The Passion of Ayn Rand - The Showtime Movie

Showtime produced a TV-original movie based upon The Passion of Ayn Rand which played to a sold-out audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999.

The movie was aired on Showtime on May 30, 1999, and is now available in Blockbuster video stores.

Helen Mirren won an Emmy for her performance in the movie, and Peter Fonda won the Golden Globe award for best supporting actor. They were also nominated for best actress and best supporting actor by the Screen Actors Guild.

Helen Mirren and Peter Fonda as Ayn Rand and
Frank O'Connor in Showtime's The Passion of Ayn Rand.
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Below is the letter — originally published in Liberty magazine — that Barbara wrote to her good friend, philosopher John Hospers, describing her experiences on the set as The Passion of Ayn Rand was being filmed.

This letter contains a considerable amount of text inadvertently omitted from the version published in Liberty.

February 1998

Dear John,

I intended to be in Toronto for only a week during the filming of The Passion of Ayn Rand — but after two days on the set, I knew that no power on earth could tear me away until the shoot ended. I am having a more wonderful time than I ever dreamed possible.

Howard Korder’s script is excellent, and I am constantly being asked to write bits of copy — which means that I get material into the script that I had wanted in. The cast is marvelous; Helen Merrin as Ayn is superb, as I expected her to be; Eric Stoltz as Nathan and Julie Delpy as Barbara are very, very good indeed; and the total knockout is Peter Fonda as Frank. One very rarely sees a performance such as his. He doesn’t act Frank; he is Frank. He has me in tears almost every time he's on camera, and Helen often does too.

Even the smaller parts were wonderfully portrayed. Tom McCamus, who portrays Robert Berole, is a major Canadian actor; I had seen him as King Arthur in Camelot, last summer at Stratford. I was very touched when he wrote in my book: "Thank you for letting me be your boyfriend for a while."

One day, several young people, on the set for the first time, came up to me to introduce themselves. ‘We’re the Collective,’ one of them said earnestly. I tried not to burst out laughing, but I couldn’t help it.

My one disappointment is the character of ‘Caroline.’ She’s the young woman, played by a fine young actress named Sybil Temchen, with whom Nathaniel falls in love. She is not at all like Patrecia in her personality, her psychology, or her character; she’s an amalgam of several characters.

Al Waxman, an actor who has been in American films for years, played Jack Warner — a small part in which he has an argument with Ayn about the movie of The Fountainhead. He told me, "There’s three places I could be right now: In Switzerland with my wife; having the hip surgery I badly need; or being part of this film and playing a ridiculously small role — but head-to-head with Helen Mirren.’ Later, I saw him limping and asked if the pain was bad. He said, "It hurts until the director says 'Action,' and it hurts after he says 'Cut.' In between? What hip?"

In the beginning of one scene, Julie Delpy is finishing a lecture on ‘Efficient Thinking.’ Her lines had little or nothing to do with the subject, and I was asked to re-write them. When the shooting of the new scene was finished, Julie came running over to me, saying: "Barbara! It’s wonderful! How do I get the tapes?" You may be sure she will receive the tapes.

Julie is truly beautiful, a rare mixture of delicacy and strength. Months ago, when the producers and I were discussing casting, they asked whom I’d like to portray me. I said, "I don’t know most of today’s young actresses, so I can’t choose — so long as she’s breathtakingly beautiful!" I got my wish.

Peter just won a Golden Globe award; on February 10 the Oscar nominees will be announced, and it's likely that Peter will be among them — which means the press will descend. U.S. News & World Report has been here, interviewing the stars and moi, and the New York Times is expected. It looks as if there will be a lot of publicity, both by Showtime and in the press.

The other day, I rounded a corner on the way to the set — and almost fell over. On a busy corner was a very large billboard with a picture of Peter as Frank and the words: "This is John Galt! Find out who he is in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged!" I lost all sense of what decade I was living in.

The director and the stars — particularly Julie — very often ask me questions about the psychology and thinking of the characters. This is delightful. I have to tell you of one event that you may have trouble getting into your head; God knows I had trouble. At the wedding of Barbara and Nathan, a woman stands behind them, with tears in her eyes; after the ceremony, Barbara turns to smile lovingly at the woman, who is her mother. She also is me. I am my own mother at my own wedding!!! I loved every minute of it. Mary Lou Gutscher, my wonderful hostess who has accepted, without a whimper, this woman who came to dinner, rushed out to get me a T-shirt that reads: A Star is Born! In future, I expect to be treated accordingly.

