Larry McMurtry’s books as terms of endearment made great movies

The close companion of the Oscar-winning novelist talks about her best friend: “We were like twins. We finished each other’s sentences.”

Diana Ossana is on her back, racked with pain. She just lost her best friend and writing partner, Larry McMurtry, a man she cared for through open heart surgery in 1991 and a couple of other heart attacks, who after three years of battling heart failure congestive, she finally succumbed Thursday at her home in Archer City. , Texas. He was 84 years old. “Larry moved on through stubbornness and brilliance,” said Ossana. “He kept going. I feel like a limb is being cut off. We are all quite devastated. “

Ossana picked up the phone to talk about her writing partner of 28 years, with whom she shared the 2006 Screenplay Oscar for adapting Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” “We were each other’s best friends,” he said. “Larry used to tell people to call me in the last 10 years or so, ‘Ask Diana, she knows me better than I do.’ From the beginning of our friendship, it felt symbiotic, perhaps the way twins feel. I am not a twin. But we would finish each other’s sentences. “

The screenwriter is a member of a great Texas-born sisterhood of friends, Texas-born McMurtry, who nurtured over the decades, from journalist Maureen Orth to the late production and costume designer Polly Platt, whom he met during the development and production of her husband Peter Bogdanovich’s film “The Last Picture Show” (1971), the second Oscar-winning film adapted from one of McMurtry’s novels. (McMurtry spoke to Karina Longworth for her well-informed “You Must Remember This” podcast on Platt).

Ellen Burstyn in “The Last Picture Show”

Columbia Photos

Did you have romantic feelings for Ossana? “I don’t know, he may have felt that way about me,” she said. “The reason it lasted was that it didn’t turn into that. He used to tell me about all women. At one point, I asked, ‘Do all these women know each other?’ His eyes widened. ‘No, oh no.’ He would get on the phone and talk to five, six, seven before bed. It wasn’t a lot of conversation, mainly listening. He was fascinated with women. He thought they were one of the great mysteries of the universe. He had no interest in men. He said, ‘If you want to learn about emotions, you have to go to women.’

When he was writing his early novels, such as 1961’s “Horseman, Pass By” (which became Martin Ritt’s Oscar-winning film “Hud” starring Paul Newman) and 1963’s “Leaving Cheyenne” (which became his less successful film, Lumet’s Sidney “Lovin ‘Molly”), McMurtry married and divorced fellow academic Jo Scott, raised their son, musician James McMurtry, and never remarried until 2011, when he married impulsively with his old crush, Faye Kesey, the widow of his old friend from Stanford. and his literary rival, Ken Kesey. The couple moved in with Ossana.

“I think Larry decided he wanted to have a partner,” Ossana said. “We used to go there and visit them in Oregon. He called her, she appeared for a few days and decided that she wanted to get married. We’re all like, ‘What? Actually?’ They were old. The way I explained it to people was, ‘They don’t have a lot of time for a two-year commitment. They want to get on with what’s left with their lives. ‘ Faye was very devoted to Larry. “

“Terms of affection”

Paramount images

In 1991, Ossana retired the usually prolific novelist, who published 29 novels in his lifetime, including the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove (which produced the beloved 1989 Emmy and Peabody-winning Western miniseries, starring Robert Duvall. , Tommy Lee Jones, and Diane Lane), three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than 30 scripts, stemming from a depression that left him lying on his couch in Tucson for a year. “He had open heart surgery,” he said. “I thought he had made a wonderful physical recovery after six weeks, but then darkness descended on him. He couldn’t seem to find the light. “

But he kept writing “Streets of Laredo” on his Hermes on Ossana’s Tucson kitchen counter, his darkest and saddest Western novel. Simon and Schuster wanted the manuscript to be delivered on discs, so Ossana entered its pages on her computer. “While I was doing it, we talked about it a lot,” he said. “That’s what happened. He came to trust me and my judgment.” McMurtry never happened to type on a computer. “We tried it about 10 years ago,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t stand the touch of the keyboard.”

But when the novel was finished, McMurtry “stopped reading, writing, he was just looking at the mountains,” he said. “He was someone who read five newspapers a day and God knows how many books a week. Months went by, more than a year. “To bring him out of his gloom, she told him a story about the depression outlaw” Pretty Boy Floyd. “

“I kept getting offers to write scripts and turning them down,” he said. “I was fascinated with the difference between mythology and reality. There was a lot of that in the Pretty Boy Floyd story. At first he played along, but halfway through I could see something sparkling in his eyes. Indeed, he said, ‘I’ll write it, but only if you write it with me.’

This is how Ossana brought McMurtry back to life. Writing together “was very easy, because Larry and I finished each other’s sentences, our feelings and our thoughts,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t argue a lot. But he was never mean or threatening. “

Together they wrote two novels, “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Zeke and Ned”, and countless screenplays and teleplays. They adapted their continuations of “Lonesome Dove” “Streets of Laredo” (1995), “Dead Man’s Walk (1996) and” Comanche Moon “(2008) as a miniseries. And memorably, Ossana convinced McMurtry to co-write a script for the novel. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” The writers convinced the reluctant Proulx to allow them to adapt her heartbreaking Western gay romance, which after many false starts was finally achieved with Ang Lee directing Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. The film was a success and won three Oscars in 2006, including for Adapted Screenplay, notoriously losing the Oscar for Best Picture for “Crash.”

Secret in the mountain

“Secret in the mountain”

Focus functions

The secret to McMurtry’s extraordinary success was his characters. His books and film adaptations were not based on plot. Adapted for the screen by rookie writer-director James L. Brooks, “Terms of Endearment” performed as well as it did (winning five Oscars) because audiences were drawn to Houston’s imperious widow, Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) and his fierce devotion to his less glamorous and realistic daughter Emma (Debra Winger), and his delightful flirtation with former astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). (“I love you too, boy”). “‘Lonesome Dove’ was accepted because the characters were so powerful,” said Ossana. “They got over the myth. He wrote the most realistic compelling characters, good and bad, that actors want to play and people want to love. “

Sitting here thinking about the greatness of Larry McMurtry.
Among the best writers in history. I remember when he sent me on my way to adapt “Terms” – his refusal to let me have him in awe. And the fact that he was personally working his rare bookstore’s cash register while doing so.

– james l. streams (@canyonjim) March 26, 2021

McMurtry leaves Booked Up, his only surviving Archer City bookstore, to be taken over by his manager Khristal Collins, as well as a personal library filled with 30,000 more volumes. It will take some time to figure out what to make of several unpublished novels and shorter writings, including “62 Women,” a memoir on McMurtry’s relationships over the years, and “A Night at the White House,” about a dinner party. Reagan state. McMurtry attended with Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and John Travolta.

"Good joe bell"

“Joe Bell”

Courtesy of TIFF

Most recently, Ossana and McMurtry collaborated on the script for the Toronto 2020 debut “Joe Bell” (2021, Solstice Studios), starring Mark Wahlberg, which was originally developed as a project in 2015 for director Cary Fukunaga, who went on to make the James Bond movie. “There is no time to die.” It is based on the true story of a working-class father with a gay son who makes a crusade against bullying by taking a walk across the country. “That script languished, as scripts do,” Ossana said. “It was picked up by producers who found Ray Green to direct it.”

There are lots of unproduced scripts. “Not many scripts were made,” said Ossana. “They are on the shelves everywhere.”

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