The old joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter captures both the cynicism of Hollywood and the lowly status of its scribes. Not all screenwriters are powerless, but the exceptions have been few and far between. Ben Hecht, Robert Towne and William Goldman in their different ways had leverage beyond the norms of their profession, but none achieved the unique ?clat of the man behind one of the most talked about films of the moment, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Charlie Kaufman’s status in Hollywood is a singular one. When Premiere magazine compiled its movie "Power 100," there was only one screenwriter on the list – Kaufman (at number 100). George Clooney, who directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, one of three movies penned by the writer in 2002, said: "One of these days, the term Kaufmanesque will be just as familiar as Mametspeak." Cameron Diaz, who was unrecognisable in Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s debut screenplay, said of it: "They say in Hollywood that there are only 14 screenplays. Well, this is number 15." Both Being John Malkovich and his second script, Adaptation – about Kaufman and his fictional brother trying and failing to adapt a book for the screen – were nominated for Oscars. In the press, Kaufman is often given possessory credits for these films despite the fact that they were directed by Michel Gondry, Clooney and Spike Jonze. Kaufman, it seems, has achieved that rarest of things: recognition as an auteur screenwriter.
His David Lynchian eccentricities haven’t hindered the process. He sometimes doesn’t eat lunch because, as he puts it, "the thought of getting food stuck in my beard is almost unbearable" (rather like Lynch telling me once that he wears three ties "for protection"). A recent Esquire profile of Kaufman, commenting on his move to LA in 1991, had to make do with sentences like this: "He may or may not have brought his wife, who may or may not be called Denise." His r?sum? claims that he was born "between three and five decades ago." The enigma notwithstanding, his life story is unexceptional. Kaufman was born in 1958 and brought up in a Long Island Jewish family. He acted at school and studied film at NYU. His taste in culture was comic-surreal: the films of Lynch and Woody Allen; the writing of Kafka, Beckett and Flannery O’Connor. After…