Tag Archives: Adolescence

Neil Diamond and The Last Waltz…WTF? (or An Appeal for Neil)

Recently, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted the requisite confusion that accompanies any sentence with the words “Neil Diamond” and “Rock and Roll” in it. A few years ago, I would have joined in on the Neil-bashing, since I, too, have had contempt for him for most of my life. Luckily, I have a few cronies who’ve set me straight.

Honestly, my fandom is limited mostly to his first singles, the mid-60s period when he was on Bang records and rose to stardom on such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman.” Jesus, they’re great songs. And anytime I’m a late-comer to an artist, film or LP, I rack my brain to figure out why, why, why? Why have I lost decades I could have spent listening to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which I now have to make up for, replaying it morning, noon and night (much to my wife’s frustration).

Why did I forsake you, Neil?

The answer is simple: Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz.

I got the film on an RCA CED videodisc in 1983. My brother got it, actually, convinced by some elders that any self-respecting rock and roll fan should love that film. (Sound advice.) I was unfamiliar with most of the performers in the film, and I inched my way through it a song at a time. I’d hear an Eric Clapton song on the radio, then I’d queue up “Further on Up the Road” in The Last Waltz. I’d notice “Mannish Boy” in Risky Business, so I’d revisit Muddy Waters’s version in the documentary. I’d see Dr. John on SCTV and –boom–I’d have a fresh take on his performance from the Scorsese film. And so on. Before long, I was wearing a scarf around high school, à la Robbie Robertson (see below) and named my first car “Ophelia,” after the Band song.

But one ongoing sticking point was that damned “Dry Your Eyes” number smack dab in the middle of the film. In 1983, at age 13, I already had a dim view on Neil Diamond. He was beloved by people’s parents, but not for me and my expanding rock and roll palate. He was too busy being that jazz singer who stopped bringing flowers to Barbra. I was alienated by his presence in Scorsese’s film, thought he was a stiff snooze, and that this was the last nail in Neil’s coffin: I wrote him off and closed my ears and heart to All Things Neil. He was dead to me.

If you need a reminder of Neil’s contribution to the 1976 concert/1978 film, here it is…

And if you’re still reading, you probably fall under one of three categories: 1. Neil Diamond fans who will follow him anywhere; 2. Last Waltz fans who are strongly opinionated about his appearance in the film, pro or con; or 3. someone who just saw the film and wonder why that sunglasses-wearing sore thumb was on the stage. If you’re in that last category, than this post is for you. This is what I wish I could have read when I was 13 years old.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why Diamond was there that night; why his performance misfired; and how it might have gone down if it were handled differently.

Fashion hero Robbie Robertson

Intellectually, Neil’s participation in The Last Waltz makes some sense: Band member Robbie Robertson had spearheaded the event and wanted representation from all the aspects of the Band’s sound, their “musical wheel,” as he called it: Southern blues, Canadian folk, New Orleans funk, and so on. Neil Diamond represented the NYC-based “Brill Building Sound,” named after the building on Broadway where several talented songwriters wrote hit after hit in the 60s, writers that included Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, and Greenwich & Berry. Although the Band sound didn’t exactly scream “New York City,” Robbie had an affinity for that era of popular song writing. In fact, he had just produced Neil Diamond’s latest LP, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling Beautiful Noise. (You can raise a cynical eyebrow now, if you like.)

So there is a heady logic to Neil taking the stage after Joni Mitchell and before Van Morrison. After that, logic falls apart at every turn, blame falling entirely on the choice of song. Whether or not “Dry Your Eyes” is a good song is irrelevant; it’s a woefully inappropriate song for that concert.

Neil Diamond was one of the only two performers that night to perform exclusively new material. Every artist that performed more than one song shrewdly included one tried-and-true house burner: Neil Young wowed them “Helpless,” Van Morrison slayed with “Caravan,” Muddy Waters destroyed with “Mannish Boy,” and so on. And the artists who did perform only one song, each chose a surefire classic: Dr. John brought the house down with “Such a Night,” Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” turned the Winterland into the world’s largest backwoods bar, Paul Butterfield (dueting with Levon Helm) took everyone on the “Mystery Train.” Besides Neil Diamond, only Joni Mitchell did all new material, but I don’t think anyone was expecting her to come out singing “Help Me.”

