Ron Bass '67 worked in entertainment law for seventeen years before he became one of Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriters. In 1989, just five years into his second full-time career, he took home an Oscar for his screenplay of Rain Man and last year earned $2 million for scripting My Best Friend's Wedding, a box-office hit that has pulled in more than $126 million. Thanks to his easy rapport with a No. 2 pencil, Bass comfortably turns out six or seven scripts a year.
That he is remarkably prolific might be a result of the concentration on reading and writing Bass developed as a child while confined to his bed for years with an undiagnosed illness; the symptoms eventually vanished, but they left him permanently in love with words. Still, when he was in his teens, the critique of his first novel by his English teacher-the writing was very good, she said, but too personal to be published-had him burning his first manuscript and burying his literary aspirations. He remembers that "it was like the voice of God telling me I didn't have what it takes to be a writer, and I should find something practical to do with my life."
Bass followed a practical path to Stanford, then Yale, then Harvard. "When I learned there was such a thing as entertainment law," he says, "I thought, 'This is where I belong.'" He returned to his hometown of L.A. to practice law, reserving his predawn hours for his old hobby, writing. Eventually he published three novels, negotiating for the job of writing the screenplay for the last. The film went nowhere but the script did, when Bass's agent shopped it around to the studios, who pronounced it good and began to call with other projects.
Bass's destiny has a different look to it now, transformed by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, who helped the budding screenwriter when they worked together in 1985 on Gardens of Stone at Coppola's home in the Napa Valley. On the last day of their collaboration, Coppola told Bass they were going to read the entire script through using the voice of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. "It wasn't silly," says Bass, who was given a quick lesson in Godfatherese before they started. "It was liberating to use a voice so inappropriate to the role, because it wasn't about trying to playact the part. Some very good changes grew out of that exercise."
Bass counters the notion that Hollywood is peopled by hucksters trying to devise formulas for hauling in hits. "Hollywood is about the business and the art of creating. Some people may not be very good at it, but being formulaic is the best way to go down," Bass says. "Everyone's thrashing around now trying to find the best way not to be formulaic."
One way Bass has avoided that pitfall is by assembling a crack team, mostly of women, who help with the research and development of his scripts. And he has successfully collaborated with many other authors, including Al Franken, on When a Man Loves a Woman, Amy Tan, on The Joy Luck Club, and Terry McMillan, on Waiting to Exhale. This openness to others' input has helped to earn him his reputation for handling complicated, emotional material with unusual understanding and finesse.
Maybe Bass will relax his standard of beginning his day at 4 a.m. now that he has signed an exclusive three-year contract with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which took effect in January. But probably not. He spoke to us at 5 in the morning, the only time he had available, because at around 6 he starts helping his younger daughter, Sasha, get her things in order for school, and then he'll be in meetings all day putting the finishing touches on What Dreams May Come-a fitting task for a man who has so thoroughly realized his own. - Nancy Waring