Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Curious Case of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

By Steve Crum

Time does have a way of changing things. Take Benjamin Button, please. Most of us know that in last year’s Oscar winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character (marvelously played by Brad Pitt) is born as an elderly baby, gets younger as he grows up, and eventually (*spoiler*) regresses to childhood and babyhood, wherein he dies in the arms of his now elderly ex-wife.

Director David Fincher received an Oscar nomination, as did Alexandre Desplat, who scored the memorable music. This was not the original plan, however.

Nineteen years ago, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was even more curious. Harry Garfield, Sr. Vice President of Music at Universal Pictures, spoke to me then of Steven Spielberg’s plans for making the picture. Nearly two decades passed before the film was produced, something common in Hollywood. In fact, many film projects are shelved and never realized. But Spielberg had high hopes and big plans for his version of Benjamin Button.

“Spielberg’s project,” said Garfield in 1990, “is an adaptation of (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button--a man born at 80 years in 1920 Baltimore, who learns to play piano and gets younger on the outside, and older on the inside. By 1920, he looks 70, but knows all ragtime music.”

“By 1930,” Garfield said, “Benjamin and his father compete for attention, playing Ellington, etc. Time goes throughout the 1940’s, until eventually he plays rock and roll, and is younger--with a great musical background.”

This is all interesting and revealing, since in last year’s film (not directed by Spielberg) Benjamin does play the piano briefly, but the jist of the story is definitely not on his music expertise. In no way is his father musically inclined or competitive. In fact, he does not reunite with his father for several years.

It is no surprise that Spielberg’s original choice of film composer was John Williams, since Williams had scored the bulk of Spielberg films since Jaws. Spielberg wanted either Tom Cruise or Robin Williams to play Benjamin.

“Spielberg knows he will need an actor who can play the spectrum,” said Garfield, “from 15 year-old to a five year-old who (at the end of the film) listens to Raffi (the then famous children’s composer-singer).” As it turned out, CGI effects placed Brad Pitt’s face on a short actor’s body during the childhood to teenage sequences. When Spielberg was making his plans nearly 20 years ago, pre-CGI, computerizing was in the prehistoric stage.

Then, Steven Spielberg was banking on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and big time. Undoubtedly, other movie gigs took precedence, and Benjamin was put on the proverbial back burner. It would be four years before Schindler’s List would garner Spielberg his first Oscar win.

But in 1990, Garfield said Spielberg had told him The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be his first big winner: “It’s my Academy Award!”

Maybe it would have been, should have been.
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Addendum: Benjamin Button’s road to finality includes a 1998 plan, soon scrapped, to produce the film with Ron Howard directing, and John Travolta starring.
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Link ye to the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqeqaweXBV0

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