Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Royko columns provide fuel for films

When it comes to the newspaper commentary of Mike Royko, one piece I still remember were his thoughts on the day in the early 1990s when then-President George Bush stopped off at the Billy Goat Tavern during a Chicago appearance and started asking questions like “Where does Royko sit?”

Royko couldn’t get over the fact that the so-called Leader of the Free World would care about where he sat in a Chicago tavern, or that Bush the elder would be deluded enough to think that such talk would make him sound like “a regular guy” to those who happened to be in the bar at the time.

ROYKO, WHO DURING his career in the Chicago news business won a Pulitzer Prize for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, and also wrote for the Sun-Times and Tribune, made a point of saying he avoided the Billy Goat that day, making it sound to some like he was snubbing the president.

But for those of us who relied on the Chicago newspapers of the day for our perspective of the news, such an irreverent attitude toward a president was not surprising, since he made a career of pointing out the vapidity of the political culture that prevailed (and of which some elements continue to live on) at City Hall.

Which is why I must admit I’m finding it hard to believe that a potential film maker is putting together a movie meant to be a love story, and he’s using the old newspaper columns of Royko (who I met only once, briefly, at the Billy Goat when he was in a good mood) as his source material.

It’s true. Norman Skul told both the Wisconsin State Journal and the Chicago Tribune of his plans for a trio of films – all of which would be attempts to turn Royko’s newspaper columns into stories for the screen.

THE STATE JOURNAL, one of the newspapers of Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison, reported that Skul was in Wisconsin last week shooting scenes for the first film, which is based off a column Royko wrote when his first wife, Carol, died suddenly in 1979 following a stroke.

The column was a reminiscing of how he had met his wife when they were both children, and of their early years together when they would take vacation trips to southern Wisconsin as a way of escaping urban life for a few days at a time.

It also was a reminiscing of a time before Royko was anybody anyone would have heard of – in short, when he was an ordinary schnook just like the rest of us.

Some people read the piece as merely a loving tribute to one’s spouse. But as a news professional, I was always particularly impressed because it was obvious the piece was written in the moments right after learning of his wife’s death.

THAT WOULD HAVE been the point when he was most grief-stricken, and most people (perhaps even myself) would have been incapable of articulating any kind of thoughts – let alone a piece that would inspire a decades-later attempt at a film.

But Royko was a certain type of old-school news professional – one who put aside his own tears until his copy was filed.

Skul told the newspapers that he hopes his films (which he is not sure will air as films in theaters, at film festivals, or perhaps as special television programs) will help resurrect interest in the copy of Royko, who literally kept working until just about one month before his death in 1997.

Skul told the newspapers he hasn’t decided yet which other Royko columns will inspire the other two films he has planned – each of which will be about a half-hour in length.

I GET THE sense that Skul is looking for something more human in scale, and will avoid some of the blatant political nitpicking pieces that showed just how craven Chicago political people could be.

Too bad, because it could be interesting to see a short film about Richard J. Daley – as inspired by the viewpoint of the man whose only book that wasn’t a collection of newspaper columns – “Boss” – remains one of the classic pieces of literature about Chicago and urban politics.

But if I had the chance to make a suggestion about a Royko column that should be preserved, so to speak, on celluloid, it should be one of the pieces that Royko wrote throughout the years about his love of baseball – specifically the Chicago Cubs.

Royko was always showing off his infatuation for the ball club that was worthwhile when he was a young child in the 1930s, but was godawful embarrassing for much of his adult life.

IN FACT, IT was a Royko column that first introduced the theory of a Northern Illinois University professor that says a baseball team with too many ex-Cubs players on its rosters is destined to lose in the World Series.

But the ones that come to my mind were the pieces he wrote in the late 1970s when he became disgusted at what he saw as an egotistical type of modern ballplayer on the Cubs who wanted money above all.

Royko actually renounced his Cubs fandom, and wrote in a column that he would root for the White Sox. That encouraged then Sox owner Bill Veeck to turn the sentiment into a stunt – with pictures remaining of the day Royko pledged an oath of allegiance to the White Sox on Veeck’s wooden leg.

But when the next baseball season came around, Royko was back with the deluded Cubbie faithful, his lifelong allegiance just too strong a part of his personal character to suddenly switch teams. He went to his grave a Cubs fan.

PERHAPS IT IS just me, but I see a short film that could study the role sports play in our society, and why people feel so compelled to be infatuated with an entity such as a sports team that NEVER wins.

There is one thing I have to admit would be pleasing in seeing a trio of Royko-inspired films. They could help eliminate the blot created by the film “Continental Divide.”

Released in 1981, the film starred John Belushi as a Royko-like newspaper columnist in Chicago who fell in love with a nature lover whose work had her living in a cabin in the Continental Divide.

Belushi just wasn’t romantic comedy material, particularly since most of his fans prefer to think of him as Bluto Blutarski, the “Animal House” frat house member who smashed someone’s guitar for singing a particularly schmaltzy version of “the Riddle Song” (“I gave my love a cherry, …”)

YET THAT MEDIOCRE film gets brought up whenever someone tries to talk of the greater cultural significance of Royko’s work. It would be nice if Skul could create something more worthy of the late columnist.

About the best thing that could be said of “Continental Divide” is that Belushi’s take on a Chicago newspaper columnist would kick the butt of Nick Nolte’s attempt at portraying a Chicago newspaper columnist a decade later in the dreadful film, “I Love Trouble.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: A trio of films based on the newspaper columns of Mike Royko is an (http://www.madison.com/wsj/home/column/moe/308770) intriguing cinematic concept, particularly if it could eliminate the image that John Belushi created of Royko from his 1981 film (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-talk-royko_11oct11,0,6696510.story) “Continental Divide.”

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