With her cute little bangs and white ankle socks, Beth Henley may look like the world’s oldest living Girl Scout, but Be Prepared, unwary moviegoer: She earned her 1986 merit badge by wielding a wicked wit. In the last three months Henley’s screenwriting credit has appeared on no less than three of the year’s most notable and offbeat films: True Stories, Nobody’s Fool and Crimes of the Heart, which she adapted from her hit Broadway play of the same name.
Henley, 34, has shown a talent as elastic as it is eccentric. The Pulitzer-winning playwright who prizes peculiarities finds that Hollywood isn’t all that different from her hometown, Jackson, Miss., or nearby Hazlehurst, the setting for Crimes. “If you get into this film community,” says Henley, “it’s almost like being in a club, like the Junior League in Mississippi. The same sort of gossip goes back and forth—who’s doing well, who doesn’t get into this or elected for that.”
Like her characters, Henley is a kaleidoscope of contradictions. This soft-spoken woman seems an unlikely author of such outspoken comedies. This specialist in Southern discomforts pens her plays in a West Hollywood hideaway. This creator of disenchanted romantics has spent 14 years with her actor-director boyfriend, Stephen Tobolowsky. With David Byrne they collaborated on the screenplay of True Stories.
Henley has remained resolutely down-home amidst the uproar of the last 12 months. “I was teasing my boyfriend that this year has turned me into a major megalomaniac,” says Henley. “He’ll find me reading over interviews, and I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, the megalo has to read about herself.’ You have to make a joke out of it.”
That, of course, is what Henley does best.