After the shoot one day, Mary Lou and I walked into a nearby grocery store to get a couple of things. Something seemed strange; the store looked oddly out of place. And then we discovered we were trying to buy fruit in a prop. (I must confess that on my first day on the set, I ate a prop.)

This can give you only a vague sense of how truly wonderful those five weeks were for me. When I first arrived, Helen told me that both cast and crew were terrified at what I might think and say and do — but after one day, I was involved in a love affair with all of them. Helen is as remarkable a woman as she is an actor; I can't imagine a better performance, and I can't imagine feeling greater admiration and affection for a performer. She told me from the beginning, about Ayn: "I will not let her down. I will not let her be diminished." She read my book, watched interview tapes of Ayn, read a lot of her work, and came away convinced that Ayn was a great woman, great in intellect and in passion. She kept her word: Ayn is not diminished.

I had all the cast and the members of the crew whom I really got to know sign my book about Ayn. Helen wrote that this was one of the best acting experiences of her career. She had told me that her father had been a communist, that she had been raised to be a communist, and that she'd only begun to question it fifteen or twenty years ago. So I don't know how she — or Peter or Eric or Julie or most of the crew — view Ayn's ideas. What was so special was that it doesn’t matter. All of them, and most particularly Helen, approached their work with an astonishing integrity.

Helen Mirren as Ayn Rand.
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In one of the final scenes, Helen-Ayn was to give her last talk before her death, and to be terribly aged, weary, and ill. I entered the set and saw Helen from the back at first — and what I was seeing, from the back and before the shooting of the scene began, was an aged, weary, and ill woman. You can imagine what she projected when I saw her from the front.

I normally watched the shooting from the monitor of the director, Christopher Menaul, wearing a headset. We had to get into odd places at times. One day — one late night, to be exact -­ Chris and I and about ten of the crew were squashed into a bathroom, which happened to be the logical place from which to shoot the scene. The brief scene was of Helen looking into a mirror, not saying a word, but speaking paragraphs with her eyes and expression. When the director called "Cut!" there was a sharp intake of breath in the bathroom and everywhere on the set: No one had breathed during the entire scene.

People in the crew, who were as remarkable as the cast, kept telling me what a joy it was for them to work on such "a quality film." I was as fascinated by what goes on behind the camera as in front of it. Within a few days I was convinced that making a film is so complicated that it can't possibly be done, never was done, and never would be done. Only they did it. And it truly is all smoke and mirrors — and lights. One day we were on a set, a beautiful house in Toronto that had the feel of Ayn’s home in Tarzana. Outside, it was a dreary winter Toronto day; inside, the house was flooded with California sunshine.

What most fascinated me about the crew is the extent to which each one of them has to be a self-generator. There were about 40 of them, and their jobs were much too complex for anyone to be truly in charge; each one of them had to know his job exactly, and do it perfectly. I got to know many of them. They have remarkable lives, traveling to shoots all over the world; and they all seem madly in love with their work.

It was amazing, during those five weeks, to find myself gradually feeling as if I were part of a close family — cast and crew. We were together often sixteen hours a day or more, we ate together, we talked together, we all were involved in the same deeply meaningful project and we all had the same goal; and I realized again something I had known before: the kind of closeness and caring that is possible when people share a common value and a common goal.

When the shoot was over, especially when Helen and Peter left, I felt utterly bereft. When I got home, one of the producers called and asked if I was suffering, as she was, from post-filming depression. Definitely. It's somewhat like finishing a book: One lives so intensely during the writing of it that when the work is finished all the world seems, for a while, flat and stale.

The first few days I was on the set, even though the filming was not in sequence, it vividly brought back my past, and I had the sense that I was reliving those days. As a result, I had tears in my eyes — at minimum ­- a good deal of the time. The tears were not for Nathaniel or for me, but for Ayn and Frank. I kept feeling as if I must stop from happening to them what I knew was going to happen. But by the second week, it stopped being so intensely personal, and I enjoyed the wonder of seeing my book brought to life. I realized that a book is about something, but it's not the thing itself; a film is the reality.

This was not a once in a lifetime experience. It was a never in a lifetime experience. This is not the sort of thing that happens. And I feel so blessed that it happened to me.

