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Odyssey of a

Courage overcomes discouragement for Cynthia Whitcomb


SUBMITTED PHOTO - A most interesting moment from Cynthia Whitcombs play Lears Follies is shown here. Taking it easy in a rocking chair is actor Tobias Anderson. In the background is Jonesy, an old Vaudevillian who is the Fool to his King Lear. Jonesy is played by Matt Smith.

Cynthia Whitcomb never gives up.

She saw her prolific career as a writer for screen and television hit a dead end in 2006, when the television networks stopped making her specialty, TV movies of the week.

“My genre disappeared,” Whitcomb said.

But Whitcomb never stopped moving long enough to get disappointed. She simply boosted her career as a screenwriting teacher, and now aspiring Lake Oswego and West Linn screenwriters will have the chance to learn from a writer with 30 years of experience in the tough, tough world of show business.

In association with the Willamette Writers, Whitcomb will be offering her screenwriting class in September, October and November. The cost is $495, and Whitcomb will offer most everything a screenwriter needs to know, right from the comfort of her home in north Wilsonville.

“I never have trouble getting students,” Whitcomb said. “I haven’t run out of people yet.”

One reason is that there are so many people who would love to write for the big or small screens. The other is that Whitcomb’s students have achieved so much success. Just to name a few titles, Whitcomb’s students have gone on to write “Thor,” “Face/Off,” and the Jim Carrey super hit “The Mask.”

Whitcomb will offer a screenwriter’s banquet: how to write good dialogue, how to not write bad dialogue, structure, craft, set-ups, hiding exposition, writing great openings and great endings. She’ll basically show a writer how to make an audience laugh or cry.

Her class will include plenty of film clips as examples. Her favorite comes from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — the unforgettable scene where happy-go-lucky Randle McMurphy fails to convince the monstrous Nurse Ratched to let him and the other inmates of the mental institution watch the World Series. The Ratched has McMurphy on the ropes several times, but the scene ends with the inmates wildly cheering an imaginary World Series game so loudly that they cannot hear the angry screams of the nurse.

Still, the greatest lesson Whitcomb will have for her students will be about herself. She never gave up her quest to become a writer. She was uncrushable, and she needed to be that way to overcome the dire disappointment that came her way.

As a child, Whitcomb was not even allowed to watch movies.

“Both of my grandfathers were Church of the Nazarene preachers,” she explained.

But finally, she was allowed to see “The Sound of Music,” a movie totally lacking in sin, and from that point on it was hard to keep Whitcomb out of a movie theater.

“I went movie crazy,” she said. “I got to see all of the movies I had missed.”

Whitcomb wasn’t just soaking up a lot of great movies. Her ambition was ignited to become a part of the industry she loved. Like Don Quixote, she set out on her quest. But for a long time, the windmills were tilting against her.

“I wrote for three years without getting any interest from producers at all,” Whitcomb said. “I wrote 3,000 pages without getting paid for one of them. I wrote 10 scripts.”

Whitcomb wrote in almost every possible genre in order to please a producer. She would write a screenplay in one genre, be turned down, then immediately write a screenplay in another genre — westerns, mysteries, science fiction, family, sports, drug running, you name it. The answer was always “no,” But she never even considered giving up.

“I would have gone on writing the rest of my life,” Whitcomb said. “I would have kept going until it worked out. I had the ability to fail but recover fast.”

Then came the day when Tony Bill told her “I love your script!”

Bill had produced the Oscar-winning mega hit “The Sting,” and he loved Whitcomb’s script about the throwing of the 1919 World Series. But she wasn’t home-free yet.

“I thought I was going to get another ‘You’ve got talent, kid, but....’ talk,” Whitcomb said.

But Bill truly did love her script, and Cynthia Whitcomb had a career.

She went on to have 29 of her photoplays produced for television, and she worked with countless top-level stars. But her achievement was perhaps best summed up in a compliment she overheard from the great Jason Robards while making her film about Mark Twain.

“He didn’t even know I was there. I was standing in the shadows of the set while he was talking to the director,” Whitcomb said. “The director offered him the chance to break up a scene by going over to poke a fire.”

Robards told him, “Normally, I would do something like that. But with writing this good, I don’t have to.”

“That knocked me out,” Whitcomb said.

Now she has the daunting task of teaching young screenwriters to be as gutsy as she was, It’s a challenge Whitcomb loves.

“Teaching makes me happy,” she said. “It’s in my genetics. It helps that people love what I have to say.”

To enroll in Cynthia Whitcomb’s screenwriting class, call Willamette Writers at 503-305-6729 or register online at willamettewriters.com.

REVIEW PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Cynthia Whitcomb stands on the stage of the theater at the Lakewood Center. Her new screenwriter class is sure to attract lovers of stage and screen.

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