Al Pacino. I don’t need any reminders of The Godfather III. How about Alex Rocco? He’s actually a Godfather veteran (though not of the full trilogy, thankfully), and he played a similar role in the series finale of Party Down. In fact, please review this clip in which he does a Jewish variation on Bombelli, complete with near expiration:
As far as directors go, can ban the Glee gay who is branching out in all sorts of horrible directions? Part of me wants to see if Peter Bogdanovich could recapture the glory of What’s Up Doc, because despite nearly everyone else’s opinion to the contrary, I still find it a wondrous ode to 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy. If not him, then let’s see what Tina Fey could pull off. She has proven with 30 Rock to fully accomplished in rapid-fire dialogue set off in pointedly preposterous scenarios, not just week after week, but year after year. Or maybe David O. Russell? He could take the nuttiness of Flirting with Disaster a step further, and though he’s awful to his actors, he’s brilliant with them.
I want to line this up right now! And Mr. Lousy, in case you are thinking of a sequel, bear in mind that I have not yet read Putting on the Ritz or My Lucky Star. They’re newly arrived and waiting on the bookshelf. Next to Pauline Kael.