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|Also Known As:||Melissa Marie Mathison||Died:|
|Born:||June 3, 1950||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Los Angeles, California, USA||Profession:||Writer ... screenwriter director's assistant bakery worker stringer for Time|
The sporadic but brilliant career of screenwriter Melissa Mathison offers a vivid case study of an artist who succeeded in maximizing the benefits of each opportunity she was afforded. Though she had fewer than a half dozen films to her credit as of 1996, Mathison earned a permanent place in American pop culture as the writer of the reigning domestic box-office champ, "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). With its 1994 selection for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the film was officially certified a classic. Clearly this would have been an enviable credit for the most seasoned screenwriter; for a relative neophyte ("E.T." was Mathison's first sole screenwriting credit and her first original screenplay), it was something of a miracle.
The daughter of a journalist father and part-time publicist mother, Mathison grew up in the Hollywood Hills. Producer-writer-director Francis Ford Coppola was a family friend for whose children she baby-sat as a youth. The young Mathison also worked as a stringer for TIME magazine--her father was a friend of a bureau chief. She took time off from pursuing a degree in political science at the University of California at Berkeley to work for Coppola as an assistant on "The Godfather, Part II" (1974). By the time of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), Mathison was credited as executive assistant. The celebrated filmmaker urged her to try her hand at screenwriting. The result was "The Black Stallion" (1979), based on Walter Farley's classic children's novel about a boy and his horse, which she co-scripted with two other writers. Hailed in some quarters as a modern children's classic, the film won kudos for both its sensitive adaptation and supremely cinematic storytelling.
Mathison was dating the still rising star Harrison Ford when he traveled on location to film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). During this arduous shoot, director Steven Spielberg approached her about writing a screenplay dealing with a little alien who gets stranded on Earth. Eight weeks later she had completed the first draft of "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial". Mathison and Ford wed the March after "E.T." opened. She spent most of the next decade or so as a homemaker, with a brief excursion to TV to script "Son of the Morning Star" (ABC, 1991), a miniseries biopic about General George Custer starring Gary Cole.
Mathison returned to feature screenwriting after a 13 year hiatus to adapt Lynne Reid Banks' children's novel "The Indian in the Cupboard" (1995). The project reunited her with "E.T." producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall as well as some of the stylistic and thematic hallmarks of that earlier triumph. Mathison was a natural choice to pen the story of a young boy who discovers that his wooden cabinet has the magical power to bring his toys to life. He learns about another culture and the dignity of all living things after placing a plastic Indian inside. Once again, Mathison revealed a sharp ear for how children speak and a dedication to grounding the fantastic elements of her story in a realistic context. She also retained her knack for conjuring up the private world of little boys. (One wonders how she would approach a children's story with a young female protagonist.) "The Indian in the Cupboard" opened to extravagant reviews and modest box office. Destined to find the bulk of its audience on video, the film debuted at number one on both the rentals and sales charts. Mathison followed up with a more traditionally "adult" project for producer-director Martin Scorsese, scripting a biopic of his holiness Tenzingyatso, the 14th Dalai Lamai of Tibet, who was forced into exile in 1959, nine years after the Chinese invasion.
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