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Overview for Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett


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Also Known As: Leigh C. Brackett Died: March 18, 1978
Born: December 7, 1915 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Los Angeles, California, USA Profession: Writer ... screenwriter novelist


While far more prolific in the realm of fantasy fiction, author-screenwriter Leigh Brackett contributed to a number of American cinema's most revered films. Starting out as a short fiction contributor to such pulp magazines as Astounding Science Fiction, she attracted the attention of director Howard Hawks - who was astonished to discover Brackett was a woman - with her debut novel, the gritty crime tale No Good from a Corpse in 1944. Her first big splash as a screenwriter was for her collaboration with Hawks on his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" (1946), starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Phillip Marlowe. To the surprise of many, she quickly abandoned her burgeoning Hollywood career after she married sci-fi novelist Edmond Hamilton, moved to Ohio, and focused almost exclusively on her fiction work. That was until Hawks brought her back to help write the John Wayne adventure "Rio Bravo" (1959), one of the most influential Westerns ever filmed. Hawks was so comfortable working with Brackett that he hired her back for two more Wayne Westerns, "El Dorado" (1967) and "Rio Lobo" (1970), each a loose reworking of "Rio Bravo." She returned to Marlowe with director Robert Altman's sly and subversive take on Chandler's final novel "The Long Goodbye" (1973) and later delivered a first draft for George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) before her passing at the age of 62. A pioneer and a consummate professional, Brackett was a rare and irreplaceable voice in film, prematurely cut short, who left an indelible mark on several time-transcending classics.

Born Leigh Douglass Brackett on Dec. 7, 1915 in Los Angeles, she was the daughter of Margaret Douglass and William Franklin Brackett. After her father, a certified public accountant, died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, Brackett and her mother went to live with her grandparents in nearby Santa Monica. An avid reader, young Leigh was immediately taken by the fantastical stories of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Eventually the aspiring young writer struck out on her own and began freelancing for such publications as Planet Stories in 1939, an endeavor that introduced her to such future luminaries as Ray Bradbury. Brackett's first published work was the short story "Martian Quest," which was printed in a 1940 issue of the classic pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It was an extremely prolific time for the energetic young writer, who primarily wrote what was described as interplanetary romances or sword and sorcery fantasies. One notable exception was her first novel, the 1944 detective thriller No Good from a Corpse, which owed a clear debt - freely acknowledged by Brackett herself - to the hardboiled fiction innovators Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Coming of age as a writer in such close proximity to Hollywood, it came as no surprise when Brackett tried her hand at screenwriting. Based on her own story idea, Brackett's first screen credit was "The Vampire's Ghost" (1945), a respectable, if low-budget, supernatural tale co-scripted with John K. Butler. It was, however, her earlier novel, No Good from a Corpse that brought Brackett to the attention of legendary director Howard Hawks, who, working under the misapprehension that Leigh was a man's name, told his assistant to "Get me this guy Brackett." The project he had in mind was the film adaptation of Chandler's debut detective novel The Big Sleep, which, at the time, was proving a tough nut to crack for acclaimed novelist-turned-screenwriter William Faulkner. Despite his surprise at discovering Brackett was a woman, Hawks hired her to collaborate on the script with Faulkner and Jules Furthman. Starring Humphrey Bogart as private detective Phillip Marlowe, "The Big Sleep" (1946) was as noted for its head-scratchingly convoluted plot as it was for the onscreen pairing of Hollywood super-couple Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Withheld for a year after its initial completion - due in equal parts to the studio wanting to put out the remainder of its war movies, as well as attempt to retool the confusing narrative - "The Big Sleep" went on to be considered one of the all-time noir classics, thanks in large part to Brackett's knack for sharp-edged, clever dialogue, delivered with timeless finesse by Bogie and Bacall.

Less notable was director William Castle's B-movie thriller "Crime Doctor's Man Hunt" (1946), for which Brackett received her first solo screenwriting credit. Also published that same year was the crime novel Stranger at Home, which the industrious young writer ghost-wrote for actor George Sanders. With her reputation on the ascension in Hollywood, Brackett married fellow science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton on New Year's Eve 1946. Soon thereafter, she relocated with him to a small farmhouse in his home state of Ohio, where she returned her focus once more to literary pursuits. During this period she published scores of short stories and novels, most of them in the familiar genres of fantasy and science fiction. Brackett introduced the character of Eric John Stark in the 1949 short fantasy story "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," an interplanetary adventure equally inspired by her love of Burroughs' John Carter and Tarzan characters, which would be later expanded into the 1964 novel The Secret of Sinharat.

