In 2007, screenwriting underwent a massive transformation. The writer’s strike left countless individuals without employment; writers were once again reminded of their lowly place on the totem pole. This gave rise to the self-empowered DIY project, with distribution through digital and social media. This was before Netflix, when Hulu was a division in the NBC/Uni world that had little or no identity. A time of growth for storytellers, as they could create and distribute what they wanted. A time before films became known as content.
It also gave rise to the dilettante.
Countless stories about such individuals live in the filmmaking zeitgeist. Tim Burton turned his lens towards the life of filmmaker Ed Wood, with great love and respect. There’s also a lesser known fictional counterpart to Wood, the beleaguered and embattled Corky St. Clair, as he struggles to bring his theatrical masterpiece “Red, White and Blaine!” to life in Christopher Guest’s 1996 mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman.”
But is St. Clair’s story one of a cautionary tale of dilettantism? That of a mad Pied Piper leading his cast on a road to nowhere? Or a celebration of perseverance, vision and chutzpah? However one defines him, Corky St. Clair has lessons for us all.
Corky is committed.
Early on, Corky’s backstory is partly revealed. Prior to his hasty and unexplained arrival in Blaine, MO, we learn of his early days in New York City, when he arrived after a discharge from the Navy with little more than “a dance belt and a tube of chapstick.” Corky then spent the next 15 years struggling in the life of the actor, an anonymous face in a sea of countless faces, before relocating to Blaine.
And yet, his dreams continue. He explores his art. He creates community theatre, launching productions such as “Barefoot in the Park,” and a live action staged version of “Backdraft,” in which the entire theatre narrowly escapes being burned to the ground. Corky is indefatigable; he will do anything for his work.
Corky chooses his battles.
Corky is passionate about his production. He believes in it. So much so that he calls for a meeting of the city council in order to increase his budget for “Red, White and Blaine!” by $100,000. Unfortunately, the council informs him that their entire annual budget for the town is $70,000, and this includes maintenance of the Blaine swimming pool. Corky has the penultimate meltdown, and declares the members of the council “Bastard people.” He threatens to go home and bite his pillow. Upon reflection, he realizes that he can live his dream within the imposed monetary restrictions. He adjusts, and moves on. “Red, White and Blaine!” will continue.
Corky knows how to pitch.
“Red, White and Blaine!” is a creation for Blaine’s sesquicentennial celebration, but Corky does not limit his vision to this single event. He sees the production as having significant historical and entertainment value, perhaps even, a show meant for Broadway. He reaches out to the prestigious Oppenheimer Foundation, and pitches the show, resulting in the foundation’s agreement to send esteemed Broadway producer Mort Guffman to the single-night production, in consideration for further development as a candidate for the Great White Way.
Whatever your feelings are about Mr. St. Clair, I think we can all agree that he must write one hell of a query letter.
Corky moves on.
Ultimately, Mother Nature deals Corky a cruel blow. Catastrophic weather hits the Northeast, and Guffman’s flight to the solo performance is cancelled.
And yet, Corky perseveres. Three months later, we find him back in his beloved New York City, running a brick and mortar retail selling movie memorabilia, such as “Remains of the Day” lunchboxes and “My Dinner With Andre” action figures. He’s in preparation for an audition with Mort Guffman, for the “somewhat stern taskmaster but he-really-likes-her-anyway kind of guy” role of Henry Higgins, in a revival of “My Fair Lady.” He is learning to master the accent by dropping his H’s. He is happy in pursuit of his art.
I like to think that ultimately Corky finds love and acceptance. He no longer needs the ghost of his wife Bonnie to justify his purchases of lingerie. Perhaps he meets a kindred spirit in the form of a chorus line performer who spends his later years as a piano bar singer in the likes of Carmine’s. Whatever Corky’s journey is, it will be spectacular.
“Waiting for Guffman” is currently streaming on HBO/Max