You could argue that Neil’s peers played it safe—or you could say they gave the fans what they wanted. Irregardless, Neil Diamond comes out, sporting stand-offish sunglasses and “looking more like a movie producer than a musician” (to quote music journalist Barney Hoskyns) and does a song that no one could sing along with, a song that just doesn’t swing, y’know?

And there’s the rub: Robbie wanted representation from the 60s NYC pop scene—but chose a song written in the 70s, on the West Coast—coincidentally, a song that just happened to be co-written by Robbie Robertson. (Being a huge Robbie supporter, that detail has always pained me. It’s just reeks of opportunism.)

If Neil had “played it safe” and performed something he’d literally written in the Brill Building, there would have been plenty to choose from, all familiar to the audience. At the very least, the Winterland’s universal voice would have said, “Aw, man, I know this tune,” as opposed to, “Huh…? Dry your what…?”

And how would have that sounded if Neil had played something surefire? What if, for example, he went all the way back, to his first single, “Solitary Man” from 1966? It might have sounded like this, which is his performance in Australia six months before The Last Waltz.

OK, it’s definitely not as good looking as The Last Waltz—and Neil’s swapped his lapels and shades for rhinestones and leather pants. But that aside, I could imagine the Band backing him on this, with Garth Hudson providing sweeping organ fills and Robbie punctuating the lyrics with his fractured-note style. (That night, the Band did an excellent job of making sure their guests did not sound like oldies acts.)

And then maybe in 1983, the 13-year-old version of me—a Neil Diamond skeptic—would have sought out the original version of the tune, and embraced it, and become one of those gung-ho NeilHeads you meet every now and then.

So my parting advice to anyone who’s written off Neil Diamond because of his 3 (long) minutes in that great, great film, The Last Waltz: Don’t give up on the Man. Check out the recently released The Bang Years 1966-68 collection and you’ll hear some timeless music.

And for those Neil Loyalists out there who defend him to the grave and insist on putting that 1976 performance on a pedestal, just remember this: that was the only time Neil ever performed “Dry Your Eyes” live, so perhaps Neil himself isn’t a fan of his performance that night.

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Filed under Film, Music

New York City, Seen from a Distance

Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

Of course, that’s Alvy Singer talking, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall. When I’d watch that film as a high school student in South Jersey, longing to move north, that line made more of an impression on me than others in the film (which is saying a lot). None of those labels (communist, Jewish, etc.) applied to me, but being an outsider in high school, I certainly knew the feeling of being labeled and mislabeled.

I’ve been an NYC resident a couple of decades now and still see the truth in Alvy’s comment, particularly the how the “rest of the country looks upon New York” part. Here’s some examples of when his observation comes to mind…

The 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three presumably shows an atypical day in New York City, one where a subway car is hijacked and its passengers held for ransom. Although a few different posters promoted the film, here’s the one used the most worldwide. It’s a POV shot of what a passenger might see if peeking into the next subway car…

I expected this didn’t seem so farfetched a sight to the rest of the world, because as they all know (or imagine), it’s commonplace for New York City subway passengers to point semi-automatic rifles at a mother and her children, right?


Here’s another instance. A buddy of mine, Jonah Kaplan, made a student film in 1990. It’s called Bicycle and includes an intense recreation of the perils of bike riding in NYC (his home town). Here’s a 30 second sample…

(Sadly, the internet is a total letdown here. To see this 7-minute film on the big screen, in a packed theater, is to enjoy a 3D-like experience that makes Avatar look as 1 dimensional as its script.)

Jonah’s film enjoyed enormous success on the festival circuit (it played in almost 20, many of them in non-English-speaking countries). He admits that it was accepted at foreign festivals in part because there’s no dialog in the film—but he says the audiences generally felt that “this is what living in New York is like all the time.”


My final example comes from 1977, an infamous year in the city’s history (detailed thoroughly in Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning). Political upheaval. Son of Sam. The Blackout. More than usual, the outside world perceived NYC as a blighted metropolis on the brink of disaster or self-destruction. And in the midst of that, the Yankees were in the World Series. The pressure was on since they hadn’t won one in 15 years, an unfathomable drought for New Yorkers. (Man, sometimes I wish the average Yankee fan could spend a few years living in Philly.)

