The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
There's a benefit at Second City for Comic Relief, the stand-up's favorite charity, and word is all over the room that Martin Short is going to sit on on the 11 p.m. improvisational set. Nobody budges when the lights go up after the early show, and there is a certain buzz in the room. These guest appearances by famous former Second Citians have become a tradition over the years, a promise that if others who once labored in wretched anonymity made it onto "Saturday Night Live," there is hope for us all.
The lights go down, and it is announced to no one's surprise that Short is joining the cast. He sticks his head out from the wings, grins and wiggles his eyebrows. There is a roar from the crowd. Later he appears as one of his most famous Second City characters, the hairdresser who reads the supermarket tabloid over his customer's shoulder and confides that everyone in the paper "goes both ways, y'know."
Halfway through this sketch, he does a little dance step on the stage and the crowd roars again because they recognize the distinctive footwork of Ed Grimley, the most famous character Short created on "SNL." And I remembered what Short had been telling me earlier in the day: "On the stage at Second City, if you come out with a funny look on your face and get a laugh, well, that's one laugh you didn't have to write. The whole idea is, `How do I get out of writing?' "
But a second later he was telling me about his all-time favorite Second City sketch, which was entirely written, and which he first saw performed onstage at the Toronto branch of Second City by Brian Doyle-Murray and Joe Flaherty:
"That's the one where the student goes into the professor's office to try to talk him out of doing the take-home exam, and the professor surprises him by agreeing - and then insisting on an oral exam, on the spot. The student is of course caught completely off guard, and has not spent a second studying for the course. The professor asks him to describe the principal provisions of a famous European treaty. Well, the student says, in connection with this treaty, France . . . of course . . . had nothing to do with it . . . and Russia . . . which was, of course, on the periphery of Europe . . . did not precisely, I think we could say, see eye-to-eye with England on certain provisions . . . although the Germans were, typically, not uninvolved. . .
"The whole genius of the sketch," Short had explained, "is that the student is trying to read the right answer in the professor's eyes. Everybody has gone through a situation like that, in which you are desperately trying to say the right thing, and have no idea what the right thing is."
Onstage, Short was in another sketch now, one in which a middle-aged man was trying to live with the consequences of having persuaded two disco bimbos to move in with him. But I was flashing back to a scene in "Cross My Heart," his new movie, in which Short and Annette O'Toole appear in a scene with the same basic premise as the oral examination.
In the movie, Short plays a district sales manager for a company that sells designer sunglasses. He has just been fired. He is out on a date with O'Toole, a woman he thinks may be perfect for him. His problem is that he has filled her full of lies. He's told her he just got a promotion. He has borrowed a car from his successful friend, Bruce, and now he has brought her back to Bruce's apartment, passing it off as his own. His problem is that Bruce's apartment is filled with Bruce's mail, Bruce's family photos, Bruce's model airplanes, Bruce's telephone answering machine with Bruce's voice on it.
As Short desperately tries to explain one inconsistency after another, O'Toole grows more and more suspicious, until finally he confesses one small fib, and she confesses two large ones, and then he turns on her, drawing attention to her falsehoods in order to draw the truth away from himself. It is a fascinating sequence in the film - even if he is rather cruel to her - and what I found myself realizing, as I thought about the scene and watched Short onstage, was that he approached it in a completely different way than he might have for Second City, or "SNL." He played it straight as an actor, with no funny faces and no little Ed Grimley two-step.
That is the secret of Martin Short: He is a compleat actor, who spent 10 years in Toronto working at any acting job he could find. His experience does not begin and end with the most visible part of it, his enormously successful time on "Saturday Night Live," nor even with the similar comic acting he did for "SCTV" and at Second City in Toronto.
"My requirements were fairly simple, when it came to acting jobs," he was remembering. "Is it a job? Does it pay? I'll be there." In Toronto he did all sorts of acting, community, experimental, improvisational, commercial, and by the time he landed his first U.S. network job, on the 1979-80 series "The Associates," he already had four Canadian series under his belt.
