Southern,Terry


Southern,Terry
(1926–1995)
   Terry Southern was born in Alvarado, Texas, and was educated at Southern Methodist University, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the Sorbonne. He attracted public notoriety with an erotic novel, cowritten with Mason Hoffenberg, entitled Candy, when it was first brought out in the late 1950s by the Olympia Press in Paris, which specialized in erotica (the same publisher first published VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s LOLITA). Southern’s novel The Magic Christian (1959), about an eccentric millionaire who enjoys playing cruel practical jokes, garnered a cult following. Southern gained distinction as a screenwriter his first time out, when STANLEY KUBRICK invited him to help him and PETER GEORGE adapt George’s novel RED ALERT for a film to be shot in London. Kubrick had originally planned DR. STRANGELOVE as a straightforward melodrama, which is precisely what Red Alert is. He told JOSEPH GELMIS that his idea of doing the film as black comedy came early, while he was collaborating with George on the script. As Kubrick endeavored to imagine the scenes more fully, “ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. ” He would say to himself, “I can’t do this; people will laugh. ” But he gradually began to realize that “all the things I was throwing out were the things that were most truthful. ” After all, he reasoned, what could be more absurd than two superpowers starting a nuclear war because of the actions of a lunatic in the high command? “The only way to tell the story was as a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at” are close to the heart of the scenes in question. PETER SELLERS had given Kubrick a copy of The Magic Christian a year earlier, and Kubrick liked Southern’s wild imagination and irreverent black humor. Kubrick made a point of meeting Southern on a trip to New York, and three months later asked him to come to London to collaborate on the script for Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick explained to Southern that he had finally decided that the concept of nuclear war was a hideous joke which was too outrageous to be treated seriously. So Kubrick asked Southern to add some comic touches to the screenplay. Southern, who was fresh out of funds, jumped at the chance to make $2,000 for a month’s work on the film.
   During their period of collaboration, Kubrick would pick up Southern at his London hotel in his chauffeured limousine at 5 A. M. , and they would work on the script en route to Shepperton Studios. In Kubrick’s old Bentley, they would work on separate little tables in the back seat. Kubrick’s cynical humor, a vestige of the back streets of the Bronx, where he grew up, and in Greenwich Village, where he spent his early years as an adult, meshed with Southern’s off-the wall humor.
   In their essay on Kubrick’s film version of Red Alert, Jeffrey Townsend, John Tibbetts, and James Welsh state that “the most memorable moments in the Kubrick-Southern screenplay are not in the novel. ” As they point out, Kubrick and Southern departed from the novel’s fundamentally sympathetic approach to the characters and created instead a bizarre gallery of grotesques:“Major T. J. ‘King’Kong (Slim Pickens) is a Texas cowboy more at home on a bucking bronco than in the pilot’s seat of a B-52; the crazed General Jack D. Ripper (General Quinten in the book), is a paranoid survivalist who firmly believes that the Russians have contaminated America’s drinking water, thus rendering him impotent. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is a rightwing Pentagon ‘hawk. ’” In addition, Kubrick and Southern gave Peter Sellers three roles: Royal Air Force Group Captain Mandrake, assigned to General Ripper, who tries to make Ripper rescind the order for the bombing mission he has sent to Russia; the hapless U. S. president, Merkin Muffley; and Muffley’s chief security adviser, Dr. Strangelove.
   One of the humorous elements of Dr. Strangelove is the collection of absurd names with which Kubrick and Southern have blessed their major characters. Many have sexual connotations, such as Gen. Jack D. Ripper, named for the notorious sexual psychopath. Ripper reveals his fears of impotency to Captain Mandrake, who is named after the mandrake root, a plant which in mythic lore is said to encourage fertility. The bald Merkin Muffley’s first name is a reference to female pubic hair. All of these names contribute to the black comedy of this dark political satire. The tone of the screenplay, as revised by Kubrick and Southern, neatly straddles the line between straightforward realism and straight-faced farce. The flight deck of Major Kong’s B-52, for example, was constructed in authentic detail at Shepperton Studios, in what one visitor to the set described as an area about the size of a packed linen closet. It is just this air of realism and the inexorable plausibility with which the story unfolds that led Columbia Pictures (encouraged by the State Department) to add a printed preface at the beginning of the film, after advising Kubrick that nuclear war was no laughing matter. It reads: “It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead. ” In actuality, General Ripper (STERLING HAYDEN) was based on the real Gen. Curtis LeMay, and Dr. Strangelove was modeled on Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist. Once this official disclaimer—which was inserted in the film over Kubrick’s objections—is disposed of, the film gets under way. An expanse of clouds is seen stretching across the screen, with mountain peaks poking through in the distance. Over the soft whirring of the wind a narrator says:“For more than a year ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon, a Doomsday device. Intelligence sources traced the site of the top-secret Russian project to the perpetually fog-shrouded wasteland below the Arctic peaks of the Zhokhov islands. What they were building, or why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say. ” The picture will be more than half over before further reference is made to the top-secret Doomsday Machine, which will in the end reduce the world to the trackless waste pictured in the very opening image of the film.
