Today’s news about Hugh Jackman signing to star in an Aaron Sorkin-scripted Broadway Houdini musical is an opportunity to re-run last year’s piece about the dramatic weakness of the life of Harry Houdini. The only way to make any Houdini piece work is to abandon his actual history and make something up.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s the late Stuart Byron and I had a small business called re:visions that sold analyses of stalled or otherwise troubled film projects. 23 years ago we co-researched and co-wrote an exhaustive 36-page analysis about why Rastar Prods. (the Columbia-based filmmaking company run by the legendary Ray Stark) had repeatedly tried and failed to get its own Houdini movie before the cameras in the ’70s and ’80s, despite having commissioned scripts from the highly skilled James Bridges, Carol Sobieski and William Goodhart.
Our opinion, in a nutshell, was basically “forget it.” We delivered our opinion on page 4, as follows:
“We began our immersion into the Houdini material under the hope that we’d strike oil, some structural flaw or hidden theme that everyone had missed, and thus resurrect the [Houdini] project as it was originally conceived. But after slogging through three Houdini biographies, two-and-a-half stage treatments done for Ray Stark, all of the scripts (some Rastar-owned, some not) and treatments, and various research materials assembled in the Rastar riles through the years, we came to a conclusion which surprised us — certainly one for which we were unprepared.
“The material isn’t there.
“It is not the fault of James Bridges, Carol Sobieski or William Goodhart that none could write a producible script. Harry Houdini may have had a fascinating career. His stage act may have been the biggest knockout of his day. And he may have had, on some deeply repressed level, strong inner conflicts that render him a subject for psychological discourse.
“But he did not lead an interesting life. Indeed, of all the major celebrities of the 20th Century, it could be argued that Harry Houdini led the dullest and most uneventful off-stage existence. Houdini may have led a life that, to him, was incandescent, but reading about requires great amounts of coffee and fortitude. The dramatic dullness is unrelenting. We wished that once, just once, Harry Houdini had failed in some performance and been publicly humiliated. Or that he suffered some crisis of confidence. But it never happened.
“Houdini’s is an example, in fact, of the sort of life in which, dramatically speaking, nothing happens.
“He never fell in love with a woman other than his wife (this no adulterous conflicts or guilt, leading to some cinematic flashpoint). He did not have to leave his country and become an exile. He had no serious rivals or feuds (except for the wars of rhetoric between himself and the spiritualists, fought with terminology and metaphor of an obscure, hard-to-grasp nature). His career never stalled due to some interruptus, like having to fight in World War I, or suffering injury or serous illness, or becoming an alcoholic or dope addict.”
The whole reason for focusing on Harry Houdini is the metaphor of escape, and the fact many of his escapes were done in “real” environments and not as a showbiz presentation.