Douglas McGrath, film director, playwright and writer, dies at 64


Douglas McGrath, a film director and writer with an erudite wit and scholarly curiosity who spanned genres including a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” an Oscar-nominated screenplay with Woody Allen in the crime farce “Bullets Over Broadway” and satirical essays for the New Yorker, died Nov. 3 at his office in Manhattan. He was 64.

The death was announced by the producers of Mr. McGrath’s solo off-Broadway show, “Everything’s Fine,” which opened last month. A show representative, Jim Byk, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. McGrath’s interests and career — stage, screen, magazines, books — defied easy labeling. He seemed to like it that way, constantly shifting gears and always offering a breezy appraisal of his successes and poking fun at his missteps. He often deflected questions about his Hollywood work with a self-effacing bon mot or by steering praise to colleagues — as if the movie world and its vanities were a droll comedy and he got the joke.

A “Golightly grace,” a journalist wrote in 1996 after the blithe-spirited main character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It was an apt description on other levels, too.

Mr. McGrath was writer and director of “Infamous,” a 2006 drama about Truman Capote, whose books included the 1958 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that was made into a 1961 film. And, like the fictional Holly Golightly, Mr. McGrath was a shiny and urbane personality raised far from the big city — a kid amid the oil rigs and tumbleweeds of West Texas.

His autobiographical one-man show, directed by John Lithgow, recounted being a 14-year-old in Midland (‘“I was not precocious. I was barely conscious.”) and how the arrival of an eight-grade history teacher shook up the conservative school, and his life. Reviewer Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the New York Times that the show had a “can’t-look-away quality of a slow-motion crash.”

“When you get older, you start to think back about days gone by,” he told Texas Monthly earlier this year. “And one of the things I think about is: Of all the things I’ve done in my career, what I love most is telling stories. I love being at a table telling stories. I love being at a party telling stories.”

Mr. McGrath could name drop if he wanted to. His mother, then Beatrice Burchenal, worked at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland and was part of Andy Warhol’s crowd before marrying an oil man who was born in Connecticut. Mr. McGrath headed to Princeton University, where he wrote musicals for the Princeton Triangle Club, a troupe whose alumni include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jimmy Stewart.

After graduating in 1980, Mr. McGrath heard “Saturday Night Live” was looking for writers. He landed an $850-a-week gig that “seemed too good to be true,” he wrote in the New York Times. The timing, however, was not. The show had lost many of its original stars, including John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, and the reviews were ugly.

He quipped to the New York Times that he “helped teach the nation that it wasn’t such a good idea to hurry home from that party and watch the show.”

He later teamed up with a fellow SNL writer, Patricia Marx, on a novel, “Blockbuster,” (1988), a parody of big money and big egos as a Hollywood studio tries to bring the 17th century tome “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to the screen. Publishers Weekly panned it as “stultifying.”

A major flop as a screenwriter — a 1993 remake of the 1950 romantic comedy “Born Yesterday” — was followed by a major break, partnering with his boyhood idol Allen on “Bullets over Broadway” (1994). They were nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, which went to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary for “Pulp Fiction.”

In 1996, Mr. McGrath was writer and director for “Emma,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of the busybody and self-styled Cupid Emma Woodhouse. Mr. McGrath often said he preferred writing female roles, which he believed offered a greater range for both dramatic and comedic complexity.

“When you think of all the great books, not counting Twain’s, it’s the funniest of all the great novels,” he said of “Emma” in a 1996 interview. “And that’s what I wanted to bring out.”

On Broadway, Mr. McGrath received a Tony nomination for writing the book for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which ran from 2014 to 2019. “She was very open, and very helpful, and very honest,” said Mr. McGrath about his research and collaboration with King.

Putting the story together, though, “involved a lot of weeping, and praying,” he said in a podcast with the State Theatre New Jersey.

But it was politics — at its seamy and dishonest worst — that remained a reliable muse for Mr. McGrath. In 1996, he performed off-Broadway in a one-man show, “Political Animal,” about a presidential candidate and the “oily steps” taken on the path to election night.

His 2012 play “Checkers” — referring to a famous 1952 speech by then-Sen. Richard M. Nixon addressing corruption allegations — starred Anthony LaPaglia as Nixon and Kathryn Erbe as his wife, Pat.

During the Bill Clinton presidency, Mr. McGrath entertained New Republic readers with “The Flapjack File,” a White House parody as told by a Secret Service agent describing a fast-food-gobbling president and a conniving first lady, “Mrs. Rodham Flap.” He followed it up during the President George W. Bush era with “The Shrub File.”

For the New Yorker, a choice target for Mr. McGrath was Donald Trump, even before his election.

In the Jan. 18, 2016, edition, he contributed a “Shouts & Murmurs” lampoon of candidate Trump talking to an aide named Jeff.

“I proposed internment camps for the Muslims already here, and then I said that we should bar all other Muslims from entering the country. And you’re telling me that my numbers are what?”

“ ‘The highest ever,’ ” Jeff said, dropping behind a club chair as a platinum blow dryer shot past him.”

“Trump wandered over to the window. ‘We have a serious problem,’ he said, almost not eating the pizza. ‘I might win.’ ”

Douglas Geoffrey McGrath was born on Feb. 2, 1958, in Midland, Tex., where his father, Raynsford, was an independent oil producer.

“I think this sums it up,” Mr. McGrath said in “Everything’s Fine” about West Texas. “It’s very hot, it’s very dusty, and it’s very, very windy. It’s like growing up inside a blow dryer full of dirt.”

He dabbled in cultural satire as co-author of “Save an Alligator, Shoot a Preppie: A Terrorist Guide” (1981), and over the years had small acting roles that included the 2012 HBO series “Girls” and in Allen’s films such as “Small Time Crooks” (2000) and “Café Society” (2016).

In 2000, Mr. McGrath starred in the comedy “Company Man,” a film he co-wrote with Peter Askin about a schoolteacher who stumbles into becoming a CIA spy during the Cold War. The cast includes Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Denis Leary.

But Mr. McGrath said he found deeper creative possibilities in bringing literature to the screen, including a 2002 adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby,” by Charles Dickens.

“One of the joys of being a writer — and it’s a short list — especially if you are adapting things for film,” he told Canada’s National Post in 2002, “is that you learn to study the structure of great writers. You really have to take a book apart and put it back together.”

He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Jane Reed Martin; son Henry; and a sister and brother.

In 2016, Mr. McGrath directed HBO’s documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols,” about the late film director. Mr. McGrath, who was also executive producer, shared an Emmy nomination with the other producers.

Mr. McGrath said at times he thought Jane Austen would be a “great collaborator.”

“Because she writes, you know, superb dialogue,” he said in 1996, “she creates memorable characters, she has an extremely clever skill for plotting — and she’s dead, which means, you know, there’s none of that tiresome arguing over who gets the bigger bun at coffee time.”

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