Douglas McGrath, director, playwright and writer, dies at 64

Douglas McGrath, director and writer with an erudite mind and scholarly curiosity who spanned genres, including a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” an Oscar-nominated screenplay starring Woody Allen in the police farce” Bullets Over Broadway” and satirical essays for the New Yorker, died Nov. 3 in his Manhattan office. He was 64 years old.

The death was announced by the producers of Mr. McGrath’s off-Broadway solo show, “Everything is fine,” which opened last month. A rep for the show, Jim Byk, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. McGrath’s interests and career – stage, screen, magazines, books – defied easy labelling. He seemed to like it that way, constantly shifting gears and always offering a breezy assessment of his successes and poking fun at his missteps. He often deflected questions about his work in Hollywood with an erased witticism or by praising his co-workers — as if the movie world and its conceits were a comedy joke and he got the joke.

A “Golightly Grace,” wrote one reporter in 1996 of the upbeat main character of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It was an apt description on other levels as well.

Mr. McGrath was a screenwriter and director of “Infamous,” a 2006 drama about Truman Capote, whose the books included the 1958 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which was turned into a 1961 movie. And, like the fictional Holly Golightly, Mr. McGrath was a bright, urban personality raised away from the big city – a kid amid the oil rigs and tumbleweeds of West Texas.

His autobiography one man show, directed by John Lithgow, recounted how he was 14 in Midland (“I wasn’t precocious. I was barely conscious.”) and how the arrival of an eighth-grade history teacher shook the conservative school, and his life. Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in The New York Times that the show had a “quality of an impossible-to-look-away slow-motion crash.”

“When you get older, you start thinking about the days gone by,” he said. Texas monthly earlier this year. “And one of the things I think about is this: Of all the things I’ve done in my career, what I love the most is telling stories. I love being at a table to tell stories I love being at a party to tell stories.

Mr. McGrath could give a name if he wanted. His mother, then Beatrice Burchenal, worked at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland and was part of Andy Warhol’s mob before he married a Connecticut-born oilman. Mr. McGrath headed to Princeton University, where he wrote musicals for the Princeton Triangle Cluba troupe whose alumni include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jimmy Stewart.

After graduating in 1980, Mr. McGrath heard that “Saturday Night Live” was looking for writers. He landed an $850-a-week gig that “sounded too good to be true,” he wrote in The New York Times. The timing, however, was not. The show had lost many of its original stars, including John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, and the reviews were ugly.

He joked to The New York Times that he “helped teach the nation that it’s not such a good idea to rush home from that party and watch the show.”

He then teamed up with fellow SNL writer, Patricia Marx, on a novel, “Blockbuster”, (1988), a parody of big money and big egos as a Hollywood studio tries to bring the 17th century tome “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to the screen. Weekly editors Panoramic as “stultifying”.

A major flop as a screenwriter – a 1993 remake of the 1950 romantic comedy “Born Yesterday” – was followed by a major break, partnering with his childhood idol Allen on “Bullets over Broadway” (1994). They were nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, which went to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary for “Pulp Fiction.”

In 1996, Mr. McGrath was a writer and director for “Emma,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow as nosy, self-proclaimed Cupid Emma Woodhouse. Mr. McGrath has often said that he prefers to write female roles, which he feels offer a greater range of dramatic and comedic complexity.

“When you think of all the great books, not including Twain’s, this is the funniest of all the great novels,” he said of “Emma” in a 1996 interview. “And that’s what I wanted to bring out.”

On Broadway, Mr. McGrath received a Tony Award nomination for writing the book “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which ran from 2014 to 2019. “She was very open, very helpful, and very honest,” Mr. McGrath said. about his research and collaboration with King.

However, putting the story together “involved a lot of crying and praying,” he said in a podcast with the State Theater of New Jersey.

But it was politics – at its sordid and dishonest worst – that has remained a reliable muse for Mr McGrath. In 1996, he performed off-Broadway in a one-man show, “Political Animal,” about a presidential candidate and the “oily steps” taken on the way to election night.

His 2012 piece “Checkers” – referring to a famous speech from 1952 by then-Sen. Richard M. Nixon dealing with corruption allegations – starred Anthony LaPaglia as Nixon and Kathryn Erbe as his wife, Pat.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Mr. McGrath entertained New Republic readers with “The Flapjack File”, a parody of the White House told by a Secret Service agent portraying a fast-food guzzling president and conniving first lady, “Mrs. Rabat from Rodham. He followed him through the era of President George W. Bush with “The Shrub File”.

For the New Yorker, a prime target for Mr. McGrath was Donald Trump, even before his election.

In the January 18, 2016 edition, he contributed a “Shouts & Murmurs” pamphlet of candidate Trump speaking to an aide named Jeff.

“I offered internment camps for Muslims already here, then I said we should ban all other Muslims from entering the country. And you’re telling me my numbers are what ?

“Highest ever,” Jeff said, dropping behind a club chair as a platinum hair dryer sped past him.

“Trump walked to the window. ‘We’ve got a serious problem,’ he said, eating almost no pizza. ‘I could win.’”

Douglas Geoffrey McGrath was born on February 2, 1958, in Midland, Texas, where his father, Raynsford, was an independent oil producer.

“I think that sums it up,” Mr. McGrath said in “It’s All Right” about West Texas. “It’s very hot, very dusty and very windy. It’s like growing up in a hair dryer full of dirt.

He dabbled in cultural satire as the co-author of “Save an Alligator, Shoot a Preppie: A Terrorist Guide” (1981), and over the years he had small acting roles that included the 2012 HBO series. “Girls” and in Allen films such as “Small Time Crooks” (2000) and “Café Society” (2016).

In 2000, Mr McGrath starred in the comedy “Companion Man” a film he co-wrote with Peter Askin about a schoolteacher who stumbles to become a CIA spy during the Cold War. The cast includes Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Denis Leary.

But Mr McGrath said he found deeper creative possibilities in bringing the literature to the screen, including a 2002 adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” by Charles Dickens.

“One of the joys of being a writer – and that’s a short list – especially if you’re adapting things for film,” he told Canada’s National Post in 2002, “is that you learn to study the structure of great writers. You really have to take a book apart and put it back together. »

He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Jane Reed Martin; son Henry; and a sister and a brother.

In 2016, Mr McGrath directed the HBO documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols,” about the late director. Mr. McGrath, who was also an executive producer, shared an Emmy nomination with the other producers.

Mr McGrath has sometimes said he thinks Jane Austen would be a ‘great collaborator’.

“Because she writes, you know, great dialogue,” he said in 1996, “she creates memorable characters, she has an extremely clever skill at plotting — and she’s dead, which means, you know, there’s no boring discussion about who gets the biggest loaf at coffee time.’

About Herbert L. Leonard

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