When you talk about the career of Buck Henry, you do so in two parts. The one in front of the camera and the one away from it. Both of them were fabulous.
I suppose the latter is the more lasting one. That’s what happens if you’re the man who wrote The Graduate. That’s hard to top.
Before that thin air mountain peak, Henry wrote mostly for television, including the Steve Allen Show and David Frost’s The Week That Was. He also created the long-running comedy Get Smart.
His first script for film came in 1964 with The Troublemaker. A movie I haven’t seen, but whose description demands I must:
“A naive chicken farmer from New Jersey moves to Greenwich Village to open a coffee house.”
Admit it, you’re smiling already right now. Next you’ll be on Amazon looking for a stream of it. Buck Henry wrote a movie about a chicken farmer. It’s funny on its face.
Of course, The Graduate changed everything. Not only his career, but the course of film itself. Writing a decade defining all-time classic will do that. Even people who haven’t seen it get a Mrs. Robinson joke. Think about that: writing a film that people don’t have to see to know something very specific about it. In a sense, Mrs. Robinson was that generation’s Rosebud. The mercurial thing people knew about whether they looked upon it or not. Henry received an Oscar nomination for his work.
Three years later, Henry reteamed with Graduate Director Mike Nichols for Catch-22, an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s arguably unfilmable book. While it fell short of the heights of their previous film together (how could it not), Catch is an exceedingly admirable effort — the type of film that the phrase “honorable failure” was created for. The kind of movie that may have fallen short of its own ambitions, but was often more interesting and impressive than films that achieved theirs.
That same year he wrote the cheerful lark, The Owl and the Pussycat starring Barbra Streisand and George Segal. It’s fun, if a bit dated. His next collaboration with Streisand was far more successful. Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? is the last truly great screwball comedy. Inspired by 30s films like Bringing Up Baby, it’s no grand statement to say it may have surpassed the movies it set out to honor.
The next year brought his third collaboration with Nichols, The Day of the Dolphin. Another film that fell short of its mark, but is still worth seeing nonetheless.
In 1978, he joined Warren Beatty in front of and behind the camera as co-star, co-writer, and co-director on the delightful smash hit, Heaven Can Wait. A film that could have been ridiculous (the whole football angle is rife with peril) was instead crafted into an impossibly charming, frequently funny, and even heart-tugging romantic comedy that I personally adore. Perhaps mostly for making me fall in love with Julie Christie almost as hard as Warren Beatty did. Henry received his second — and last — Oscar nomination. This time as a director.
It would take more than two decades for Henry to score another screenwriting triumph. His script for the dark as night satire To Die For did more than just restore his bona fides, it arguably established Nicole Kidman’s while also helping Gus Van Sant recover his touch after his disastrous Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.
After scribing Warren Beatty’s 2001 box office bomb, Town and Country, Henry’s writing output slowed significantly. His last filmed screenplay was of Barry Levinson’s largely overlooked oddity The Humbling starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig. I’m not sure it quite works, but it has several moments of grace in it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about that other career of Henry’s – the one as an actor. He was a supremely ordinary looking fellow, but one smirk of those thin lips could make the corner of your mouth return in kind. He always looked like he knew something you didn’t. I’m fairly certain he did.
One of his few lead roles was in Milos Forman’s 1971 English language debut, Taking Off. A wonderfully witty and decidedly European take on American life in the late 60s. It’s one of those terrific lost films that deserves rediscovery.
One of my personal favorite parts of his came in 1976 with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Henry plays Oliver Farnsworth, a patent attorney representing an alien played by David Bowie (I can’t begin to tell you how fun it was to write that description). Just the sight of those two decidedly singular men sharing space onscreen brings me joy.
While most of Henry’s roles were relatively small, they were often quite memorable and several came in the service of worthy films like John Cassavettes’ Gloria, Paul Bartel’s wicked satire Eating Raoul, and Robert Altman’s extraordinary Short Cuts.
Henry was so wry that he could steal a scene with little to no dialogue, as he did in Albert Brooks’ lovely 1991 comedy Defending Your Life. As a lawyer subbing in for Brooks’ regular attorney (played by Rip Torn), Henry arrived at court to make the case for Brooks getting into heaven. What follows is a hilarious sequence where Henry makes no effort at all to further Brooks’ cause and can barely be bothered to speak at all. It’s beyond minimalism, it’s almost nothingism. Yet with every mild glance, and the slightest upturned corner of the mouth, Henry steals the scene practically by just being there. By just being Buck Henry.
I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe there’s a “next place” that we all are going to. But if there is a heaven, and this is the time Henry might need to secure entry, I do know this, he will need no attorney to speak for him.
His life can speak just fine for itself.
Buck Henry died January 8th. He was 89 years old.