Unsung Auteurs: Leslie Dixon

July 20, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of film practitioners who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who penned Mrs. Doubtfire, Overboard, and Limitless.

There is arguably no profession more habitually unsung in the film industry than the screenwriter. These are the people that germinate and birth an idea, and it is usually in them that the creative spark truly resides. While it’s possible to make a good film out of a bad script, it’s certainly not easy, and pretty much any great movie is more than likely to have a pretty good screenplay too. With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’ll be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters for the next weeks in the Unsung Auteurs column. Apart from Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Dalton Trumbo and a few others, we could have picked just about any screenwriter, but the first scribe to receive a little overdue credit is the very talented Leslie Dixon.

Born in New York and raised in California, Leslie Dixon comes from rarefied creative bloodlines (she is the granddaughter of photographer Dorothea Lange and landscaper painter Maynard Dixon), but with no connections to the film business. When she realised in her mid-twenties that she wanted to write screenplays, Dixon moved from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she eventually landed a job as a studio script reader. “No one gave a shit where you went to college, if you went to college, if you just got out of prison, as long as you had a good story,” Dixon told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “It’s one of the few businesses that could swing with my eccentricities.”

Leslie Dixon

Spending all day reading the scripts of other writers, and learning what kind of scripts caught the eye of producers and studios, Dixon received her own ersatz education in how to become a successful writer. With this experience behind her, Dixon collaborated with another writer on a screenplay, which ended up getting her both an agent and an offer of $30,000 from Columbia Pictures. Though the screenplay was never produced, its sale got Dixon a little cache, and also provided the nascent screenwriter with a huge dose of confidence.

Dixon’s first produced screenplay would come in 1987 with Outrageous Fortune, a response to producer Robert Cort’s call for a “female buddy picture.” Dixon delivered in spades with a raucous, fast-paced, entertaining screenplay about two very different women (played by Bette Milder and Shelley Long) who realise they have been sleeping with the same man, and are then drawn into his dangerous life when he disappears. Directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story, The Hospital), Outrageous Fortune was a big commercial hit, and it set Dixon up as a reliable writer of broad comedy.

Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn in Overboard.

After doing some late work on Blake Edwards’ 1987 Bruce Willis-Kim Basinger disappointment Blind Date, Dixon penned the ingenious charmer Overboard, in which a bout of amnesia sends a pompous heiress into the rugged, working-class orbit of a single father carpenter. A hit for director Garry Marshall and stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard was further proof that Dixon was a real talent, and she followed it with a co-write on the sequel Look Who’s Talking Too, which was directed by her husband, Tom Ropelewski, with whom she had previously co-written the 1989 Patrick Dempsey vehicle Loverboy. Dixon was then brought on to adapt Anne Fine’s novel Alias Madame Doubtfire for director Chris Columbus, who cast Robin Williams in the title role of Mrs. Doubtfire and created a hit of monster proportions.

In the years since, Leslie Dixon has turned out a long list of highly polished, commercially aware hit comedy scripts (Carl Reiner’s 1997 Bette Midler vehicle That Old Feeling; the excellent 2003 Lindsay Lohan-Jamie Lee Curtis remake of Freaky Friday; the 2005 Reese Witherspoon-Mark Ruffalo starrer Just Like Heaven; the 2007 adaptation of the stage musical Hairspray; and The Farrelly Brothers’ unfortunate 2007 disappointment The Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller), while also flexing her dramatic muscles (the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair; 2000’s Pay It Forward; and 2011’s excellent and topical thriller Limitless, with Bradley Cooper) and working as a producer too (1990’s Madhouse; 2000’s The Next Best Thing; 2014’s Gone Girl).

Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Fascinatingly, Dixon also has a very surprising take on what it’s like to be a female screenwriter in Hollywood. “I’ve never experienced the slightest prejudice being a female screenwriter,” Dixon told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “I don’t know of any executive that has ever looked at the title page of a script, seen that it was written by a woman and thrown it in the ‘I’m not going to read this’ pile. They’ll give it a few pages, and if you catch them in a narrative, they don’t care whether it’s a man or a woman. It’s much tougher for female directors because there’s so much physical stamina involved, and there’s an unspoken prejudice that ‘the little lady might not be up for being general of an army.’ But a writing job, there’s never been so many of them for women. ‘Come on down!’”

Though far from being a household name, or even one known to cineastes, the talented Leslie Dixon – like most of her screenwriting colleagues currently on strike – has never really received any of the credit for the hit comedies that she’s penned, with most of that cache going to the films’ directors or stars. It all starts with the words, however, and Leslie Dixon has long established herself as one of the most commercially viable, but largely unheralded, scribes in Hollywood.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn Shelton,Tom GriesRanda Haines, Leslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly,Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.