"It all started for me in 1972, when they held the famous open auditions for `Godspell' every city where it played. I stood in line with hundreds or even thousands of other people in Toronto, but somehow I was chosen. That was my first acting job. And in that same cast, from those same auditions, they also picked Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas, and Paul Shaffer was the piano player. Within a few months, I had met some of the other people who were going to come out of Toronto, like John Candy and Danny Aykroyd, who always smelled of gasoline because he was always tearing down cars and cycles and rebuilding them."
For some of that crowd, like Radner and Aykroyd, success came quickly. But in 1975, when they were begining to be successful New York, Short was having the worst year of his life.
"I went for five straight months completely unemployed," he said, drinking diet pop in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton. "That's why I feel for this guy in the movie, this sunglasses salesman who depends on confidence and poise and luck for everything, and fears that he will never be hired again. I would actually keep tabs of things like subway trains. When I was unemployed, I would go down to the subway station and the train would just be pulling away. Time after time. Once I finally got a job again, I would go down to the station and the train would just be pulling in. I don't know. I think it's got to be more than mere coincidence. You start questioning yourself. Your luck is gone. Your magic is gone."
For Short, there were more years when it looked like the train had passed him by, while Aykroyd and Candy became big stars and he was still on the brink. Then came the big rebuilding season at "SNL," with Eddie Murphy and Martin Short as the two hot names on the revitalized show, and Ed Grimley leaping around on the furniture, his pants pulled up under his armpits, his hair marceled into a fin, making Pee-wee Herman look like a Supreme Court nominee. For a decade, ever since "National Lampoon's Animal House," "SNL" has been a launching pad for movie careers.
Short's began with "Three Amigos," which co-starred Chevy Chase and Steve Martin and opened last Christmas and closed very soon. Then there was "Innerspace," with Short playing a wimp who was accidentially injected with a tiny capsule bearing the miniaturized body of a former astronaut played by Dennis Quaid. It opened in August and also closed quickly. Now there is "Cross My Heart," with Short and O'Toole onscreen for almost the entire movie, including a long and eleborate sex scene, during which they become the first reputable Hollywood stars to discuss and employ condoms.
"I wasn't that disturbed about the failure of 'Three Amigos' because it was not necessarily a great movie," Short said. "With 'Innerspace,' it was a different story. Everyone thought it had the potential to be a big hit. I was talking all the time with Quaid, who was in `The Right Stuff,' which people thought was going to be the greatest hit of all time, and when it didn't do so well at the box office he was crushed. So he warned me against getting my hopes up.
"I told him the thing we used to do at Second City, which was to look at one another and say, What if we go out there . . . and nobody laughs? I asked him, What if there are NO laughs in this film? He said I would get over it: In 10 or 11 months, you're fine. But then they started test-marketing the movie and people loved it. And even Dennis began to cautiously permit himself some hope. And then it didn't do it at the box office, maybe because nobody knew what the movie was about."
He sighed. "Well, I felt good about it," he said. "I saw it, and I felt it was a good movie and I did a good job, and all the rest is just a bonus. It's nice to be in a movie good enough so that, if it comes up in a conversation, you don't have to jump in and say something so your friends won't feel they have to talk about it."
What about "Cross My Heart," with its sexual frankness and extended bedroom scenes and nonstop game-playing and of course its condoms?
"The first thing you have to understand is that I am very happily married and have not gone out on a date for 13 years. If I had to go out on a date, I have no idea what I would do. Anything would be preferable. In the movies, comedies about dates have a tendency to be about how the guy knocks over the grandfather clock. What we really do on dates is, we do an impersonating of ourselves being relaxed. That was what I was trying to bring to the character. When I first read the script, I asked myself, can I play this guy? And I knew I could. Sometimes the cadences just fall out of your mouth.
