The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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With HBO's 'Special Relationship,' Peter Morgan gets top billing

May 13, 2010 |  5:09 pm

Peter_morgan Writers have never gotten any respect in Hollywood, whether it was from the legendary producer Sam Goldwyn, who airily dismissed them as "schmucks with Underwoods," to the studio chiefs of today, who often hire competing teams of writers to work on a project, happy to cherrypick the best material when the time comes to cast the film. In fact, just last night I was talking to an industry insider who, in the course of explaining a complicated legal dispute involving a recent TV series, said, with a shrug, "You know, as Goldberg once said, 'Nobody knows anything.' "

Of course, the executive was referring to the famous maxim coined by the once-legendary screenwriter William Goldman, who is apparently legendary no more, since he's suffered the fate of many a writer--people quote his pithy remarks without actually being able to remember who said them.

The reason all this came to mind was that as I was driving into Hollywood yesterday, I saw that HBO has put up billboards everywhere promoting its upcoming film, "The Special Relationship," which focuses on the unusual rapport between Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair while they were both in power during the mid-1990s. The movie stars Michael Sheen as Blair and Dennis Quaid as Clinton (Quaid has said that he gained 35 pounds to play Clinton, doing it in Clinton-esque fashion--eating mounds of McDonald's cheeseburgers).

But here's the fascinating thing about the billboards. While studios regularly tout their films as being from "the producer of 'Pirates of the Caribbean' " or "the director of 'Gangs of New York,' " HBO is pitching "The Special Relationship" as being "from the writer of 'The Queen' and 'Frost/Nixon.' " Yup, the writer. That would be Peter Morgan, the British playwright turned screenwriter who wrote both of those above films, as well as "The Damned United" and "The Deal," a smart British TV film about the relationship between Blair and former PM Gordon Brown when they were ambitious young politicians.

If anyone can remember a writer getting similar billing, let me know. I looked up all of Charlie Kaufman's movie posters, none of which had him getting a "from the writer of" shout-out, so it's hard to imagine which writers might have the name recognition to merit this kind of impressive poster placement. I suspect that a big part of the billing breakthrough comes from HBO, which appeals to the kind of rarefied audience who might be more impressed by an allusion to Peter Morgan than to Jerry Bruckheimer.

But still, writers everywhere will be unbelievably envious of Morgan's new status. And just think of the possibilities. In a world where writers were really respected for their craft, when Lionsgate releases "Killers," its new Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl spy thriller, its poster could proudly declare "from the writers of 'Taco!' and 'Rumor Has It.' " I mean, you gotta start somewhere.

Photo: Peter Morgan on a recent visit to Los Angeles. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times