It was Bass who tickled the more touching moments of fraternal bonding out of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man - his most prestigious credit, which won him and fellow writer Barry Morrow an Oscar. It was Bass who had Julia Roberts fall in love with Kevin Anderson by trying on lots of pretty dresses and dancing to Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" in Sleeping With The Enemy - depending on your point of view, one of the most touching, or most truly cringeworthy, moments in Nineties cinema.
He was the writer who turned Amy Tan's best-selling novel about Chinese- American mother-daughter relationships, The Joy Luck Club, into a high- class cinematic soap opera. And in the Robin Williams melodrama about love transcending death, What Dreams May Come, he imagined the afterlife as a New Age touchy-feely you-can-make-of-it-what-you-want sort of parallel universe in which the characters spout lines such as: "A place where we all go can't be bad."
Or: "Thought is real. The physical is illusion. Ironic, huh?"
This sort of writing has most critics - admittedly a hard-nosed, smart- arsed, unfeeling breed - begging for mercy within the first reel. What Dreams May Come was described by Ella Taylor of Atlantic Monthly as "a big old tub of schmaltz". Entrapment, the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta Jones vehicle just out in the UK, was dismissed by Peter Rainer of the New York Observer as "a romantic caper that is neither romantic nor a caper".
No matter. For all the mockery he endures, Ron Bass remains one of Hollywood's most sought-after, and most highly paid, screenwriters. And he is utterly unapologetic about his style and subject matter, both of which are clearly very close to his heart. "I love big emotion, both in life and in art," he says. "Sentimentality is not a weakness. Think of the tag you sometimes see attached to a movie - `intensely moving'. That's what people go to the movies for. Cinema is not simply an intellectual experience. It's more visceral than that."
And where there is emotion, tears will surely follow. "If you experience something that makes you cry, why is that a weakness?" he protests. "There's nothing more magical than sitting in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers - or worse, with your wife who you don't want to cry in front of - and seeing everyone, even 65-year-old businessmen, with soaking wet tears running down their faces."
On the far right-hand side of Bass's writing desk sits a fat box of Kleenex which, in keeping with the New Guy image projected by a great deal of his work, he happily admits dipping into on a regular basis. "If I don't cry when I write the scene the first time, nobody's ever going to cry later," he says. Having wept at his own creations, he will frequently burst into tears all over again when he sees the finished film.
Time was when your stereotypical Hollywood screenwriter was a hard guy with literary pretensions who, hungry for his next pay cheque, spent eight hours a days bashing away at his typewriter in a small corner office on some studio complex with the help of a couple of packs of Chesterfields and a bottle of whiskey stashed away in a bottom drawer.
But Ron Bass is no William Faulkner. Far from viewing the system with the smooth cynicism of one who can't help feeling his talent deserves better, his attitude has been to embrace Hollywood with grateful open arms. He is more than comfortably off, even a little pudgy from his success. He dresses in the smart-casual outfits of Hollywood's true elite, works in his beautiful house at the foot of the Santa Monica mountains, and has risen so far within the ranks of the industry that when big-studio executives call a meeting they do not summon him to their offices, they come to him.
Behind the emotional, Kleenex-strewn exterior, Bass is in fact a consummate corporate player. If his writing tends towards the weepy, that's partly because, in the view of many studio executives, weepy is good. Weepy sells. Weepy reaches out to the female audience. In an industry that seems to have forgotten how to drive a plot through complex character development, weepy is an excellent substitute for true psychological insight.
By now, Bass is one of the few screenwriters to command well in excess of $1m per script. He is one of the even fewer screenwriters to get a producer credit on his films, giving him the clout to push more of his original vision on to the screen. Far from fighting with producers and directors, Bass has a deep respect for them, and wins them over through patient accommodation, rather than flying into ego-fuelled snits. Arguably his greatest asset is not his writing ability but his degree from Harvard Law School. For years he worked as an entertainment lawyer, gaining rare access to the key people in the business as well as an insight into the mechanics of script development.
