Ben Hecht Fighting Words, Moving Pictures Adina Hoffman

Jewish Lives
Publication date:
14 Apr 2020
Yale University Press
264 pages: 210 x 140mm
36 b-w illus.
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A vibrant portrait of one of the most accomplished and prolific American screenwriters, by an award-winning biographer and essayist

He was, according to Pauline Kael, “the greatest American screenwriter.” Jean-Luc Godard called him “a genius” who “invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today.” Besides tossing off dozens of now-classic scripts—including Scarface,Twentieth Century, and Notorious—Ben Hecht was known in his day as ace reporter, celebrated playwright, taboo-busting novelist, and the most quick-witted of provocateurs. During World War II, he also emerged as an outspoken crusader for the imperiled Jews of Europe, and later he became a fierce propagandist for pre-1948 Palestine’s Jewish terrorist underground. Whatever the outrage he stirred, this self-declared “child of the century” came to embody much that defined America—especially Jewish America—in his time.
Hecht's fame has dimmed with the decades, but Adina Hoffman’s vivid portrait brings this charismatic and contradictory figure back to life on the page. Hecht was a renaissance man of dazzling sorts, and Hoffman—critically acclaimed biographer, former film critic, and eloquent commentator on Middle Eastern culture and politics—is uniquely suited to capture him in all his modes.

Adina Hoffman is an award-winning essayist and biographer. The author of four previous books, including Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, she lives in Jerusalem and New Haven.

"Adina Hoffman's superb [book]... loads Hecht's staggering contradictions into a compact but abounding two hundred twenty pages.... She writes with enormous flair."—David Denby, New Yorker

"A screenwriter hoping to serve up a punchy opening scene could hardly do better than the first paragraph of Adina Hoffman's new biography of Ben Hecht . . . The opening credits have barely rolled (so to speak) and we already know that the book is a very unusual sort of Hollywood biography, one about a man who sought a role on the world stage that extended far beyond having written 'Scarface.' The story that Hoffman proceeds to tell—her account of what she vividly describes as Hecht's 'long, slaphappy career'—is little known today, a fact that would have surprised plenty of people when he died in 1964 . . . Sorting through [his] contradictions is . . . the task she sets for herself . . . It's a big job for such a slender book, but Hoffman . . . has the grip--the historical, cultural and human frame of reference--required to see Hecht whole."—Jeremy McCarter, Wall Street Journal

"Engrossing . . . Hecht . . . is due a revival, and this short, striking biography could provide it. Like him, it’s playful, punchy and moves at a real clip."—Ed Potton, The Times

“In her lively and readable biography, the latest in Yale's excellent Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman charts Hecht's progress from America's most successful screenwriter to Jewish activist, a journey that might have surprised those who knew him in his rambunctious younger days.” —Robert Low, Standpoint

"The present volume is part of Yale’s excellent Jewish Lives series and focuses sharply on Hecht’s always complex relationship with his own Jewishness”—Simon Callow, The Sunday Times Ireland

“Hoffman’s superb Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, part of Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series of biographical portraits, accomplishes a great deal in a relatively compact form” —Michael Phillips,

“Adina Hoffman's vivid portrait brings [Ben Hecht] back to life in absorbing style” —Rebecca Taylor, Jewish Renaissance (Best Spring Books)

“Hugely readable” —Danny Leigh, Financial Times

“[Hoffman] captures her subject’s complex, often cantankerous personality and his enormous contribution to filmmaking as we know it.”—Elka Weber, Segula 

Finalist for the 2020 Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, sponsored by PEN America Literary Awards

“Ben Hecht and the American movie business grew up together, trading punches. Adina Hoffman captures this often destructive force of nature in all his cynicism and fervor, and is especially incisive dealing with his long struggle to find a Jewish identity that could fit his cantankerous personality. This book makes you wish you'd known the guy, if only to watch the sparks he threw off.”—John Sayles

“Thoroughly absorbing, compulsively readable, Adina Hoffman’s book gives a critical but sympathetic account of the pugnacious, brilliant Ben Hecht. A highly gifted storyteller, Hoffman shows just how important Hecht was in his day, and why he matters now.”—Noah Isenberg, author of We'll Always Have Casablanca