   The credit sequence begins with a close-up of the nose of a plane protruding proudly toward the camera like an erect phallus. To the strains of “Try a Little Tenderness” played softly on the sound track, a nuclear bomber is refueled in midflight by a tanker aircraft. This symbolic coupling sets the tone for the sexual metaphors that are spread throughout the movie, underscoring the sexual obsessions of various characters, chiefly General Ripper, whose fear of impotency is symbolized by a limp cigar between his teeth. Over this scene the credits unfold, looking as if they were chalked on the fuselage of a plane in the manner of air force pilots who chalk morale-boosting slogans on their planes before going into combat. When the refueling is finished, the B-52 flies off, the credits end, and the music fades.
   As the story unfolds, the president learns of Ripper’s insane action. He summons his top advisers for an emergency conference in the War Room; these include General Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove. The Russian ambassador, Alexei de Sadesky (Peter Bull), has been summoned to the War Room by the president in spite of Turgidson’s protests that “the Commie” will see the “Threat Board. ” De Sadesky’s first act is to select some delicacies from an elaborate buffet table laden with goodies. Kubrick had originally included a scene in the film, devised in collaboration with Southern, in which the War Room personnel engage in a free-for-all with pastry from the buffet table. Southern, in a talk at Yale University in 1995, recounted that the sequence as originally filmed began with de Sadesky, attempting to avoid a body search for a hidden camera or recording equipment, hurls a pie at Turgidson, which hits the president instead. Kubrick devoted five days to shooting this sequence. KEN ADAM, the production designer, told MICHEL CIMENT, “It was a very brilliant sequence, with a Hellzapoppin kind of craziness. Undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary custard pie battles ever filmed. The characters were hanging from chandeliers and throwing pies which ended up by covering the maps of the General Staff. Shooting lasted a week, and the sequence ended with the President of the United States and the Soviet ambassador sitting on what was left of the pies and building ‘pie castles’ like children on a beach. ”
   In shooting the pie fight, which involved 30 actors, many of them in military dress, the participants heaved 1,000 pies a day at each other. Peter Bull says that the corridors and dressing rooms looked like some creature from outer space had invaded the premises. Kubrick retained the bulk of the slapstick pastry-throwing scene until he had the movie previewed. He told Gene Phillips that, after watching this segment with an audience, he decided to delete it completely from the final print of the film “because it was too farcical and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film. ” Kubrick added that the humor in Strangelove is basically of the tongue-in-cheek variety, not slapstick.
   After shooting the pie fight, Kubrick had to film the final scene in the War Room, which he worked out with the actors during a rehearsal. Peter Bull remembers the look on the face of the proprietor of the dry cleaning establishment near Shepperton Studios when the pile of costumes that had been saturated with pastry in the course of shooting the pie fight was delivered one Friday evening; they had to be ready for shooting the following Monday. Red Alert ends with the thwarted bombing mission and the hope that the world is safe once more. In the shooting script, however, Major Kong’s bomber reaches its target and successfully unloads its nuclear warhead on its Russian target. The Russians’ Doomsday Machine retaliates, and Earth is engulfed in a series of nuclear explosions, which will render Earth uninhabitable for the next 100 years. The movie concludes with Dr. Strangelove advising the president how key military and political figures and their descendants can survive in America’s mine shafts for a century, until the nuclear fallout has finally been dissipated. Even in the midst of utter desolation, humankind remains true to its perverse inclinations. The Russian ambassador surreptitiously takes pictures of the “Big Board” with a camera concealed in his watch, disregarding the fact that these photos will be of no earthly use for normal espionage purposes, now that life on this planet is doomed to extinction for a century. And Turgidson, with his abiding paranoia about Russian conspiracies, emphatically exhorts the president that the Russians may try “an immediate sneak attack to take over our mine shaft space. Mr. President, we cannot allow a mine shaft gap!” Once the Doomsday Machine has been detonated, setting off blinding explosions, on the sound track we hear a popular ditty which Kubrick resurrected from World War II:“We’ll meet again/Don’t know where, don’t know when. . . . ” Southern and Kubrick wanted to incorporate the song into the film (using the original recording by Vera Lynn) because, in the context of the film’s ending, the song becomes an anthem of the millions who will be extinguished by the radioactive fallout precipitated by the Doomsday Machine. The singer fondly reflects that the survivors “will be happy to know that as you saw me go I was singing this song. ” Another verse speaks of the future, when the blue skies will drive the dark (radioactive) clouds away. This is illustrated by the vision of a distant sunset amid the black clouds now enveloping the earth.
