The Genius of Buck Henry
January 29, 2020
The term "Writer's Writer" gets thrown around a lot, and it will here too, unabated, as there are few writers to whom the term more aptly applies than the great Buck Henry, who departed Earth this month, at the age of 89.
Not only is Henry one of the most well-known and well-regarded screenwriters of all time, he is one of the first screenwriters that the general public was actually aware of. A feat in pre-mass and social media times; a testament to the distinctive nature of Henry’s work.
There can be no overstating the importance of the screenplay he is most associated with: 1967's The Graduate. In adapting Charles Webb's novel about a young man unsure of his place in the world, Henry articulated the neuroses of an entire generation.
Mark Harris’ magnificent book, Pictures at a Revolution, examined how the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 — In The Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Dr. Dolittle, The Graduate, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner — represented a turning point in Hollywood history. Henry practically acted as the fulcrum on which a generational cultural shift occured. Although it had one foot in the past, The Graduate foretold Hollywood's future.
Upon Henry's passing, Harris spoke movingly about their interactions. “He lived in many realms, observed everything, missed nothing. It was a privilege to listen to him.”
While the screenplay for The Graduate alone ensured Henry's legendary status in film history, the writer simultaneously ensured his legacy with the incredibly influential TV spy satire, Get Smart, that he co-created with Mel Brooks. The actor also paid tribute to Henry after his passing.
A breeding ground for future comedic talent, and an oft-cited inspiration for many modern writers, Get Smart exemplified the intelligently stupid quality of Henry's zaniest work.
With his reputation as Hollywood's top satirist now formed, Henry was the natural choice to write the adaptation of Joseph Heller's zeitgeist-capturing novel Catch-22, for which he re-teamed with Graduate director Mike Nichols. The resulting 1970 film starring Alan Arkin wasn't a major success, but it remains one of Hollywood's most interesting "failures."
Henry's work throughout the '70s included numerous high-profile screenplays, including those for Herbert Ross's The Owl and the Pussycat, Peter Bogdonavich's What's Up, Doc?, and Mike Nichols' The Day of the Dolpin. During the same decade, he pioneered something that has since become a badge of honor for any quality writer: creating an acclaimed TV show which is quickly cancelled. This was the case with Henry's short-lived-but-cultishly-adored space satire Quark, starring Richard Benjamin.
The '80s saw Henry both write and act for a quickly-cancelled sketch show called The New Show, which struggled to even develop a cult following, but grew out of the improv-trained Henry's many successful turns as the guest host of Saturday Night Live. It also stands alongside many supporting turns as testament to Henry's rare ability as a writer to excel in front of the camera, as well.
That ability was put to good use in Robert Altman's 1992 Hollywood satire The Player, in which Henry had a cameo as himself, pitching studio execs on a sequel to The Graduate.
Although that scene played off of Henry's most famous credit, his mass-market edginess in actuality spanned multiple generations. One of his most acclaimed screenplays was for Gus Van Sant's 1995 jet black comedy, To Die For, which Henry adapted from Joyce Maynard's book.
Henry's last high-profile work as a screenwriter was for Warren Beatty's troubled 2001 film, Town & Country, a notorious flop that nevertheless speaks to the top tier nature of Henry's collaborations.
Screenwriting is an invisible art, and people like Buck Henry make it a little more visible. Thank you, and rest in peace, Buck.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com