Pop quiz: What do The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Long Goodbye, and The Empire Strikes Back have in common?
Answer: They were all written or co-written by the same woman, the amazing Leigh Brackett.
How does one person knock down both the ultimate private eye movie and the ultimate deconstruction of the private eye movie? And how does that same person write what is considered by some fans to be the best western of all time and a remake of that same movie? And how does the person who pulled off those two neat tricks write, in her sixties no less, the ultimate pop sci-fi flick of all time? Well, the answer to all these questions is that Leigh Brackett was awesome.
Brackett was born in 1915 and raised in Los Angeles. She started writing early, publishing her first story in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 when she was still in her mid-twenties. After compiling an impressive body of work in the science fiction market, Brackett published a mystery novel, No Good From A Corpse. The novel caught the eye of director Howard Hawks, who was preparing his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The story of her hiring, oft repeated by both Hawks and Brackett, is that the director told his secretary to “get me this Leigh Brackett fella on the phone.” The Brackett fella turned out to be a young woman, not yet thirty, who had just written her first film, the cheapie horror flick The Vampire’s Ghost. In Brackett’s recollection, Hawks “rallied bravely and signed me anyway.”
On that project, Brackett was paired with William Faulkner. Together they pounded out a script that ranks among the best of its period, though perhaps “together” is a misleading way to put it. Brackett recalled it this way:
He greeted me courteously. He put the book down and said, “We will do alternate sections. You will do these chapters and I will do these chapters,” and so on. But that's the way he wanted it done. He turned around and walked into his office and I never saw him again, except to say good morning.
Of course, the most famous story about The Big Sleep is how damn confusing the plot was for everyone involved. Bogart asked Brackett who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur, and she told him she didn’t know. They asked Hawks, who said he didn’t know either. So they sent Chandler a wire, and the author wrote back and said he was as lost as everyone else. Brackett explained with a sly dismissal “The forward momentum is so tremendous and the characters are so interesting that you really don't care.” Which, it must be said, is true.
Brackett was asked often about the presumed novelty of being a female screenwriter, but she was quick to set the record straight. Though the system was unquestionably sexist, from the early days of Hollywood screenwriting, script doctoring and script supervision were jobs routinely held by women. Brackett would explain:
There was never actually any discrimination against women screenwriters. The first job I ever got was at Republic and the highest paid person on the lot was a woman. The discrimination against women came in later, much later, when television came along with all these male-oriented western series and detective series, and they figured a woman wouldn't be able to write that kind of thing.
Of course, Brackett herself had already notched some impressive credits writing “male-oriented westerns” for Howard Hawks. Most importantly, she wrote the director’s smash hit Rio Bravo. Though it was received by critics in 1959 as just another John Wayne oater, it has since come to be seen by many critics as one of the best westerns ever made. Roger Ebert hailed it as a masterpiece in his book The Great Movies, and the critic Robin Wood wrote a book-length study of film in which he called it “an argument as to why we should all want to go on living.”
The film proved to be such a success that Hawks, Wayne, and Brackett remade it in 1966 as El Dorado, and again (more loosely) in 1970 as Rio Lobo. Though those films (particularly El Dorado) were well received, Brackett herself was never particularly enthusiastic about them. Speaking about El Dorado years later she would tell an interviewer, “I wrote, what was to my way of thinking, the best script I had ever done in my life…[But] the more we got into doing Rio Bravo over again the sicker I got, because I hate doing things over again. I kept saying [that] to Howard, and he'd say it was okay, we could do it over again… You know, the guy that signs the final check has the final say.”
Brackett was happier when she got to swerve away from what she’d down before. In 1973, she was hired to take on Chandler again when she was hired to adapt The Long Goodbye for director Brian Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes). The book proved challenging to adapt, however. Far longer and more introspective than The Big Sleep, it was also, in Brackett’s opinion, “written at a sad time in Chandler’s life and the sadness shows through.” The biggest challenge Brackett saw, though, was that time had passed and Chandler’s world had long since slipped away.
Twenty-five years had gone by since The Big Sleep. In that quarter-century, legions of private eyes had been beaten up in innumerable alleys by armies of interchangeable hoods. Everything that was fresh and exciting about Philip Marlowe in the forties had become cliché…Take away that context and who was Marlowe?
After a failed first attempt at a faithful script (“an abortion” in Brackett’s recollection), Hutton left the project. Then Robert Altman came on board and he and Brackett had story conferences in which he advanced a theory of Marlowe that Brackett loved, “[He] said ‘I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the fake winner that Chandler made out of him…’ And things began to fall into place.”
This revisionist take was just that, a re-seeing of the character and of the world he inhabited. Many purists hated the result, but Brackett herself felt it was the only way to do the character in 1973. Besides, she said, “I doubt that Chandler would have regarded every aspect of his work as Holy Writ.”
After The Long Goodbye, Brackett kept working—writing her sci-fi novels and doing occasional script work for television shows like The Rockford Files and the short-lived Lew Archer series Archer. In the late seventies, after the massive success of Star Wars, George Lucas tapped Brackett (known among sci-fi fans as the “Queen of the Space Opera’) to write the script for The Empire Strikes Back. The draft Brackett wrote is radically different from the finished film (you-know-who isn’t Luke Skywalker’s father, for instance), showing that Lucas was still building the basic story of the Star Wars universe, but Brackett, already diagnosed with cancer, was unable to complete any rewrites. With Lucas’ oversight, her script was overhauled by Lawrence Kasdan.
Brackett’s husband, the science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, had died just the year before. Brackett herself passed away on March 17, 1978, leaving behind a unique and lasting legacy in the history of Hollywood screenwriting.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor, is the author of The Posthumous Man and Saint Homicide.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.
PS. As of this writing, you can get Brackett’s novel NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE on Kindle and the Nook for only a buck. That’s right, one US dollar.
Loved this post, Jake.
Great post! Leigh Brackett was an incredible writer who’s too often underrated.
Wonderful lady. Was nice to a young airman in 1976.