"The sex. It was not fun. I am happily married and Annette is happily married and we had to work at those scenes. When I first saw the movie all the way through with my wife, it was in a completely empty theater because we did not want to have to talk to anyone afterward."
What did she say?
"My wife? She said, `You were good, honey. And this girl Annette is astounding.' I was not surprised to hear that. Is Annette not sexy? When we were dubbing the movie, I stood there and I saw her filling up the screen with her sexuality."
Just a few weeks ago, I said, Dennis Quaid was saying it would be a long time before a major star in a major movie used a condom. Now here is the first condom movie, so to speak. Was there any discussion about that?"
"The movie was written some time ago and it didn't have any condoms in it. But if you're going to discuss dating in the 80s, how can you logically - or morally? - leave out condoms? When we all sat down to read the script with Armyan Bernstein, who wrote and directed the movie, we agreed they had to be in. We came up with a scene that was three or four pages long. Too much. Too awkward. So we approached it more from a wry point of view."
It was time to go. There was time to say one more thing. I told Short that I thought his "SNL" satire of Olympic synchronized swimmers was one of the funniest things I had ever seen on television.
"It was funny," he said, "before we put one word to paper. I saw synchro swimming on TV - real synchro swimming - and I laughed out loud. It is the funniest sport in history."
Those were the thoughts running through my mind last week as I waited for the lights to go down before a screening of "Apocalypse Now," the brave, sprawling, visionary Vietnam epic by Francis Ford Coppola. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard, which is arguably the best place in America to see a movie. The theater had scheduled a retrospective of some of the movies it had played over the years--from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "Fame"--and on this Friday night every seat in the house was sold out. I got there early and grabbed a seat fairly close to the screen. Other fans were sprinting toward their favorite seats, and trying to hold them for friends who were still in line. There was a palpable excitement in the air, a feeling that an event was going to take place. The audience was alert and tuned in, and when Robert Duvall made his famous speech halfway through the movie--"I love the smell of napalm in the morning!"--there was that special kind of applause where the people who are clapping are afraid if they applaud too long they'll miss the next line. I don't know how much money "Apocalypse Now" made when it was released, and I don't care. I know that when I saw it the first time, at the Cannes Film Festival, it gave me one of the great filmgoing experiences of my life. And after the movie was over last week, and I sat there quietly for a moment while Marlon Brando's last words whispered in the darkness ("The horror...the horror!"), I accepted that it was true that movies like "Apocalype Now" are a thing of the past. Hollywood has lost the nerve to back the directors who are home-run hitters, maybe because sometimes they strike out, too. But look at this list of epics from the recent past and see if anything stirs within you: "Barry Lyndon," "The Black Stallion," "Blade Runner," "The Blues Brothers," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Days of Heaven," "The Deer Hunter," "E.T.," "Gandhi," "Ghostbusters," "The Godfather" (Parts One and Two), "Hair," "Kagemusha," "The Last Emperor," "Nashville," "Never Cry Wolf," "New York, New York," "Once Upon a Time in America," "Paris, Texas," "A Passage to India," "Patton," "Pink Floyd: The Wall," "Ragtime," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Ran," "Reds," "The Right Stuff," "Star Wars" (and its sequels), "Silent Running," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," and "Woodstock." Some of these films won Academy Awards, some made millions, some (like "Raiders") have inspired one sequel, with another in the works. Some are foreign films, although none of them could have been made without Hollywood backing. Most of them are the kinds of movies few modern Hollywood executives would want to be identified with. That's because they were oddball projects that did not look like safe bets, even though they may have turned out successfully. There was a time when Hollywood occasionally rolled the dice for a director who had a pet project with a weird script. That happens less frequently these days, when so much emphasis has been placed on simplistic "high concept" movies, with endings that can be revised if the palms of the sneak preview audiences aren't clammy enough. Many of the more recent films on my list are "safer" epics that were frankly created and merchandiused for mass audiences--titles like "E.T." and the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. These are good films, and I have been entertained magnificently by them. But they don't come out