Screenwriter-producer Irving Ravetch, best known for the movies he co-wrote with wife Harriet Frank Jr., among them The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Hud, and Norma Rae, died Sunday, Sept. 19, at Los Angeles’ Cedars Sinai Hospital. Ravetch, who had been suffering from a “lingering illness,” was 89.
Two Ravetch-Frank Jr. collaborations, both directed by Martin Ritt, were nominated for Academy Awards: Hud (1963), an intelligent modern-day Western starring Paul Newman and Academy Award winners Patricia Neal (who died a couple of weeks ago) and Melvyn Douglas, and Norma Rae (1979), a sensitive drama about labor and human relations that earned Sally Field her first Best Actress Oscar.
Ravetch (born Nov. 14, 1920, in Newark, N.J.) and Frank Jr. (born in 1917 and still alive), co-wrote – sometimes with other writers as well – stories and/or screenplays for a total of 17 features, including six others directed by Martin Ritt: The Long Hot Summer (1958), The Sound and the Fury (1959), Hombre (1967), Conrack (1974), Murphy’s Romance (1985), and the last Ravetch-Frank Jr collaboration, the box office disappointment Stanley & Iris (1989).
The Ravetch-Frank Jr. screenplays, whether original or adapted (William Faulkner was a not infrequent source), usually had a southern or western setting. The stories tended to revolve around complex family relations and/or social issues, usually focusing on power struggles.
Within families, the fight for power and self-assertion could be found in, for instance, the dysfunctional father-son relationships in The Long Hot Summer (Orson Welles-Anthony Franciosa), the Vincente Minnelli-directed Home from the Hill (1960, Robert Mitchum-George Hamilton), and Hud (Melvyn Douglas-Paul Newman).
Social issues were at the core of Conrack, in which Jon Voight plays a white man intent on bringing education to a black community on a tiny island off the South Carolina coast; Norma Rae, which pits union organizer Sally Field against the bosses of the textile factory where she works; and Stanley & Iris, which stars Robert De Niro as an illiterate man assisted by Jane Fonda.
In addition to its Oscar nod, Hud won the Best Screenplay Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Writers Guild of America Award for Best American Drama, while Norma Rae also received a Golden Globe nomination.
Ravetch and Frank Jr. were also nominated for four other WGA Awards – The Long, Hot Summer, The Reivers (1969), Conrack, Norma Rae. In 1988, they were awarded the WGA’s Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement.
In addition to co-writing Hud, Hombre and The Reivers, Ravetch also served as a producer on those films.
In an introduction to a New American Library book reprinting of three Ravetch/Frank Jr. screenplays, all directed by Ritt, the filmmaker (who died in 1990) said the following about their collaboration:
“I don’t know of any better screenwriters than Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. They are absolutely the best, on every level. I’ve enjoyed collaborating with them, and I know that we’ve done work as good as any that has been done in Hollywood. Our whole lives are intertwined in this work, from The Long, Hot Summer, back in the fifties, on. I am proud of the movies we’ve made together and consider several among them the finest of my career.
“I have generally been faithful to the Ravetches’ material because I respect their writing and I respect their impulses, even when at times we’ve disagreed. Like all good writers, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., value language, but at times language has gotten in the way of what they’ve wanted to do in a particular scene, and I’ve had to ask them to make changes. Fortunately, we communicate very well. The Ravetches are sensitive to my opinion, as I am to theirs. We are strong personalities, but after all these years we speak in a kind of shorthand – we understand each other implicitly.
“Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., believe in what they write. I also believe in what they write, and I would hire them to do any kind of picture. However, I am aware as I think they are too, that certain things – light comedy, for example – aren’t as good for them as more serious subjects. This is true of me as well. We have discovered, or perhaps developed, our strengths together.
“I would never fail to do a movie with the Ravetches that they wanted to do. I might criticize, I might suggest changes, but I would make it anyway. I feel I owe them, as I feel they owe me. It’s not written anywhere that we have to agree. That’s not the nature of the creative process. But they are my friends and my genuine collaborators, and I believe the body of our work reflects the success of this collaboration.”
Photo: Courtesy of Murray Weissman & Associates.