A transcript of last night’s speech.
Photograph by Neil Rasmus.
When I walked in, a woman came up with a little recorder and she said, “I am really sorry, but can I have a word with you?” And I assumed she was part of the program and so I said—I wanted to be helpful—so I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Just a few words, I just want to talk about [he mumbles into his hand].” And I said, “I’m sorry?” I thought she was saying something important, and I said, “What?” And she said, [he mumbles into his hand], and I said, “I’m really sorry,” and she said, “What do you think about Trump and Huckabee?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I was so surprised. And she says, “Now, what do you think about Trump running for president?” And I said, “I have absolutely no thought.”
I am happy to say that the reason I am here and that you are all here is such a good one, because I am here to dedicate an award to a man who is so deserving of it, and for me to see him come to this place in his life—his life has been so rich and full and varied in so many interesting ways—is truly an honor. And I guess some writers can write and be really flashy and just score big on their first work, and then maybe they fade away after that, maybe that was too much too soon, and other writers just build an aggregate over the years, and they just grind and they develop and they work and they grow, and they grow with time—they were always good, they stayed true to form, true to themselves, true to the form that they developed for themselves. And then they rise up to that point of shining light and that is where Jim is, so I am really happy to be here to support him and his family.
Because it is personal for me, I will just share with you real quick—I don’t want to have somebody sweeping up around my feet and cleaning up while I am still talking—the way I came across Jim was that I read his work early in the sixties; I read A Sport and a Pastime, and I was immediately stuck by the tone and the style of his work. And then I read a screenplay that I think was originally called Then We Were Three—I think it has been changed now to Three—and I was very very taken with that because there was a leanness to it and there was a tone that suggested that this writer knew enough to be able to compress what he knew and still have it be strong. And it seemed to have all the elements of what I was looking for in terms of film writing—to get back to the essentials. It also suggested that there was a knowledge of the complexity of life that includes sadness as well as joy and sex and all that comes with it. It is the sadness that comes from the realization that things may not work out the way you thought and so forth. I was really taken with that.
It was at a point in my life where I had been an actor for hire for several years in theater and film and I was looking to be able to tell my own stories about how I saw the country that I was born and raised in. And it was a country that was different from the ballyhoo that was going on, and I came of age at the end of the Second World War and the postwar, when there was a lot of sloganeering in this country about how great we were—and truly we were. I grew up in a lower-working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I saw it differently. One of the ways I saw it differently struck me when I was young, because I was into sports, and that was kind of a way out for me, and we were always told, we were always given these slogans, like “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” And I came to know that was a lie, that in this country everything mattered as to whether you won or not. And as I grew older and gained more experience, I realized that there was a whole other American underneath the America that we were given in red, white, and blue sloganeering. It was still a good America, but it was a far more complex America. It wasn’t America that was just black and white, it wasn’t an America that was that simply formed; we just like to think that way. So I wanted to make stories about that.
And so I had this idea about trilogy of films about the subject of winning, and I thought, Oh, the three areas that I could pick that had a great impact on our society are sports, politics, and business. So the first one was sports, because I had been in sports, and I thought, Well, we’ve done baseball, we’ve seen baseball, and we’ve seen football. What’s another sport that we haven’t seen that might carry something more interesting? And that was skiing. Skiing—because I saw it as, Well, that part of skiing was downhill skiing, which in some cases was done with suicidal intention. It carried poetry to me.
So I met Jim. I was impressed with his work and we met, and I was taken aback when I first met him, because he looked like a military man. And I thought, Well, that doesn’t fit with what I am expecting a writer to look like. But of course he had been in the military, and this was in the transition in between his life before and the life he was about to have. And so when we talked it came pretty clear that we had a lot in common about how we saw the world, how we saw sports, how we saw America, so it worked out for us. We went to Europe to make the film Downhill Racer, and the studio didn’t want to make it, they didn’t believe in it; they thought, No, no one is going to go see that. I think they were right, by the way, but I didn’t know that. But anyway, so Jim and I traveled through Europe with the U.S. Ski team during the ’68 Olympics.
During that time we were able to make a connection that developed over time, and I found that there was a real kinship, at least from my point of view, about how we saw things, what we thought was funny, what we thought might be sad. I didn’t get a lot of information out of Jim; Jim wasn’t much about talking about himself, so I did not know about the depth of his background in the military. So we were just kind of in the present, and I was very taken by how he observed people and how he could see the good in them, the fun in them, the hypocrisy in them, and the absurdity in a given situation. So we just had a great time. We skied, we traveled, we lived low on the hog, and we shared humor and, by the way, he is really funny. He is really a funny guy. I mean he might have a melancholic demeanor of sorts, but he is really funny. When he smiles, it is like the smile of a ten-year-old; there is something wonderful about him. Well, we had a good time, and then the film was made. To make a point about winning at any cost that works … a couple of things were happening that year—it was 1969. One was that money was entering the picture of the sports world, so the commercialization of sports was just starting. And so we put that in the film, from observing what was going on in the ski team at the time. And Jim scripted a screenplay that was so lean and so spare and yet essential that I just felt that I was a very, very lucky man to have found him for that story.
So at that time, as we were traveling, he told me a couple of interesting things, but one of them stuck in my mind all this time. There were two things in my life that have stuck in my mind in terms of being instructive, in terms of the way I see the world, what I wanted to do with my own work. One was from Georgia O’Keeffe, where she said that it is by the process of selection, elimination, and emphasis that you get to the true meaning of things. That struck me as right, not just good. And Jim said, when I tried to talk about his work—he was reluctant to talk about his work—but he did say this, he said, Well, I guess I see the work of writing as, If you hold a leaf up to the sun, the sunlight will show you the vein of the leaf, and I like to focus on the vein of the leaf rather than the leaf itself. Those two things have stuck with me, and it has certainly stuck with him as he has developed.
And you know, when I think back I think, Jesus, what an incredible life, and if I think—and I didn’t know this at the time—if I think about a life that included being inherited from a military family, going to West Point, graduating from West Point, going into military service, being a pilot, being a combat pilot, fighting all these missions, and spending twelve years doing it? I would imagine that almost anybody else of that order would keep going, would follow that through to the very end, and that’s their life, and that’s the end of the road. But the fact that the man could stop that at that point in his life and begin a new life, with such verve, with such hope, really impressed me. And then on top of that to find out that that new life could find such a wonderful artisan in Jim—wow, that’s impressive, that’s somebody that is really living the full life. And to see how he has progressed, and of course I have seen some of his other work; I have read, I think, just about everything that Jim has ever written. But the thing that really got me was Light Years, and the way he could write about … I guess I would call it the space in-between, where the complexity was and the ambiguity lies, because that is a part of our lives, and Jim has just nailed that over and over and over again. So you could read it, and you could, and before you knew it … I kind of felt the same way about Willa Cather: you could read Willa Cather and get to the end of the book and say, Well, wait a minute, not a lot has happened, why am I so affected? And I think it was because of what was between the lines. Somehow what came up was what was between the lines. Jim has that ability; it is the space in between, where so much sits, that he pulls out. And he pulls it out because of a deep understanding, because he is with this life. So I can’t tell you how proud I am to get to this point in both of our lives, where I guess we look back, we are wiser maybe, and we can look back to a time when we were younger and remember when we were brave and a little crazy maybe and feel like we are lucky to be here. I just feel I am lucky to be here tonight to honor a man who is my friend and whom I respect deeply. So Jim, come on up.
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