By Game 6, the Yankees had won three games, and the LA Dodgers had won two. That night, Reggie Jackson made history by hitting 3 home runs, in 3 consecutive times at bat, in only 3 pitches, off 3 different pitchers. (Un-believable.) His last was in the 8th inning, and when he took the field in the top of the 9th, the Yankee fans were bloodthirsty for victory and couldn’t contain themselves. Even though security had been quadrupled, it wasn’t enough: some over-enthused fans threw firecrackers towards Reggie in right field, forcing him to take drastic measures.

This two minute clips begins with his reaction to being pelted by the explosive love of his admirers, and concludes with the final out of the game and its aftermath. It’s very famous footage, but if you’ve already seen it, I encourage you to give it another look—and this time pay close attention to announcers Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson…

Now I’ve seen plenty of footage of World Series victories: players jumping on each other, fans storming the fields, and so on. But this clip is seriously fucked up. It’s not so much like “The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!!” as it is “Oh, the humanity!” Cops with raised nightsticks, kicking fans on the ground; a cloud of dust rising above the melee; and poor Reggie Jackson running for his life, bodyslamming New Yorkers.

But Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell make no allusion to the violent insanity, no cries for someone to declare martial law. Something tells me they were saying to themselves, “Well, what do you expect? This is New York, isn’t it? Just another night in the Big Apple.”

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New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”

 

We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…

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Filed under Humor

“Home” for the Holidays: Christmas in South Jersey

I’m proud and happy to announce the launch of a new website, exclusively for the holiday season. Christmas in South Jersey is the online version of a photo album I made 18 years ago.

I don’t know if the rural and suburban areas of Southern New Jersey are unique, but back in 1992, it was all I knew. And every December, the lawns become cluttered with lights and ornaments, a mishmash of Nativity scenes and North Pole motifs. Jesus and Santa Claus would be side-by-side. The Virgin Mary strangely close to a plastic snowman. Angels sharing porch space with reindeer. (Trust me, my Jewish friends, it was as confounding to me as it would be to you!) And in the harsh daylight sun, it was clear that these seasonal trophies were dreadfully old, weather-beaten and tethered to a dozen feet of orange extension cords.


And the faces of South Jersey are equally fascinating…

A few days after I graduated film school, I spent ten days combing the backwoods of my home state, taking about 800 photographs, and making a 45-page photo album, which has been seen by very few people since.

So, when you have a few minutes during your crazy December, check it out. I’d like to think being 18 years old gives the album nostalgic value, but I bet most of these Christmas ornaments are still in service.

(I made this website in iWeb and am still tweaking it. It looks the way I want it to, but, frankly, the program’s pretty unpredictable. It’s possible I’ll pull it down and relaunch another way. Until then, I welcome feedback of any kind, especially suggestions for alternatives to iWeb.)

And, please, in the spirit of giving, share this link with your friends!

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Woody Allen, David Lynch and the Craziest of Double Features

In October, 1980, my mother took me to London for a week. I was 11 years old. As much as I was enjoying myself, I was hopelessly “American” and going out of my head after a few days. I may have loved the Beatles and Monty Python, but I was pining for things like baseball and commercial interruptions on TV. By the end of the week, my mother admitted that she, too, was missing the good ol’ U S of A, and we decided to see an American film in Picadilly Circus. One theater was showing Annie Hall—what could be more American than Woody Allen, right? And it was a double feature, with another American film that neither of us had heard of it. Understandably, we figured that if it was paired off with Annie Hall, it must therefore be a comedy in a similar vein. It even had a funny title: Eraserhead.

Ultimately, we passed on both films and it was a few years before I saw David Lynch’s first feature, the entire time saying, “This?! This?! The Brits thought this played well with the Best Picture of 1977?!”

Admittedly, it is a dazzling combo—but that’s the revisionist in me talking. (For example, Annie Hall’s tagline is “A Nervous Romance,” which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be such a bad tagline for Eraserhead.) But from a commercial standpoint—for a broad and mainstream  audience—it’s quite the mismatch.