   Dr. Strangelove tells a story that happens in several places at once. Kubrick develops the parallel lines of action in Strangelove by cutting abruptly back and forth from one place to another in midscene. This lets the audience know how what is happening in another location is influencing what is taking place in the scene now before them, and vice versa. Consequently, the script of Strangelove is tightly knit and brilliantly constructed. Only repeated viewings can indicate the subtlety and skill with which it has been put together. Dr. Strangelove is basically about a crisis of communication. The film takes place in three locations, each of which is totally shut off from the others: the air base where the demented Ripper sits in a locked room; the B-52 (named The Leper Colony) which is presided over by a pilot obsessed with carrying out what he thinks is his duty; and the War Room, where the film ends, which is ultimately dominated by the mad nuclear scientist of the film’s title. Summing up the film, one can say that the humor which Kubrick had originally thought to exclude from Strangelove provides some of its most meaningful moments. These moments, as devised by Kubrick and Southern in the revised screenplay, are made up of the incongruities, the banalities, and the misunderstandings that we are constantly aware of in our lives. On the brink of annihilation they become irresistibly absurd.
   Pauline Kael, however, was not happy with Strangelove’s foray into black comedy: “Dr. Strangelove opened a new movie era. It ridiculed everything and everybody it showed, Dr. Strangelove was clearly intended as a cautionary movie; it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing. But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and Dr. Strangelove, chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity. ” Kubrick’s response to this kind of criticism was to point out, as he does in Phillips’s book, that “in the deepest sense I believe in man’s potential and in his capacity for progress. In Dr. Strangelove I was dealing with the inherent irrationality in man that threatens to destroy him; that irrationality doesn’t imply celebration of it; nor a sense of despair and futility about the possibility of curing it. ”
   In Dr. Strangelove Kubrick and Southern turn the searchlight of satire on the “balance of terror” that the nuclear powers seek to maintain to hold each other in check. In so doing, Kubrick has illuminated the common foibles of ordinary humanity as well, human flaws that are all the more obvious when they come to the surface in the context of cosmic catastrophe. Elaine Dundy interviewed Terry Southern on the set of Dr. Strangelove, and he owned that it was great working with Kubrick, but that he found him unpredictable. He recounted a visit to Kubrick’s home, wherein Kubrick offered him a drink and discovered that there were no glasses in evidence; so he said, “We’ll drink out of the bottle then. ” Southern comments:“ Inessentials don’t bother him. No, he’s something else, probably a genius. ”
   Kubrick finished principal photography for Dr. Strangelove on April 23, 1963, after 15 weeks of shooting. Southern moved on to other projects. Tony Richardson, who had directed Tom Jones (1963), commissioned Southern to collaborate with Christopher Isherwood on The Loved One (1965), from Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novella about a young Englishman who gets involved in the American funeral business in California. On August 9, 1964, producer Martin Ransohoff ran an ad in the New York Times, proclaiming that Terry Southern, “the writer of Dr. Strangelove,” was going to join Tony Richardson, “the director of Tom Jones,” to film Waugh’s book. Kubrick had noticed that, when the film was released, some reviewers had referred to Terry Southern as if he were the sole author of the screenplay, but he had let that misconception pass at the time. But, as he told Gene Phillips, he thought the New York Times ad for The Loved One was the right occasion for setting the record straight.
   Kubrick responded to the ad with a press release which stated,“Terry Southern was employed on Dr. Strangelove from November 16 to December 28, 1962, during which time I wrote in close collaboration with him. ” But Kubrick continued to revise the script during production, which commenced on January 28, 1963:“Many substantial changes were made in the script by myself and Peter George, sometimes together with the cast during improvisations. Some of the best dialogue was created by Peter Sellers himself. ” For example, Kubrick worked out the revised ending for the final scene in the War Room with the aid of Sellers and the other principles, once the piethrowing scene had been scuttled.