As the heyday of the pulp magazine market, exemplified by such publications as Astonishing Stories and Startling Stories, began to wane, Brackett increasingly focused on novel-length works. Of the several books the author penned during this time, the science fiction novel The Long Tomorrow - the tale of an agrarian, technophobic society recovering from the aftermath of a global nuclear war - earned her considerable lasting acclaim. An Eye for an Eye, another of her few crime novels, later served as the basis for an episode of the crime-anthology series "Suspicion" (NBC, 1957-59), and later as the inspiration for a short-lived detective television series starring Ray Milland.

After a 12-year absence from screenwriting, Brackett was lured back to Hollywood by none other than Hawks, who paired her once again with Jules Furthman. Hawks' response to a film he intensely disliked - 1952's "High Noon" - "Rio Bravo" (1959) starred John Wayne as an individualistic sheriff holding off a powerful criminal element from his jailhouse with the aid of Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickenson. Considered by many to be Hawks' best film and one of the all-time great Westerns, the film inspired generations of future directors, Peter Bogdanovich and John Carpenter among them. Over the years, several of Brackett's novels were also turned into movies, notably, The Tiger Among Us, which director Philip Leacock filmed as "13 West Street" (1962), starring Alan Ladd as an army veteran who exacts his own brand of street justice on a gang of vicious juvenile delinquents. Another project with Hawks and Wayne resulted in the exotic African safari adventure "Hatari!" (1962), while rare television work by Brackett could be seen in a pair of 1963 episodes of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (CBS, 1962-64/NBC, 1964-65).

Never one to shy away from stealing from the best - himself included - Hawks cribbed heavily from "Rio Bravo" for the story to "El Dorado" (1967), a Western that once again found John Wayne outnumbered and outgunned, this time assisted by Robert Mitchum and James Caan. By now Brackett was semi-retired and enjoyed a great deal of traveling with her husband. As always, one of the few figures who could draw her back to the typewriter was Hawks, who prevailed upon Brackett to touch up the script for the John Wayne Western "Rio Lobo" (1970), yet another reworking of the by now familiar dynamic first seen in "Rio Bravo."

Three years later, Brackett's Hollywood career came full circle when she asked by United Artists to return to the world of Chandler's Phillip Marlowe to write the screenplay for "The Long Goodbye" (1973). Updating the setting of Chandler's final novel to Los Angeles of the 1970s, it was directed by Robert Altman and starred Elliot Gould as Marlowe. Throughout his collaboration with Brackett, Altman stressed that he saw the film almost as an "anti-noir" and frequently referred to Gould's character as "Rip Van Marlowe," a living anachronism of bygone morality adrift in an ignoble modern world. Although assailed by most critics at the time and ignored in theaters, "The Long Goodbye" later came to be recognized as a subversive masterpiece by many film scholars and even the definitive cinematic take on Marlowe by a few.

With the exception of a 1975 episode of the popular James Garner detective series "The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1974-1980), Brackett stayed away from Hollywood for the next several years, focusing instead on a trio of science fiction novels - The Ginger Star (1974), The Hounds of Skaith (1974) and The Reavers of Skaith (1976), all of which featured her fantasy hero Eric John Stark. Then, for the first time in her career, Brackett brought her love of science fiction to her screenwriting after George Lucas asked her to pen a script for his sequel to "Star Wars" (1977). Based on a story idea by Lucas, Brackett delivered a first draft of what would become "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), just prior to her death from cancer in 1978. Heavily revised - some say completely rewritten - by Lucas and co-credited screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the finished script was, nonetheless, an amalgamation of the two genres for which Brackett was best known - the Western and science fiction-fantasy. And while reports that many elements from Brackett's pass at the story were jettisoned - Luke, Leia and Darth Vader not being related was reportedly one of many key differences - the influence of Brackett, particularly in much of the rapid-fire dialogue, surely remained to some degree and was a fitting swan song for the beloved writer.

By Bryce Coleman

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