Buck Henry, who passed away on January 8, was such a renaissance man of film and television, that how you recognize his name depends on the media you consume. If you’re a Saturday Night Live historian, you know him as the mild-mannered comedian who hosted the show a whopping 10 times during its first four years. If you’re a fan of Get Smart, he’s the genius who co-created the influential spy spoof show with Mel Brooks. If you’re a keen observer of character actors, you’ll recognize him in over 40 movies spanning six decades, usually playing either a meek, salt-of-the-earth type, or a pompous asshole who rarely suffers fools. To me, Buck Henry is the screenwriter who forever changed the landscape of American filmmaking. He fearlessly explored uncomfortable truths about the often hypocritical nature in our culture. Let’s celebrate his formidable and diverse writing career by exploring seven of his best scripts, in chronological order.
There’s Hollywood before The Graduate—cutesy Hays Code-era comedies skirting around sexuality with innuendos and surface-level gags. Then there’s Hollywood after The Graduate, which opened the floodgates to the complexities of America’s sexual revolution in the ’60s. Henry and Calder Willingham co-adapted Charles Webb’s novella, and earned Oscar nominations for their subversion of the traditional sex comedy. One can imagine the quest of disillusioned recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) to achieve adulthood by starting an awkward affair with an older family friend named Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) being turned into either a Douglas Sirk-type melodrama, or a broad screwball comedy. By focusing more on characters instead of situations, and never wincing away from the ugly truths and the confusion of budding sexuality, Henry’s bold work on The Graduate revolutionized the way Hollywood approached comedies.
Henry’s absurdist sensibilities, combined with his singular perception of the uniquely American brand of bald-faced hypocrisy, made him the perfect screenwriter to adapt Joseph Heller’s scorched earth World War II satire. Henry more or less retained Heller’s sprawling and episodic narrative. He formed a cohesive structure by keeping his sights on the story’s strong themes against unforgivable moral paradoxes and unchecked greed, all hidden under the illusion of blind patriotism. The titular expression refers to the deperate attempts of a bombardier (Alan Arkin) to avoid combat by acting insane, which fail because he’s told that he can’t be insane if he wants to avoid combat. Such paradoxes and leaps of logic permeate every scene, until the extreme ends of comedy and tragedy meet in the middle. By the time Henry leads us to the bleak third act, we are so accustomed to the insanity of war, that we accept atrocity as routine.
Bill Manhoff’s play with the same name takes place entirely between two characters in a generic apartment set. Not the most visually stimulating source for a film adaptation. Henry takes the core text of the play, about an unconventional romance that forms between a stuffy wannabe novelist (George Segal), and an abrasive part-time model/actress/prostitute (Barbra Streisand), and spreads their tumultuous odd couple relationship across New York City. Thus turning a confined character drama into an urban rom-com. While Henry adds some supporting characters—Robert Klein’s nonchalant bookstore clerk being my favorite—he uses them sparingly, retaining the play’s intimate spirit.
Like a majority of Peter Bogdanovich’s work, What’s Up, Doc? is either a loving homage to, or a rip off of old Hollywood, depending on where you land with the director. Seeking to recreate the madcap energy of 1930s screwball comedies, Bogdanovich created the outline of a classic comedy of errors about four identical bags, one of which contains sensitive government secrets, getting mixed up at a San Francisco hotel. Henry was one of the writers brought on board to flesh out Bogdanovich’s premise. He brings his proudly silly and absurdist sensibilities from Get Smart into the script, while grounding the broad comedy with the occasional focus on developing relatable characters.
The premise of a marine biologist (George C. Scott) who teaches a dolphin how to talk, and a corporate conspiracy that results in the animal being used to covertly attach bombs to boats, already sounds far-fetched for a sci-fi thriller. So it’s quite a feat for Henry to successfully turn Robert Merle’s novel of the same name into what’s first and foremost a heartfelt drama about the deep bond between the biologist and the dolphin, as well as an indictment of humanity’s hubris over nature. During the first two acts, Henry peppers in the story’s thriller elements, teasing the tense conflict that will dominate the third act. But he always keeps his focus on developing the unusual central relationship of the story. The Day of the Dolphin’s screenplay also provides an apt lesson in how to handle exposition dumps in cinematic fashion. The first act not only has to explain dolphin biology to the audience, but also needs to introduce complex linguistic jargon to explain the speech experiment. Henry gets around this by employing clever visual cues, like the use of a warehouse full of tape recordings being played at the same time to show the dolphin’s progress.
A ditzy, non-political waitress named Sunny (Goldie Hawn) accidentally thwarts an assassination attempt on an emir from a fictional Middle Eastern country, an act that turns her into a national hero overnight. In more formulaic hands, one can easily see this premise turning into a facile farce pumped full of dumb blonde jokes about Sunny’s inability to comprehend American politics. While Henry revels in the occasional dumb blonde joke—“I went to Canada once, but that doesn’t count as another country since they’re connected”—he organically turns this reluctant-hero comedy into a Capra-esque brand of sincere populist commentary. Like a precursor to Dave, Sunny is brought into government to act as their puppet, but soon rejects their cynicism while embracing the country’s founding ideals. Henry even pens his version of the climactic monologue from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, albeit with a cutesy Goldie Hawn slant.
With his adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel with the same name, Henry creates his bleakest and angriest condemnation of the dark side of American ambition. Milo (Jon Voight), Catch-22’s stone cold capitalist, and Suzanne (Nicole Kidman), To Die For’s attention-hungry weathergirl in a small town’s local TV station, are flip sides of the same coin of greed and narcissism. If there’s nothing Milo won’t do for a buck, including stealing pilots’ parachutes, there’s nothing Suzanne won’t do for fame, including murdering her husband (Matt Dillon) because he wants her to quit TV. Like he does with Milo during the first act of Catch-22, Henry introduces Suzanne as a charismatic and plucky go-getter, lowering the audience’s defenses as they embrace the character’s artificial charm. By the time she takes things too far, ruining lives in the process, we are left wondering how things got so bad, so fast. Henry provides us with multiple clues right off the bat. One just has to see through the bullshit to get to the truth. Here’s the proof: Watch Suzanne’s TV presenter audition that opens To Die For. After the film is over, go back and watch it again.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.