   Although Southern visited the set while the film was in production, Kubrick affirmed, he had no part in the revisions of the shooting script made during the shooting period, “nor did he serve in a consulting role. ” Significantly, Elaine Dundy mentions in her interview with Southern on the set of Dr. Strangelove during production that the official list of credits at that time stated,“script by Stanley Kubrick and Peter George, additional dialogue by Terry Southern. ” Asked afterward why he upgraded Southern in the film’s opening credits to coauthoring the screenplay, as opposed to merely contributing bits of additional dialogue to the script,Kubrick is cited by JOHN BAXTER as explaining that “I am glad he worked on the script; I guess I was being generous when I gave him” an official screen credit as coauthor of the screenplay, rather than for additional dialogue;“but I hoped that it would help him get more work. ” Southern replied in a typically sardonic fashion, “Stan may be long on ‘generosity’ (ha-ha), but I’m afraid he is short on humor (not to mention memory). ” Southern insisted that his contribution to the screenplay during the period that he worked on it with Kubrick was considerable, and that the script, as it existed before he and Kubrick revised it, simply “wasn’t funny. ”
   There is no doubt that Southern’s influence on the screenplay at the point at which he collaborated with Kubrick was significant—whether or not he continued to help with revisions during shooting. For the final shooting script, as revised by Southern and Kubrick, is earmarked with Southern’s wacky, biting brand of black humor, starting with the two planes “coupling” during the opening credits. Still, as Claire Dederer says, Southern worked best when he was “rebounding off other people’s ideas”; he was basically “a credit sharer, a co-author. ” There is also no doubt that his association with the film gave Southern’s career a much-needed boost, as is evident from the New York Times ad for The Loved One. As for the latter film, which was based on Evelyn Waugh’s satire on the American way of death, Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the two authors of the script, allowed the satirical flavor of Waugh’s novella to turn sour, as their myriad additions to Waugh’s original story ranged further and further afield. A few years later, Southern coscripted Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) with Hopper and Peter Fonda, but complained—as he did in the case of Dr. Strangelove—that his contributions to the counterculture film were not properly acknowledged. Southern adapted his own novel, The Magic Christian (1969) for film, with the star, Peter Sellers, contributing some of the dialogue, as he had on Dr. Strangelove.
   Southern told Elaine Dundy that he was going to write a novel,“modelling the hero on Stanley. . . . He said it might make a good movie. ”The novel turned out to be Blue Movie, which Southern wrote in between script assignments over a period of years. It centers on Boris Adrian, a top director who is obviously meant to be Stanley Kubrick (Boris is 34, the age of Kubrick when Southern started to write the book). Boris plans to make the first big-budget pornographic flick. Southern sent the novel to Kubrick, who decided that he lacked the temperament to make a film revolving around the porn industry. Southern finally published the novel in 1970, dedicated to “the great Stanley K”; but the book was never filmed.
   Still trying to connect with Kubrick again, Southern gave Kubrick a copy of ANTHONY BURGESS’s novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, hoping that they might adapt it for the screen. Kubrick phoned him in late 1969, saying that he was interested in making a picture from the book. Southern then offered him a screenplay which he had cowritten with Michael Cooper, but Kubrick replied that he preferred to try his hand at writing the script himself, and did so. So Southern never worked with Kubrick again after Dr. Strangelove. Daniel O’Brien writes that in the 1970s and 1980s Southern spent “nearly two decades in the unproduced screenplay wilderness. ” He did write a couple more films that got produced during this period, but nothing he did after Strangelove measured up to that classic work. O’Brien concludes, “It remains to say (as Southern readily confessed) that the looming shadow of Dr. Strangelove was just too big to escape. ”
   References
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997);
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001);
   ■ Dederer, Claire,“The Hippest Guy on the Planet,” New York Times Book Review, June 17, 2001, p. 8;
   ■ Dundy, Elaine, “Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 9–16;
   ■ Gelmis, Joseph,“The Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 80–104;
   ■ George, Peter, Red Alert (U. K. title:Two Hours to Doom) (New York: Bantam, 1963);
   ■ Hill, Lee, A Grand Guy:The Art and Life of Terry Southern (New York: HarperCollins, 2001);
   ■ Kael, Pauline, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), pp. 78–79;
   ■ MacGregor, Jeff, “Film View: Terry Southern,” New York Times, November 12, 1995, sec. 2, p. 24;
   ■ O’Brien, Daniel, “Terry Southern,” in Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, vol. 4, rev. ed. , ed. Grace Jeromski (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996), pp. 774–775;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 107–126;
   ■ Townsend, Jeffery, John Tibbetts, and James Welsh, “Red Alert,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 183–186.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.


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