Monday, September 14, 2015

Catherine Reef's "Noah Webster: Man of Many Words"

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Noah Webster: Man of Many Words:
Biographies on the big screen—how we love them! What could be more enthralling than a famous person’s efforts to make it in a hostile world? He or she overcomes addiction, holds a nation together, or simply struggles to be understood, and we can’t tear our eyes away. It’s no wonder figures as diverse as Edith Piaf, Stephen Hawking, Lincoln, and Liberace have been given the cinematic treatment in recent years. So why not Noah Webster?

Imagine the appeal: thrilling panoramas of Revolutionary War battle, tense debates inside Independence Hall and the Connecticut State House, a glorious parade through eighteenth-century Manhattan with thousands of extras in period dress cheering and waving (are you paying attention, Martin Scorsese?); Webster at his desk, busily writing.

Now imagine the pivotal scene in which Webster comes ashore after crossing the Hudson River in 1782, at Newburgh, New York, the site of General George Washington’s headquarters. There he encounters the assembled American forces waiting to be disbanded. Picture him walking among the men and hearing the cacophony of language arising from their huts and campfires: German, Dutch, French, Gaelic, and English as it was spoken in the southern states, which sounds foreign to the ears of an American from the North. As Webster strolls, we see his mind at work. He is confirming his belief that the United States will never prosper without a common language to bond its people, and he is pondering what he will do to foster that unity.

Who should play the lead? Once word gets around in Hollywood that a Webster biopic is in the works, any number of A-list actors will be vying for the role. If I were casting, I would offer it to Colin Firth—first, because he looks the part. Webster was six feet tall and solidly built, and portraits show him with a square face not too dissimilar to Firth’s. My second reason for choosing Firth is the more important one, the demands the role would place on an actor. Noah Webster was a complex man. Arrogant, opinionated, and socially awkward, he had a way of irritating people. Yet he was unfailingly honest, devoted to his wife and children and to his country, and committed to his life’s work, which would prove to be of lasting importance. An actor playing the part would face the same challenge I did when bringing Webster to life on the page: how to show him in all his cantankerousness and still give the audience reason to like him. Having played to acclaim a broad range of roles that includes Fitzwilliam Darcy, writer Blake Morrison, and King George VI, Firth has demonstrated his ability to create nuanced characters.

But enough about Colin Firth. There are other parts to cast, including that of Noah’s wife, Rebecca Greenleaf Webster. She was small in stature, with dark hair and eyes. A rich man’s daughter, she liked expensive home furnishings and stylish clothes, and was particularly fond of one green brocade dress. She was also good at having children. Who in our day matches this description better than Kim Kardashian? It is high time for her to launch her movie career, and this film might be the perfect vehicle.

Many famous figures appear in Webster’s story, which means there are opportunities for cameo appearances of the kind Wes Anderson likes to feature. Picture Bill Murray as the aged Ben Franklin, Edward Norton as the boyish James Madison, Bruce Willis as John Adams, and Geoffrey Rush as…Benjamin Rush. I’d like to see Steve Buscemi play Judge Jedediah Strong, the recorder of deeds in Litchfield, Connecticut, who was Webster’s friend and an early mentor. A congenial if nervous man, Strong gradually slipped into insanity. His arrest for cruel treatment of his wife and his 1789 divorce made for sensational headlines.

I’m almost done. There’s one significant figure left to cast, General Washington, and there is but one actor who was born to play the role. Charismatic, commanding, eloquent—I’m talking, of course, about Wallace Shawn, star of stage and screen. He might have to stand on a box, but hey.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

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--Marshal Zeringue