At Strong Language we love creative swearing. But sometimes being creative means avoiding swearwords. When John Boorman and his team were filming Deliverance in rural southeast US, they faced difficulties not only in handling the unforgiving location but also in making certain scenes suitable for eventual TV broadcasting.
One scene in particular proved a challenge: Jon Voight and Ned Beatty’s brutal encounter with two sadistic locals in the woods. According to Boorman, the film’s producers suggested that he shoot the scene two different ways, so that there’d be a version suitable for TV. This meant, among other things, toning down the language in the working script.
With Joe Pesci back in the spotlight thanks to The Irishman, and Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been remembering one of his finest performances – as hapless burglar Harry Lyme in Home Alone. It’s easy to forget how against-type this role was for Pesci, best known for playing menacing, foul-mouthed criminals in gangster films like Casino:
(Don’t miss the TV version, with its fancy hecking swear-avoidance.)
When Pesci was sent the script for Home Alone, he ‘saw he could do something with it’, according to executive producer Mark Levinson. But the filmmakers knew that Harry Lyme would be a challenge for Pesci. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, director of photography Julio Macat says:
Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.
Take Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.
Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend: