A Humphrey Bogart noir classic; a daring and cheeky Robert Altman movie that defined the New American Cinema of the 1970s; and the most critically-acclaimed entry in the Star War series, The Empire Strikes Back. One writer had her hand in all of these projects over the course of a thirty-year involvement with the movies, a time period that saw the collapse of the studio system, the end of the Production Code, and the beginning of the contemporary tentpole summer blockbuster screen age. In this week that the latest trailer for J.J. Abrams’s new addition—or is it a reboot?–to the Star Wars franchise has caused a massive Internet buzz, let’s remember the amazing career of a writer who tried her hand at supplying dialogue for both Phillip Marlowe and Han Solo, Lauren Bacall and Carrie Fisher. She was also a science fiction writer working in a genre that made Star Wars possible.
In 1945, the legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks was working on the movie adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective classic The Big Sleep when he came across another hard-boiled detective novel with the unforgettable title No Good From a Corpse. To Hawks, the writer of the novel—Leigh Brackett—perfectly captured Chandler’s distinctive prose style and seemed a great candidate to work on the screenplay of The Big Sleep. According to Hollywood mythology, Hawks told his secretary to get in contact with “this guy Brackett.” In the view of most fans of The Big Sleep, Hawks was exactly right. The screenplay for The Big Sleep—a collaboration between Brackett, Jules Furthman, and future Nobel prize winner William Faulkner—is beloved as the epitome of noir style in the studios era of American movie history, highlighted by the sexually charged verbal sparring between stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall:
“This guy Brackett” turned out to be not a guy, however, but a woman: the pioneering science fiction writer Leigh Brackett. Born and raised in California, Brackett began publishing her first science fiction story in 1940 when she was 25 and soon became a popular and influential writer in the golden age of American science fiction pulp magazines. With titles like Astounding Stories, Strange Stories, and Startling Stories, these magazines nurtured a genre of outer space fiction and tales of intergalactic adventure that has become a permanent part of American popular culture and the movies in particular. A colleague of writers such as Robert Heinlein and Willy Ley, and a mentor to Ray Bradbury, Leigh was one of the most significant voices in 20th century American science fiction (her 1955 post-nuclear war novel The Long Tomorrow is considered her masterpiece).
Among fans and scholars of mid-century science fiction, Brackett was known as a master of the “space opera,” a term derived from “soap opera” and analogous to “horse opera” as another name for the western. Sometimes used as an insult, “space opera” refers to science fiction stories set on other planets and galaxies that emphasize romance and melodrama as much as scientific and technological speculation. As with the melodrama, the messiness of human relationships is as if not more important than the details of rocket propulsion or the implications of quantum mechanics for long distance space travel.
In many ways, of course, this distinction between romance and technology is a false one. More significant is the cultural reality that some writers and readers of science fiction were uneasy with the idea that this popular genre, already struggling for cultural respectability, would be associated with melodrama and emotion. The distinction is, of course, a highly gendered one as well, since the “soap opera” has long been considered of interest only or mainly to women. But Brackett’s own writing history upsets this dichotomy. After all, it was her hard-boiled crime writing that brought her to Hollywood’s attention, her ability to help translate Raymond Chandler’s cynical, unsentimental detective Phillip Marlowe to the big screen. As the backhanded compliment of the time might have put it, it was her ability to “write like a man” that led to her successful career.
After The Big Sleep, Brackett worked on other screenplays for Howard Hawks, specializing in scripts (Rio Bravo ; Hatari! ; El Dorado ; Rio Lobo ) for that ultimate embodiment of American masculinity in the 1950s, John Wayne. In 1973, she was hired by the renegade New Hollywood director Robert Altman to deconstruct Chandler’s great noir hero in his revisionist adaptation of The Long Goodbye. The resulting movie, starring Elliott Gould, portrayed Marlowe as a man tragically and at times comically out of times with the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Often the only man on screen still wearing a suit, Gould’s Marlowe mumbles and stumbles his way through the movie, seemingly only partly aware of his surroundings, muttering “It’s OK with me” as his catchphrase. The screen experience of The Long Goodbye divided viewers in 1973 between those who saw the movie as an incoherent travesty of the classic film noir tradition and others who saw a sly parody, both melancholy and biting, of the hard-boiled hero, along with a clear-eyed satire of 1970s southern California.
Brackett’s ability to both capture the essence of Chandler’s hardboiled style in the late 1940s and then, almost thirty years later, see through that style to subvert the hard-boiled noir hero demonstrates both her craft as a writer and, I would argue, her understanding that the distinctions between science fiction and melodrama, or hard-boiled detective fiction and melodrama, were themselves, well, fictions. As the clip from The Big Sleep above demonstrates, noir fiction is also ultimately about relationships and emotions, no matter how “hard-boiled” the male heroes or how dangerous the “femme fatale” women. Marlowe in Altman’s The Big Sleep is in many ways a sentimental character, pining for the supposed good old days when the differences between right and wrong—and male and female—seemed so much clearer.
When George Lucas contacted Brackett to work on the script for his sequel to the mega-hit Star Wars, it was on the basis of her fame as a writer of “space operas,” but he was pleasantly surprised to learn she was the same Leigh Brackett who had worked on The Big Sleep as well as other Howard Hawks classics. Star Wars, in fact, may be the most famous space opera of all time, drawing on mid-century science fiction stories as well as Saturday afternoon space adventure movie serials such as Flash Gordon. But Star Wars is just as indebted to “horse operas” (what is Han Solo but a cowboy? And the bar on Mos Eisley is actually called a “cantina”) and the fast-talking dialogue of screwball comedies and film noir. If a sizeable number of Star Wars fans were disappointed with Lucas’s revival of the series with The Phantom Menace in 1999, after all, it was not because the newer movie didn’t feature enough cool technology. We missed the banter between Han and Leia, the comic interplay between Artoo Detoo and C-3PO; in short, the romance among those distinctive characters.
In many ways, then, Brackett was the perfect candidate to work on The Empire Strikes Back, with one foot in the studios screen age that inspired Star Wars and another in the New Hollywood that had produced both Robert Altman and George Lucas. Unfortunately, Brackett died of cancer in 1978 shortly after finishing her script for Empire. What happened next is open to dispute. The shooting script that emerged for the movie was credited to Lawrence Kasdan and Brackett, based on an original story by Lucas. How much of Brackett’s script survives into the screen experience of The Empire Strikes Back is uncertain. What’s claimed to be Brackett’s script for the movie is available online here, and it is drastically different in terms of plot from the movie we know. But questions of the influence that Brackett had on Kasdan and Lucas remain open. In any case, the fact of Brackett’s participation on so many movies that marked distinctive screen ages make hers into one of the most remarkable screenwriting careers.