Broad Cinema: The Scant And Simple Story Of Carol Sobieski

We need a Carol retrospective and we need one now.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week we are celebrating screenwriter Carol Sobieski. Get your tickets to Alamo Drafthouse's Annie movie party here! 

When I was a child, I was obsessed with Annie. I drove my parents bonkers watching it over and over, wearing out three VHS tapes in the process. Annie, to me, is the best memory of my entire childhood, and rewatching it as an adult is an absolute pleasure (jokes that went over my head as a kid, such as Daddy Warbucks mockingly sneering “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat”, are delightful now).

Annie, of course, was based on the Broadway musical by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan, which in turn was based on the 1920’s comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray. The script was lovingly adapted by the late Carol Sobieski (1939-1990); she also penned the scripts for Fried Green Tomatoes, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and The Toy (among others). Carol had a huge impact on my younger years, and, I suspect, many other women like me; I never even knew her name until recently.

There is very little on the internet to be found on Carol, beyond her biographical information and her film credits. This is a shame, because I am interested in learning how she approached her adaptations, carefully constructing three-dimensional characters from those she found already on the page. Her New York Times obituary says she was “widely praised for her sensitive characterizations”, but I can’t seem to find much that praise readily available.

Carol (O’Brien) was born in 1939 in Chicago, moving to Amarillo at the age of five. She went to Smith College, earned her Master’s in Literature from Trinity College in Dublin, and was married in 1964 to James Sobieski in 1964. They had two daughters, Wendy and Mona, and a son, Jamie. She was encouraged by her uncle, screenwriter James Webb, to relocate to Los Angeles, and I assume his connections paved the way for her burgeoning career. Here, her biography instantly jumps to her work on the TV series Mister Novak, her first credit listed on IMDB.

A highlight of Carol’s career, and one of the strongest accounts of celebration for her, seems to be when she surprised critics with her bloody and violent portrayal of Jason Bourne for the 1988 TV mini-series of The Bourne Identity. The L.A. Times Review of The Bourne Identity is almost gleeful with their “but she’s a woman!!!” stance:

“Because it's such a rough-and-tumble adventure, Chamberlain and Smith were initially surprised to discover that the TV adaptation was being done by a woman, veteran screenwriter Carol Sobieski.

“I thought a man would have to have written this kind of violence," Smith said.

Chamberlain said, "I did have a whispering second thought when I heard a woman was going to write the script."

Women seldom write action-adventure scripts. The assumption in Hollywood is that men are better suited for writing or adapting this type of material. The bias was documented in the 1987 Hollywood Writers Report, commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, West.

The report noted: "Overall, women are roughly four times more likely to be hired to write for daytime serials as for prime-time action-adventure shows."

Sobieski says she doesn't know why so few women writers have cracked the barriers in Hollywood.”

And so it remains.

In 1977 Carol was nominated for an Emmy for her adaptation of Plain Speaking by Merle Miller; she was nominated posthumously for another Emmy in 1991 for Sarah, Plain and Tall (she also won the USC Scripter Award for Fried Green Tomatoes, along with author Fannie Flagg, and was nominated for the Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). Carol received numerous awards and held various positions throughout her career, but I do not know anything about her process, her life, her drive. For such a revered and accomplished writer, the lack of information on her is depressing. Give me a Carol Sobieski biography, dammit!

Carol died at 51 from amyloidosis, a rare blood disease, at her home in Santa Monica in 1990. Whether she was adapting a portrait of an enduring Sarah, mail-order bride and new stepmother, or balancing the delicate nature of Idgie and Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes (another movie that I watched obsessively as a child), she wrote with a tenderness that shone through in her characters, and I can’t help but wonder what she would have brought to moviegoers had she lived longer.

Get your tickets to Alamo Drafthouse's Annie movie party here