About the Author
You know, I don’t think there are any Awesome Men Throughout History who are screenwriters. None that I can immediately recall, anyway. That’s weird, because screenwriters are tailor-made for columns like this: they’re usually obscure (unless they’re named Aaron Sorkin), they impact modern culture in a big way, and a decent amount of them are completely insane due to the deadline pressure of the film industry and the bouts of isolation that come with writing for a living. All of that makes fantastic grist for the mill, especially when it comes to this week’s subject, Norman Wexler.
Film geeks might know Wexler as the guy who wrote the screenplays for Mandingo, Serpico, Joe, and Saturday Night Fever, the last which made him a very rich man. Too rich, probably, because Wexler was extremely bipolar and prone to manic episodes in which he ran around New York City like a vagrant, pulling elaborate public stunts that were either funny, cruel, or brilliant, depending on who you asked. Like Andy Kaufman (who was deeply inspired by Wexler’s antics) and other performance artists, Wexler just liked to screw with people’s heads. That he was crazy enough to take things way too far and rich enough to not sweat the consequences of his behavior made him something of a perfect storm.
Bob Zmuda, a comedian and friend of Andy Kaufman’s, worked as Wexler’s personal assistant for a while, and has endless stories about riding around New York in a limo with a haggard, barefoot, fully manic Wexler and recording his shenanigans, which included buying out the entire stock of a bakery and paying the staff to strip down to their underwear. That’s over $10 grand spent in the name of public weirdness, and Zmuda got the whole thing on tape.
Zmuda was also witness to Wexler’s sexual escapades, in which he (to hear Zmuda tell it, anyway) banged seemingly every single waitress, actress, and aspiring starlet in the greater New York metropolitan area, even though he looked like something that would scurry under the refrigerator if you turned the lights on without warning.
Wexler had a dark side, though. People who resisted his stunts or refused to play along were cursed at and berated to the point of tears, and he was arrested in 1972 for threatening to shoot Richard Nixon, on what could have only been described as an off day.
That said, he was really good at his actual job. Serpico and Joe are considered classic American films, Mandingo was a box office smash, and so was Saturday Night Fever, which isn’t nearly as dumb as you might expect a John Travolta disco movie to be. In fact, Fever was movie critic Gene Siskel’s favorite film of all time, to the point where I think he bought the white suit Travolta famously wore in some of the dance sequences. Because of his success, Wexler was often hired to turn bad scripts into good, or at least passable, projects.
Sadly, his delicate mental state would be his undoing; a heart attack brought on by a year-long manic episode ended his life in 1999, a mere week after his 73rd birthday.
I can’t say that Wexler was ever a happy person, but he sure wasn’t a boring one, and he left behind some great movies that still resonate in American culture today – Joe is a must-watch for anyone trying to understand the fundamental disconnect between working class Americans and hippies during the 1960s, and Mandingo is what happens when exploitation films have a real budget to work with. Get them from Netflix when you have a chance.