of left field, out of a director's fevered need to make a grand gesture. Think of the difference between the Spielberg whose alien beings in "Close Encounters" were addressed in the pure notes of a musical scale, and the Spielberg whose E.T. wanted to phone home, and you will see great vision being replaced by merely great storytelling. Another category that seems to be surviving is the respectable Oscar-winning historical epic like "Gandhi," "A Passage to India" or "The Last Emperor"--all projects which were rejected by the Hollywood establishment before finally finding a combination of British and maverick backing. The most endangered kind of film on the list is the magnificent mastadon like "2001," "Close Encounters,' "Apocalypse Now" and "Days of Heaven"--movies shot in wide-screen 70-mm formats and designed to be seen on a big screen in a theater with excellent projection facilities. The nation's theater chains are busy tearing those kinds of theaters down, or subdividing them into smaller houses. I'll never forget the time I saw "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" in a big house with big sound, and liked it so much I took some friends to see it in a crackerbox theater in a suburban mall. They couldn't figure out what I'd liked about the film. Neither could I. It depended for its effect on a visceral impact of light and sound, and many if not most American theaters today have lousy sound systems--not to mention owners who actually turn down the power to their projectors in order to extend the life of the expensive Xenon lamps. The director Martin Scorsese, who travels with a light meter in his briefcase, claims that the average American theater has a deliberately underlit screen. Movie audiences don't seem to miss the spine-tingling epics of the recent past. Raised on television and matured in the modest little theatrical crackerboxes of their local mall, they like movies with lots of closeups, and the simple dialog of a sitcom. They don't complain when half of all movies conclude with a chase scene instead of an ending. They march like herds to the works of the latest superstars, and turn dreck like "Beverly Hills Cop II" into giant box office hits--even while confessing they didn't much like it. There is, of course, a place in the sun for big movies, little movies, pop movies, exploitation movies, remakes, sequels and even "high concept." A great movie can come in the most surprising of packages. What bothers me is that we're losing Hollywood's high end--the vast, visionary epic film that redefines the medium, that represents a gifted filmmaker at his absolute peak. If I could take you tonight to see Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 70mm wide screen, you would not see a movie that feels more than 20 years old. You would see a film that is still ahead of its time, because its vision has not been surpassed or even contained by films that came later. In the awesomeness of its conception, it places us face to face with the ultimate mystery of the universe--with the void, with infinity, with the idea that a higher intelligence may be watching and waiting. If I could take you tonight to see Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," you would see two things happening at the same time. You would see a flamboyant, spectacular war movie, and a journey into the heart of madness. No battle scene in movie history has surpassed Coppola's helicopter raid on a Vietnam village--which began with the horrifying sound of Wagner blasting from a mad colonel's loudspeakers, and ended with the screams of a wounded GI. If I could take you...but I cannot. In most of the towns and cities of America, there is no theater to properly show such a film. Once there was, but it has been torn down, or turned into midget viewing rooms, or converted into a shopping arcade. And if I could take you, would we be alone in the theater? Is the mass American movie audience losing the impulse to dream big dreams, to go halfway to meet a visionary like a Kubrick, a Coppola, an Altman, a Terence Malick--who after "Days of Heaven" disappeared from Hollywood and has never been heard of again? There is another problem with epics. They do not translate well to the small screens of home video. To the video cassette industry, as well as to the studios and the exhibitors, they look more and more like outsize embarrassments they'd like you to forget. Have you seen a car from the 1960s lately? It's eight feet longer than the average new Detroit automobile. You go to the dealer and you buy a new car and it looks like a real car, all right, until you park it next to a 1968 Pontiac. Then it looks like a toy. The same thing is happening to American movies. Sitting in the Cinerama dome the other night, I could sense something in the air. It was anticipation. The audience knew it was about to come face to face with a movie that wanted to overwhelm it. Not distract it, excite it, congratulate it, condescend to it or manipulate it--but overwhelm it with the majesty of its imagination. I wish I could have taken you.