With the writers’ strike hopefully at close-to-resolution point in the US, we’ll still be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. It might be seen as a little off-course to proclaim an Oscar-winning screenwriter as unsung, but in the case of Nancy Dowd, we’ll gladly challenge anyone on our thesis here. Though she should rightfully stand next to pioneering female contemporaries like Joan Tewkesbury and Polly Platt, Nancy Dowd’s name is rarely flung around these days in film commentary circles…which may very well come down to the screenwriter’s own apparently innate sense of modesty and humility, and also due to the fact that some of Dowd’s most high-profile work was done without credit at the time of the various films’ release, or was written under various pseudonyms. Nancy Dowd worked on the screenplays for some of the most fascinating films of the 1970s and 1980s, and she is wholly due a little celebration here.
Born in 1945, Nancy Dowd was a graduate of the UCLA Film School, and made her first big splash with the raucous and unforgettable 1977 ice hockey comedy Slap Shot. Directed with a wonderful sense of freewheeling flair by the great George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Sting), the film stars a brilliantly on-point Paul Newman as a veteran ice hockey coach who drives a struggling team to success by encouraging them to play as hard and as violently as possible. Incredibly crude, utterly hilarious and jammed with inventively profane locker room talk, the film has long prompted shock from many when they realise it was written by a woman. The film was inspired by the experiences of Nancy’s hockey-playing brother, Ned, who also appears in the film.
The most famous figures in the film are the bespectacled, thuggish, but childlike Hanson Brothers, with the actors who played them – Dave Hanson and the brothers Jeff and Steve Carlson – even doing in-character event appearances decades after the film’s release. With a very minimal online presence, Nancy Dowd’s main appearances come here, with the screenwriter actually protesting the actors’ involvement in these appearances. ““I own the rights to live representation,” Nancy Dowd told The New York Times. “We’ve put them on notice and sent a letter to their lawyer. What they do in these shows, those are not the Hansons. I created the Hansons. The Hansons were innocent goons. Not some dirty old guys in wigs. They tell dirty-old-man jokes. I find it offensive.”
Regardless of where she might stand on The Hanson Brothers, Nancy Dowd’s screenplay for Slap Shot is truly staggering. Underneath the verbal barrages and boisterous behaviour are strong themes on male-female relationships, male-male relationships, the decline of the American heartland, and the importance of sport to the American psyche. It’s a brilliant mélange, and while the film’s ingenious looseness can perhaps be credited to George Roy Hill, Nancy Dowd is the true author of Slap Shot.
Nancy Dowd’s most high-profile work came next, when the screenwriter toiled alongside Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones on the script for Hal Ashby’s masterful 1978 drama, Coming Home, the tough, unflinching and truly lyrical story of a married woman (Jane Fonda) who has an affair with a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran (Jon Voight), leading to heartbreak and devastation for her military man husband (Bruce Dern). Coming Home won Oscars for Voight, Fonda, and its screenwriters, who combined to create something truly special. Nancy Dowd receives the often nebulous and very misleading “story by” credit, but her mix of sensitivity and rawness are a major part of the film’s success.
Dowd did uncredited writing work on three absolute classics – 1978’s Straight Time (we’d happily bow before anyone that had anything to do with this majestic and criminally underrated crime drama starring a never-better Dustin Hoffman), 1979’s North Dallas Forty (the saltiness of this Nick Nolte-starring gridiron comedy-drama is very much redolent of Dowd’s Slap Shot) and Robert Redford’s 1980 multi-Oscar winning family dysfunction masterwork Ordinary People – before creating her second solo-slam-dunk as a screenwriter. Directed by music industry legend and occasional filmmaker Lou Adler (Cheech & Ching’s Up In Smoke is his only other directorial credit), 1982’s Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (on which Dowd inexplicably credits herself as Rob Morton) is a wonderfully entertaining, fictionalised critique on the commercialisation and exploitation at the heart of rock music.
Diane Lane is brilliant as Corinne Burns, a teenage suburban brat who forms The Stains, a primitive/punk/New Wave band who sound like an even more detached Liz Phair. Hitting the road with a cock-rock has-been (The Tubes’ Fee Waybill) and an angry young punk group led by the tough but vulnerable Billy Faith (a trim and fresh-faced Ray Winstone, playing out front of The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and The Clash’s Paul Simonon), The Stains quickly become a youth phenomenon. Sullenly spitting out their song, “Waste Of Time”, and stridently hurling their catch cry, “Don’t put out!”, the trio inspire an army of proto-feminist teenage look-a-likes and a subsequent media frenzy.
Grimly authentic, Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is absolutely unrelenting in its cynicism, as the icy, self-centred Corinne uses and exploits everyone and everything around her (even someone’s untimely death!) in order to achieve stardom. Punk music – despite its rebellious stance – is largely presented as a commodity to be bought and sold when in the wrong hands, with only a true believer like Billy able to stay true to its outlaw essence. Filled with telling, prescient moments (the film is often heralded as a precursor to the “Riot Grrrl” movement) and vivid characters, Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a potent music movie, and an often eye popping (check out the teenage Corinne’s see-through-blouse-and-black-undies get-up!) minor cult classic.
On the back of the brilliant, ahead-of-their-time Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Slap Shot, Nancy Dowd should really be some kind of feminist poster girl…but she’s not. One can presume that Dowd brought the feminist touches to Jonathan Demme’s underrated WW2-set drama Swing Shift, which detailed the huge shift that the war represented for women on the homefront, many of whom stepped into previously male-dominated workplaces while the men were off at war. Dowd again inexplicably credits herself as Rob Morton here, for way too long denying herself credit for this charming, intelligent and deeply moving film starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
Now seemingly retired and in her late seventies, Nancy Dowd continued to do uncredited work on strong films throughout the 1980s (Richard Franklin’s rock-solid 1984 kids’ thriller Cloak & Dagger, Taylor Hackford’s stylish 1985 Mikhail Baryshnikov vehicle White Nights), before closing out her career (as Ernest Morton, for god’s sake!) in 1989 with Let It Ride, an astute comedy about the dangerous lure of gambling with Richard Dreyfuss. A truly gifted writer of great depth and ingenuity with a profoundly fascinating body of work to her (way too often non)-credit, Nancy Dowd’s is a name that all film lovers should know…damn those pseudonyms!
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Barry Michael Cooper, Gladys Hill, Walon Green, Eleanor Bergstein, William W. Norton, Helen Childress, Bill Lancaster, Lucinda Coxon, Ernest Tidyman, Shauna Cross, Troy Kennedy Martin, Kelly Marcel, Alan Sharp, Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher ,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.