Part of his versatility stems from the fact that he pitches his ideas much as a lawyer might represent his clients - arguing the merits of each on its own terms and developing a fine nose for what is going to win points with the judge (ie, the studio) and jury (the audience). After Rain Man, Bass was inundated with ideas for offbeat buddy movies, so he moved on to another genre. After Sleeping With The Enemy, three years later, he was offered thrillers.
In 1995, he realised he had never done comedy, so he wrote My Best Friend's Wedding on spec and passed it on to his lawyer to auction among the studios while he flew to Hong Kong on a business trip. On the plane across the Pacific, he just happened to sit next to a big studio executive who expressed an interest in reading the script, which he just happened to have in his briefcase.
"Two hours later, the executive told me he'd buy the script at any price," Bass recounted. "He said, `Imagine the highest figure you can, and I'll top it.' So we agreed on a price. When we landed we couldn't find a phone that would take international calls in the airport, so we took a taxi to the Peninsular Hotel together. When we arrived, the receptionist passed me a fax from my lawyer saying, `Congratulations. You've just sold My Best Friend's Wedding to Columbia Tristar and Julia Roberts has agreed to take the lead.' The other guy was pipped to the post."
This is a story to make fellow screenwriters green with envy. But Bass is also a colleague sans pareil, and he recently used his legal expertise to negotiate an unprecedented deal with Sony Pictures whereby a pool of 30-odd writers would receive profits of up to two percentage points on gross receipts. The deal is little short of ground-breaking in an industry that has traditionally treated scripts as mere commodities and writers as dispensable flotsam. Thanks to Bass, the Hollywood writer is at last becoming a full corporate citizen.
All well and good, you might think, but do good corporate citizens make interesting films? To answer that, an insight to Bass's working world is perhaps instructive. His office is impeccably ordered. On a custom- made bookshelf, he keeps his scripts in large box files, much as an attorney might keep records of a case. Each one contains drafts, correspondence, handwritten notes and - curiously - dozens upon dozens of orange No 2 Sundance pencils.
Everything about Ron Bass aims terribly hard to please, from the fresh bagels and croissants left on a table for visitors, to the jaunty, fluid style of the scripts themselves. Even the stage directions are designed to raise a smile and whet the appetite of a potential producer. Peppered throughout every script are breathy little asides to gauge characters' reactions and help the reader to imagine what it would all look like on screen. "MAIN TITLES begin over what is indisputably the kitchen of your dreams, if you dreamt about kitchens," is how he starts My Best Friend's Wedding. "A quiet face with a woman's mysteries behind pale eyes. There's a grace to her as she stands in her sandy T-shirt and shorts at the water's edge."
Such writing is attractive, but also risks lapsing into kitschy pseudo- poetry. Much of Bass's work reads well enough to seem convincing, but his characters are frequently less than the sum of their parts, and his plots often get lost in navel-gazing byways. Bass is aware of his tendency to meander; the problem, from the film critic's point of view, is that he thinks of it as a strength. His favourites films of last year were his own What Dream May Come and Meet Joe Black, both of which were given a critical roasting for gross over-indulgence.
Bass has plenty more work in the pipeline. Coming soon are Passion of Mind, with Demi Moore, and Snow Falling On Cedars, based on the David Guterson best-seller. Others include a Will Smith comedy called The System, and a collaboration with Steven Spielberg on Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.
Does this mean that all Hollywood will soon be wallowing in his weepy sensibility? Or is Ron Bass truly the consummate hired hand he aspires to be? The problem, boils down to his attitude to the industry as a whole. His lawyer's instinct for compromise might make him a supreme player, but he has turned the collaborative art of film-making on its head: instead of raising the creative process on to new, unexplored levels he has reduced it to a negotiation.
Ron Bass the writer might make you cry, laugh, fall asleep or reach for the sick bag, but what he and his awesome reputation represent for Hollywood is a refusal to rise above the tried and tested. It might make money, but it is about as adventurous as a cosy evening on the sofa.Reuse content