With an eclectic writing background and virtually no directorial experience, Douglas McGrath was a surprising choice to helm the 1996 feature adaptation of Jane Austen's novel "Emma"--even to himself. The result, however, was a delightful, charming and infectious rendition that was a critical and box-office success.
While still in high school, McGrath broke into show business as an actor, of sorts, appearing in a community production of "Life With Father" in his native Midland, TX. While attending Princeton in the late 1970s, he wrote original college musicals. Upon graduation, he migrated to New York where he tutored prep school boys and spent one season (1980-81) as a staff writer on NBC's "Saturday Night Live", during which time he collaborated with Liz Welch in writing and directing the well-received short "Life with Laurie", featuring Laurie Metcalf and Catherine O'Hara.
McGrath established himself as a brilliant satirist with semi-regular columns in THE NEW REPUBLIC and THE NATION. At the same time, he made a foray into TV with a script for an episode of "L.A. Law" and the pilot for the cable series "The Steven Banks Show" (Showtime, 1991). McGrath then landed the assignment of revising and updating Garson Kanin's classic "Born Yesterday" in 1993. Conceived as a vehicle for Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, the film was, in the screenwriter's words, "widely hailed as a mistake on everyone's part." McGrath scored with his sophomore effort, however, teaming with Woody Allen to script the Oscar-nominated "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994). Set in the 1920s and featuring gangsters, showgirls and other outsized theatrical figures, it provided a number of strong roles for actors, notably Dianne Wiest as a Tallulah Bankhead-like stage star and Chazz Palminteri as a mobster with literary talent.
Flush with success, McGrath approached Miramax with his screenplay for "Emma" and proposed that he direct it as well. After screening his short films, the Weinsteins agreed to bankroll "Emma". Despite his novice status, McGrath made an assured debut, winning critical kudos and eliciting strong performances from his cast headed by Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette and Jeremy Northam.
McGrath has also established a secondary career as an actor, making a cameo appearance in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (1994) and a brief appearance as a shop owner in "Emma". He headlined a one-man show "State of the Nation" which later evolved into the Off-Broadway hit "Political Animal" (1996), an acidic satire in which he was the only performer, playing a right-wing presidential candidate.