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A few months ago, Variety announced that Sam Mendes (American Beauty) would be directing an adaptation of Richard Yates’ classic novel of suburban malaise, Revolutionary Road, starring Titanic duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler. In 2003, I’d published a biography of Yates the size of a footstool, so news of Mendes’ project gave many of my friends the idea that my ship had come in. By far the most promising word came from my former editor—now a big shot at Viking Penguin—who said he’d contacted the screenwriter, Justin Haythe, to remind him of my particular expertise. Perhaps I’d be hired as a creative consultant! I pictured myself beside Mendes on the set, both of us chain-smoking: “No, no, no, Sam!” I’d erupt. “The picture window needs to be in the frame! It’s a crucial motif!”
Shockingly, neither Sam nor Justin got in touch, but I console myself with thoughts of Yates’ own bleak Hollywood experiences. “Remember I said I’d never do this shit again?” he said to the few friends who bothered to visit him toward the end of his life. At the time he was living in west Los Angeles, allegedly writing film treatments for his old protégé, David Milch. He was emphysemic, dead broke, and lodged (courtesy of Milch) in a cramped, orange-carpeted, motel-style apartment. “Yet here I am.”
And there he’d been every so often for the past 30 years, largely because of Revolutionary Road. From the beginning, ambitious filmmakers couldn’t help being tempted by the book—a “tough” look at the squalid heart of the American Dream—but only tempted. In the end, would people really pay good money to see a movie in which almost everything ends badly? Let’s face it: Revolutionary Road is one of the most depressing novels ever written, which helps explain why it remains a “cultish standard” (as Richard Ford described it) rather than a canonized classic like The Great Gatsby. Even I, Yates’ biographer, could not bring myself to finish the book when I first picked it up a few years after college. Frank Wheeler—c’est moi, I thought again and again. Like Frank, I’d fancied myself a kind of “knockabout intellectual” in New York, working at crap jobs and reading books. Years later, at any rate, when things were a little better, I managed to finish the novel and realized how great it was.
When the novel was first published in 1961, a few people in Hollywood came to the same conclusion, including director John Frankenheimer, who realized it was just the sort of arty, uncompromising vision he wanted to bring to the screen as the industry’s foremost wunderkind. Cooler heads prevailed, and he proceeded to make The Manchurian Candidate instead. But meanwhile he’d bought rights to Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, who recommended none other than his friend Dick Yates to write the screenplay. Yates was then living in a ghastly basement apartment in Greenwich Village, and he could hardly believe his luck. Before he knew it, he was sucking down bullshots in Malibu with Frankenheimer, who told him, by God, that he wanted a rigorously faithful adaptation of Styron’s novel and damn the censors!
Yates took him at his word and wrote an adaptation that would have amounted to a great movie adapted from a semigreat novel. Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda were ready to star as Peyton and Milton Loftis, whereupon Yates would receive (as he put it) “an avalanche of money.” Then poof! Wood’s agent decided it would tarnish her image to appear as the quasi-incestuous daughter of Henry Fonda, and United Artists pulled the plug. Yates went back to his vermin-infested apartment. “God, it’s good,” Frankenheimer said 40 years later of Yates’ screenplay. “I’d still like to make that movie.”
By the time Yates returned to Hollywood in the summer of 1965, his stock had fallen on both coasts. Though he’d followed up Revolutionary Road (his first novel) with a magnificent story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, he’d published nothing since, and many thought he was washed up for good. A manic-depressive alcoholic, Yates had been institutionalized twice in the previous five years for mental breakdowns, and now that he was taking psychotropic drugs (and washing them down with bourbon), he found it hard to write a single sentence without crossing it out. Still, his devoted agent got him a job writing a script about Iwo Jima for Roger Corman.
As long as he was back on the West Coast, Yates thought he might as well take a meeting with Albert Ruddy, a producer who’d recently optioned Revolutionary Road. Yates described the experience in a very characteristic letter to friends:
[Ruddy] turned out, predictably enough, to be a very agreeable, friendly bullshit artist. … For the first five minutes he’s elaborately, embarrassingly respectful … because he Admires my Work so much (so very, very much) and because he’s always, always wanted to meet me. …[Then] he turns into this brusque, ballsy, rough-diamond kind of guy: hell, maybe he’s crude … but no son of a bitch in This Town, in this Industry, can ever say he’s copped-out on a property yet. For instance, let’s take a property like Revolutionary Road. Let’s take the ending. Is that a problem? Why hell, let’s face it, of course it’s a problem. Nine guys out of ten in This Town would cop-out on a problem like that—but wait. Listen. Do I know what he’s gonna do?
Ruddy proposed to put in a lot of “tricky camera work” at the end—flashbacks, track shots, match dissolves—so that the audience wouldn’t be sure, finally, whether April was dead or alive. When Yates inquired whether that might be confusing, Ruddy threw up his hands and said he wanted to “eat [his] cake and have it too!” Yates concluded: “In the end, of course, it came to light that he has absolutely no plans for producing the picture in the near or even foreseeable future … and the whole afternoon was really just an opportunity for him to try out his personality on me.” As for Yates, he plugged away at the Iwo Jima project for a few more weeks before ending up at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Center. He’d been found wandering along the Sunset Strip giving away money to bums and prostitutes. On top of which he thought he was Jesus.
For the rest of Yates’ life, the lucrative prospect of Revolutionary Road—the movie—shimmered like a mirage in the middle distance. In 1967, Ruddy bought the property outright for $15,500, which Yates gave to his ex-wife so she could start a college fund for their beloved daughters. By 1972, Yates was languishing as a writer-in-residence at Wichita State University. Desperate to get the hell out of Kansas, he asked Ruddy if he could earn a few bucks writing his own adaptation of Revolutionary Road. Ruddy had just produced The Godfather, so what better time for a “ballsy” guy like him to roll the dice? But Ruddy already had two other projects lined up, and while he told Yates it would “break [his] heart” for another person to make Revolutionary Road, Ruddy wouldn’t stand in the way if someone made him an “irresistible offer.”
Fatefully, that someone proved to be actor Patrick O’Neal, and there the matter remained. To the very end, Yates tried wresting Revolutionary Roadaway from O’Neal, whose original screenplay he’d read and found godawful. But O’Neal wouldn’t budge. Yates died (still broke) in 1992, and O’Neal died two years later.
I’ve always had a perverse curiosity to see O’Neal’s screenplay, so I could imagine Yates’ reaction to its various lapses. One thing I’m willing to bet is that O’Neal made the Wheelers a lot more sympathetic than they ought to be. It was a common misconception when the book was first published, even among good critics. Quite simply, Yates meant for the Wheelers to seem a little better than mediocre: not, that is, stoical mavericks out of Hemingway, or glamorous romantics out of Fitzgerald. Rather, the Wheelers are everyday people—you and me—who pretend to be something they’re not because life is lonely and dull and disappointing.
Were Yates alive to advise Mendes, I daresay he’d insist that the movie begin, as the novel does, with April’s mortifyingly awful performance in an amateur production of The Petrified Forest. In other words, the Wheelers’ doom should never be in doubt because they can’t help being themselves. “When the curtain fell at last,” Yates wrote, at the end of one of the most excruciating scenes in American literature, “it was an act of mercy.”