I could happily go on forever, there's so much to tell about those astonishing weeks. The director and the producers had me write a lot of dialogue both before I came to Toronto (I arrived here the second day of the shoot) and especially after. What they wanted from me mostly was philosophical dialogue pertaining to Objectivism, which, understandably, neither they nor the scriptwriter could quite handle.

So I happily wrote dialogue, and got ideas into the script that I had badly wanted to get in — such as: No man has the right to initiate the use of force. (Interesting to me was the fact that I had no writer's block, not even for one second; I often was asked, at two or three a.m., to produce something by the next day — and I did it with no trouble whatever. It seems as if I'm not blocked when I can't afford to be.)

But there was one scene I was unhappy about and which I couldn't get changed, despite the fact that from the beginning so many of my suggestions had been accepted. That was the scene where Ayn slaps Nathan. Her words in this scene were weak, not psychologically true. I kept saying that they should go to my book for the dialogue, because that was so much stronger than what they had.

A couple of days before that scene was to be shot, Helen came up to me with a sheet of paper on which she had rewritten her dialogue for that scene. She said it was terribly weak as it was — that it made Ayn petty, which she never would have been, that she should be shown as an erupting volcano — and that she had gone to my book for the words she would say. She chose almost exactly the lines I would have chosen — and she had the clout to get them accepted by the director.

The president of Showtime came to the set, presumably because, as the producers told me, he was very excited about the daily rushes he'd been seeing. As the shoot progressed, all the people involved seemed to get more and more of a feeling that they had something quite remarkable on their hands. In the middle of the shoot, Showtime added half a million dollars to what they had initially agreed to spend. I know that's loose change to you and me, but it was important to Showtime.

This has been an incredible experience for me in more ways than the above. For many years I have had, to say the least, a jaundiced view of the people who work in Hollywood. I earned that view through painful experience with Hollywood producers. So I assumed that the producers of Passion would run true to form. I was totally mistaken. Normally, the writer of the original material is considered to be the person of least consquence involved in the film. But from the very beginning, Linda Wexelblatt and Peter Crane, the on- line producers, sent me every draft of the script and asked for my comments and suggestions, many of which were incorporated. Except when they clearly knew better than I. I grew very fond of Linda and Peter, but still I waited for the "Hollywood types" to appear. I'm still waiting.

I was so delighted when Marilyn Lewis, one of the executive producers, came to the set. She's the woman who took an option on Passion seven or eight years ago, and fought like a tiger ever since to have it produced either as a feature film or a television movie. She and I spent considerable time hugging each other and gloating.

It is remarkable that, where once the name "Ayn Rand" got doors slammed in one's face, it now opens doors. A major newspaper—that probably should be nameless — sent a reporter to the set. She told me that her editor was a fan of Ayn, which was why she had been given the assignment to cover the shoot. It is a newspaper that has been out for blood with Ayn from the moment she first picked up an American pen.

It appears that we are becoming respectiable — even mainstream! I, for one, will have to learn how to adjust to that, after years of being an intellectual pariah. Well, a lot of people worked very hard and very long to reach this day. But one doesn't always get what one has earned. This time, the fruits of our labors are everywhere to seen.

I feel enormously happy about what I saw in Toronto — although I haven't yet seen the first cut. But Chris Menaul, who is anything but a fan of Ayn philosophically, is a brilliant director, and I have little doubt that the film will be very fine indeed.

I also feel very solemn about what I saw in Toronto. One day, standing at Chris' monitor and listening to Helen deliver lines from Galt's speech, I realized, with no modesty whatever, that I had done for Ayn what no one else was able to do. I had written as honest and accurate a biography as I knew how, and now, because of my work, the reality of Ayn's life would be on national television in this country, and in movie theaters in Europe. The real Ayn — the woman who was so magnificent in her person and her life, yet so tragically flawed, the woman who suffered so bitterly and unjustly, yet was so seminal a genius in her philosophical thinking. And I thought: "I have kept my promises. I have paid my debts."

There will be a premier of the film in Los Angeles before it is shown on television. I certainly plan to be there.



An Additional Note from Barbara Branden

April 15, 2000

My letter to John Hospers was written just after I had watched the filming of The Passion of Ayn Rand and before I saw the final, edited version. In certain ways, I was disappointed with what was done in the editing, in which I had no input.