Revisiting London in 1998, I went looking for some exciting film posters. I found this beaut and snagged it for a mere ten pounds…

OK, it’s not as insane as combining Diane Keaton and Jack Nance, but it’s definitely unusual. For those unfamiliar with the films, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician forced to protect himself and his wife by killing a band of marauding, raping English villagers; while Bert Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1975), loosely based on the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, is exactly as the poster appears: giant rats, worms and wasps eat and kill their way through a lot of faded stars and b-movie regulars. (Its American tagline was “For a taste of Hell…”)

I’ve never seen these films consecutively, though I expect the sheer intensity of Straw Dogs would make The Food of the Gods even more of a snooze than it already is. But as far as pure magnetic advertising goes—something to entice you to shell out your hard-earned pounds—it’s genius. Barum-esque. This poster was in my bedroom for years, over my desk, and I used to stare it endlessly, wondering why it was so damn fascinating. Was it..



…the brutality associated with Straw Dogs’s director OR the terror associated with The Food of the Gods’s author?









The image of a blonde being raped by a man OR a brunette being eaten by a ginormous, feral rodent?










The steely gaze of Dustin Hoffman sporting a rifle OR the razor-sharp fangs of enormous rat?









The extreme close-up of a sweatered-but-braless chest OR the heaving, negligee’d cleavage?






No matter how you slice it, there’s something to disturb, offend and/or entertain everybody: Dogs…rats. Guns…fangs. Nipples…cleavage. What a night on the town!

Please, if anyone reading this has seen other exciting and highly imaginative British Double Features, let us know in the Comments section.

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On a personal front, I’ve cherished this Peckinpah-Wells poster for years, though the only people to see have been a few roommates, some friends and a few “lucky” girlfriends. Since getting married—and losing most of my apartment’s poster real estate in the process—this awesome artifact has languished in the basement. To liberate it for this post—and share it with all of you wonderful people—the 20”x 30” poster had to be scanned in 40 pieces and stitched together in Photoshop. Honestly, if I knew it would require that much damn work, you’d be looking at a blank post right now.

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Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity

A Goy Walks into a Synagogue…

(This post includes many references to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions and paraphernalia. Rather then slow down the narrative with too many descriptions/definitions, I’ve loaded it with plenty of Wiki links to help keep all of us on the same page.)

Often, people mistakenly think I’m Jewish, which I’m sure has a lot to do with my Italian roots/looks. (They’re interchangeable, right?) Since my wife is Jewish (and therefore, so is my son), I’m frequently in Jew-heavy social circumstances. Here’s an extreme example of someone thinking I’m one of the Chosen: My son attended a Jewish pre-school, one that’s fairly observant. We all went to a Shabbat dinner one night (I believe it was a Friday), which included several Hassidic men praying, complete with tefillin, which are these little black boxes the men attach to themselves when praying, kinda like a leather Rubik’s Cube. One gentleman approached me with a smile and a spare tefillin, reaching for my arm to strap it on. I shook my head and said, “No thanks,” and his response was to nod knowingly and begin to strap it on my head! Here I was–suitless, beardless, and hatless–and this guy assumed I was a member of the tribe.

As I said, that’s an extreme example, and generally speaking, the confusion has never been a problem, per se, just a source of mild misunderstanding and amusement.

Last weekend I attended my first bar mitzvah and it was an education, believe me. It was for the son of one of my wife’s childhood friends, and it was at an Orthodox synagogue in Westchester. My wife, Debbie, was raised as a Conservative Jew (aka somewhat less rigid and observant), so a lot of the traditions and rules were foreign to her. And since they were foreign to her, you can imagine how I felt. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I was like a (loaf and) fish out of water in that place.

According to tradition, men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue, so as soon as Debbie and I entered the sanctuary, we split up. I was now flying without a net and tread cautiously into a pew. The moment I sat down, a few men instantaneously, albeit politely, pointed out that I was not wearing a yarmulke. Man, that’s Jew 101, and I started right away on the wrong foot.

