Perhaps you recognize the names of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. A married couple, they were Hollywood screenwriters responsible for authoring such Oscar-nominated classics as Hud and Norma Rae. Active from the late Forties through the mid-Eighties, the collaborators built a reputation for quality scripts based on their eight films with maverick filmmaker Martin Ritt and their screen adaptations of novels by American literary giants such as William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, The Reivers, and The Long, Hot Summer), William Inge (The Dark at the Top of the Stairs), Elmore Leonard (Hombre), Pat Conroy (Conrack), and Larry McMurtry (Hud).
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank are the uncle and aunt of Michael Frank, author of The Mighty Franks, and were figures who loomed large in their nephew’s life. Theirs is a complicated family history because Ravetch and Frank were also the brother and sister of Michael’s parents: Ravetch was the brother of Michael’s mother and Frank the sister of Michael’s father. The families were further intertwined by proximity: each family lived just blocks from each other in Laurel Canyon, and Michael’s grandmothers from both sides shared an apartment located in-between. An unusual family in which to grow up, to say the least.
The Mighty Franks is the author’s lyrical and detailed memoir about growing up in the Sixties and Seventies as the favored nephew of his childless Uncle Irving and Aunt Hankie, as Harriet was known. Written from the perspective of the child born into this odd family, the book is a coming-of-age memoir rather than a Hollywood reminiscence. “It's really a portrait of a family that happens to be set against a little bit of old Hollywood,” Frank says. “A key factor that I try to make clear is the fantasy nature of being childless screenwriters with a lot of money. They were free to indulge in all kinds of fantasies in every which way they staged in their lives.”
Although the reflected glow of Tinseltown and the vibrant Laurel Canyon counterculture provide some of the backdrop for Michael Frank’s development, his is a family tale that might have taken place anywhere. It’s a story about these individuals, the family knots, and the consequences of their actions. “They could have been something else in their jobs and the story could have been the same,” the author observes. As the chosen protégé of his Aunt Hankie, Michael was favored over his two brothers and schooled by her in literature and art, as well as accompanying her on her perpetual antiquing expeditions. The child luxuriated in her attention and gifts, caring little that he was the only child in grade school who could quote Balzac by heart. Uncle Irving also doted on Michael, and was a complicit enabler of his wife’s emotional and material excesses.
As he grew older, Michael became increasingly aware of his aunt’s narcissistic and manipulative tendencies whereby friends and family members were often treated cruelly or completely excommunicated. Hankie’s free-spirited allure would attract admirers who, like Michael, would bask in its glory, only to be trapped later in its dangerous undertow. It was, says Frank, “like being in a fairy tale. You know you're under a state of enchantment. Even when things are bad, they still have power over you.”
It took adulthood and a family of his own to free Michael Frank from being a mere player in his aunt and uncle’s saga. He pours his deep insights gained from the experience into The Mighty Franks, along with a hefty dose of the literary passion and fluency that, ironically, his aunt and uncle so devotedly cultivated.
Marjorie Baumgarten is a film critic who was employed by the Austin Chronicle for 34 years and served 20 as a senior editor.