The presentation of Nathaniel Branden was extremely unjust to him. Scenes had been shot that showed him in a more favorable light, but they ended up on the cutting room floor. What needed to be shown, and was not, was Nathaniel's brilliance, his dynamism, and his unwavering dedication to Objectivism. Had they been shown, they would radically have altered the portrait of him, and also would have made intelligible Ayn Rand's love for him. It is my understanding that the director felt that the film, as a dramatic story, needed a villain; and he elected Nathaniel. Further, Nathaniel was given an invented romance, with "Caroline," that bore no significant relationship to his actual romance with Patrecia Wynand (later Patrecia Branden) that precipitated his break with Ayn Rand.

And I will say, in my own defense, that I never was the "wimp" that I was portrayed as being. I was significantly more aggressive and forthright.

I hasten to say that the above was not the fault of Eric Stoltz or Julie Delpy, but predominantly the fault of the editing.

Nor did I like the fact that there were three sex scenes, when only one was required. The set was closed when they were filmed, so I did not see any part of them until the editing had been done. The scene between Helen-Ayn and Nathaniel-Eric was, I thought, both brilliant and powerful. Interestingly, it was included because Helen insisted on it, and she choreographed it; she rightly believed it was necessary to show dramatically that Ayn was not only an intellectual giant, but a woman of great sexual passion. At least one of the two scenes between Nathaniel-Erik and Caroline-Sybil was pointless and, much worse, they both were "cookie-cutter" sex scenes; that is, we have seen their equivalent dozens of times in every movie that has a sex scene.

I would like to have seen more of Ayn Rand's ideas presented in the film. Again, many of them vanished in the editing. However, I'm happy to say that enough was presented to intrigue people who had not read her books as well as many who had read them. I have been told by more than a hundred of the former, who saw the film at Sundance or other film festivals, or on television, or on video cassette, that they were fascinated by the ideas and intended reading Ayn Rand's books and my biography. To reach such people was the major reason that I had sold the rights to my book. The feedback I have received on the film has been overwhelmingly positive, (although there are some Objectivists who, predictably, seem ready to lynch me).

I want to tell visitors to this site about an event that will make clear why I so much admire Helen Mirren, not only as an actress but as a human being. At the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie was shown several times at different venues (and was sold out each time) the cast and one of the line producers and I went to the stage to answer questions at the end of each presentation. Helen Mirren was asked a question that seemed to imply that Ayn Rand was a hypocrite. Helen replied (I may not be quoting her exact words, but I am stating her exact meaning): "Oh no, never! She was never a hypocrite! Let me tell you my own view of Ayn Rand.

"Before the shooting of the film began, I read Barbara's book more than once, I read parts of Rand's Journals, and I watched every television interview with her that I could find. I am a socialist, so I do not agree with her politically. As for the rest of her philosophy, I am not sufficiently familiar with it to have an opinion. But as I read and watched and came to know her, I realized that I was encountering a woman of immense, overwhelming intelligence, a woman of astonishing charisma, a woman with a touching, childlike vulnerability. In the end, I came to love Ayn Rand."

When I said goodbye to Peter Fonda, I told him, tearfully, "Thank you for bringing Frank back to me for a while." And that is what he had done. Watching his performance during the filming and in the final version, I did not feel I was watching an actor but that I was watching Frank O'Connor, whom I had deeply loved. And as a man, Peter is like Frank in many ways: he has the same gentleness and kindness and the same touch of aristocracy, even the same body language.

One day on the set, the crew was racing around setting up the next scene that was to be filmed; there was a lot of noise and dragging about of props and general bustle. In the middle of the set, on a couch, Peter lay peacefully asleep, his body seemingly boneless. Then, when the director was ready, he leapt to his feet to give as remarkable a performance as I ever have seen. (Again, this was cut in the editing, and I cannot imagine why.)

In the scene between Frank and Ayn that followed, his assignment was to say one word, and to say it at two different times in the scene. The word was: "Well. . .." All of us watching him were hypnotized when he spoke. We would not have believed that paragraphs, indeed, a man's whole life and the suffering that had punctuated it, could be captured in the word: "Well. .."

I need not add how delighted I am that both Helen Mirren and Peter Fonda were nominated for almost every award possible, and won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award, respectively, for their performances.