The fact that I looked like I belonged made it more difficult. At one point when everyone was saying a prayer (in Hebrew), I just hummed along, and a nice gentleman handed me book so I could keep up. I gave a headshake, with a little stutter and gestured with my forefinger to my lips that he was mistaken, but since I was reflexively pulling a “Woody Allen” (right) I only looked more Jewish. Finally I took the book, opened it to pages and pages of Hebrew and did my best to learn on the spot. I couldn’t even figure out the page numbers (which were conventional Arabic numbers!). I gave up and started skimming the English sections for pointers; all I found was a passage where Moses reminded me that God’s punishment for a Jew marrying a gentile is to stone him to death. (Is this where I’m supposed to say, “Oy!”?)

I thought I could go with the flow, mimicking those around me, but the whole vibe was unusual to me. It was all very communal and relaxed, which is the opposite from what I remember of Catholic masses: no talking, sit still, kneel with your back straight, etc. Debbie says that because the services are so long (up to 3 hours), there’s a lot of latitude: there’s friendly conversation and people milling about, entering and leaving the sanctuary. To me it resembled jury duty, with everyone wandering around, killing time. For example, two guys next to me were talking about a trip to Vegas, their voices at a normal register. Man, if I had pulled a stunt like that in Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Jesus Christ himself would have climbed down from the cross to slap my wrists.

My favorite part, however—the portion of the ceremony that prompted this post—was the bar mitzvah boy’s speech to the congregation. He nervously raced through it, like all good 13 years olds do—regardless of their religion—and barely looked up from his notes. But what he said was equal parts history, tradition, gratitude, and humor, and it had “Today I am a man” written all over it. It was marvelous to watch.

Y’see, when I was thirteen, I received the holy sacrament of confirmation, which is a joke. Ostensibly, it’s the moment when a young boy or girl receives the Holy Ghost (aka the Silent Partner of the Christian Holy Trinity), but it’s more like a poor man’s bar mitzvah, something Christians cobbled together to compete with the Jews in the next town over. I was confirmed with my classmates simultaneously, all of us presumably receiving the Holy Ghost at the same moment, which is akin to a Sun Myung Moon mass wedding. What little I could remember of it was, honestly, lame, forgettable and faceless. Nothing about it felt like a rite of passage.

But what I saw on Saturday truly felt memorable—certainly for the boy-now-man and his family—and I was jealous. Call it peyes envy. (Ba dom dom tish! I’m here all week, folks. Try the brisket!)

Look, I don’t mean to refute my Christian upbringing, but let’s face it: the Catholic church hit me up with eight years of weekly masses and religious class in school five days a week and what did they get for their efforts?

I’m now an agnostic who married a Jew. (Well played, nuns. Jehovah 1, Jesus 0.)

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A post wouldn’t be complete without some popular culture, right? In the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show show, creator Carl Reiner decided to treat most of middle America to its first bar mitzvah.

In a 1966 episode called “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” comedy writer Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), at age 58, takes lessons so he can finally be bar mitzvahed. The conceit is that when Buddy was 13 he was too poor to have one but now he wants to have it for his mother’s sake.

My favorite moment comes when Buddy’s lesson is ending, just as another student’s  is beginning. Listen to the football joke at the end of this clip and pay close attention to the studio audience’s reaction…

Most of the audience doesn’t get it; those that do need a long moment to process it; and what laughter we hear sounds like, “I can’t believe they just made that joke!” (The Dick Van Dyke show is rich with moments like these: intelligent punchlines followed by pregnant pauses and then genuine, heartfelt laughter.)

The episode ends with Buddy’s service, which made TV history as it was the first time a series regular was bar mitzvahed onscreen. Not surprisingly, Buddy’s speech resembles what I heard last weekend.

Debbie watched this with her jaw on the floor. She kept saying, “What did people make of this!?” We were probably underestimating America’s intelligence; hell, I’m sure a lot of the 1966 audience had seen The Jazz Singer, fer cryin’ out loud. But I’m way impressed that Carl Reiner put a kippah on Dick Van Dyke’s head.

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Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)

As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.

The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.

Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…

He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:

       • Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
       • Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
       • Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
       • The film’s legendary teaser trailer!

And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…

In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)

I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.

So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2

I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.

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I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!

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BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.

BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.

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Filed under Film, Humor