A few very good movies
September 16, 2005
In Rob Reiner’s filmography as a director, “Misery” stands out, well, like a horror film in the family shelves of the neighborhood video store. While Reiner had become known for gentle-mannered films – “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally” – “Misery” caused, no doubt, many nightmares upon its 1990 release. Adapted from the Stephen King novel, the film was a claustrophobic thriller about Paul Sheldon, a popular writer of romance novels played by James Caan, rescued and then held prisoner by his “No. 1 fan,” a deranged loner portrayed by Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance. Despite his work to that point, Reiner, as any witness to the film’s stomach-wrenching “hobbling” scene can attest, didn’t skimp on the thrills.It was not the idea of making a horror film, however, that enticed Reiner, whose career as a director is marked by its variety. A subtheme, one obscured by the terror of being held captive by a maniac, resonated with Reiner’s history as a director and actor.”It wasn’t so much that I wanted to make a thriller. But the theme of the movie – being trapped by your own success,” said Reiner. “Paul Sheldon had something so much more personal and connected to his artistic ability. And he feared that if he tried that, his fans would hate him so much that they’d want to kill him.”In terms of actual experience, Reiner can sympathize with the constraints put on an artist more than having his ankles broken with a sledgehammer. After appearing in small roles on the big screen, including several films by his father, Carl Reiner, the younger Reiner came to fame on TV. He played Michael Stivic, the put-upon, freeloading son-in-law of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker. The role earned him two Emmy Awards, in a pioneering show often praised for introducing emotional and social honesty into prime-time television. But when Reiner wanted to direct films, he was just “Meathead,” the tag Archie hung on Michael.”It’s something I had always wanted to do,” said the 58-year-old, who had directed theater beginning in his teens, first with The Session, a Los Angeles improv group that included Richard Dreyfuss, and the San Francisco troupe, The Committee. “And when I got the part in ‘All in the Family,’ at 23, I thought, OK, this will be good. I’ll act in this for 13 weeks, because nobody will watch it, and then I’ll get to direct.”Reiner was wrong on both counts. “All in the Family” ran eight seasons, and earned a place among American television’s finest creations. And when the series concluded, in 1978, nobody in Hollywood seemed to think that appearing on a TV sitcom was adequate training for directing a film.”At the time, people who worked in TV were seen as second-class citizens by the film people,” said Reiner by phone.
When he finally broke into film, with the 1984 rock mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” Reiner came in through the back door of his TV career. In 1979, he had written for and appeared on “The T.V. Show,” a sketch program that satirized the music-minded series, “The Midnight Special.” Reiner had a concept for Spinal Tap, known as England’s loudest band, and when fellow actors Harry Shearer and Michael McKean created the heavy-metal musicians Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins, the three didn’t want to lay the idea down after one little-seen segment.”We thought, these characters are incredible. We should do something more with them,” said Reiner. The first idea was to make a film, titled “Roadie,” that combined the characters with Reiner’s concept for a backstage look at a rock ‘n’ roll tour. Before they could, a film starring Meat Loaf as a roadie trying to meet Alice Cooper came out. That film was also called “Roadie,” forcing Reiner to switch gears.But when “This Is Spinal Tap” was released, it was embraced by more than a small core of headbangers. The film, with Reiner as a director making a documentary of a tour by a has-been band, added lines that would be adopted into rock lingo (“Goodnight, Cleveland”; “Lick My Love Pump”).And it launched one of the more remarkable runs in recent Hollywood history. Between 1985 and 1996, Reiner directed 10 films, including “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me,” “A Few Good Men” and “Misery.” While Reiner has continued to act, appearing in Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” and Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” and has produced virtually all the films he has directed, it is his work as a director that merits his selection as Aspen Filmfest’s 2005 Independent by Nature honoree. Reiner will be celebrated at the Wheeler Opera House Friday, Sept. 30. The event will include clips from Reiner’s films, and an onstage interview by Kathy Bates, who is also featured in Reiner’s upcoming “Rumor Has It.” The ceremony is followed by a tribute dinner benefiting Filmfest’s youth education programs.”In terms of contemporary cinema, he’s made some of the most beloved films of the last 20 years,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest. “They resonate with audiences of all ages, and that’s a rare thing.”
In 1985, Reiner directed “The Sure Thing,” which starred John Cusack as a college freshman virgin hitching across country to hook up with a “sure thing.” His traveling partner, however, is the prissy Alison, who looks dimly on his intentions. It may sound like another dumbed-down, sexed-up ’80s teen comedy, but Reiner gives the film warmth, humor and romance.”There were a lot of dopey teen sex comedies at the time, a guy wanting to get laid,” said Reiner. “I thought if I was doing that, it had to have more substance. It had to be almost highbrow, wrestling with questions of how sex comes into play, and how to talk to a woman.”Then Reiner kicked into high gear. His next three films were unassailably perfect: the coming-of-age tale “Stand By Me” (1986), the fairy tale “The Princess Bride” (1987) and the romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), which ranked No. 23 on AFI’s list of the 100 best American comedies.”Stand By Me” was another Stephen King adaptation, taken from his novella, “The Body.” But filmgoers would have a hard time pinning Reiner’s film down as a King thriller. “Stand By Me” tells the story of four small-town, adolescent boys in the 1950s, all with some degree of trouble and hardship, who venture into the woods to find a dead body. The film is short on spooky moments, but blends the right mix of nostalgia, childhood friendship and rites of passage.
For Reiner, filming “The Princess Bride” was a pleasure, as he got to work with close friends Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest, and shoot in London and the English countryside. And when the film – a fairy tale about true love that poked fun at fairy tales, and featured some of the funniest characters ever in a kids’ movie – was finished, Reiner believed he had something special. Convincing the studio was another matter.”Fox had no idea, no trailer. We had no marketing tools,” said Reiner. “I yelled at [executive] Barry Diller, ‘I don’t want this to be like “The Wizard of Oz”‘ – which did terrible business and died its death, but did great years later.”Diller told Reiner, “Rob, don’t let anybody hear you say that you don’t want it to be like ‘Wizard of Oz.'”For better and worse, “The Princess Bride” was much like “The Wizard of Oz.” It did so-so business in theaters. But repeated showings on TV have proved it a children’s classic and, right in line with Reiner’s aims, as enjoyable for adults as for kids. (On the quite assailable rankings on the film website Imdb.com, “The Princess Bride” ranks No. 115, between “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Sixth Sense.”)Reiner gives much of the credit for “When Harry Met Sally” – including the infamous line, “I’ll have what she’s having,” spoken by Reiner’s mother Estelle – to Billy Crystal. But Reiner also says the film’s keen observations come from his own romantic misery at the time.”It was an extension of my miserable attempt to make a relationship work. I was making a complete and utter mess of my daily life,” said Reiner, whose first marriage, to director Penny Marshall, ended in 1979, and who married his current wife, Michele Singer, the year “When Harry Met Sally” was released. “I couldn’t figure out how to be with the opposite sex, and be friends with someone.”After 1990’s “Misery,” Reiner continued to cover more ground, usually successfully. He directed the military justice drama “A Few Good Men,” the pleasant White House romance “The American President,” and the historical courtroom drama “Ghosts of Mississippi.” On the more forgettable side was “North,” a critically panned drama about a boy seeking to divorce his parents. Reiner’s recent works – 1999’s “The Story of Us,” and 2003’s “Alex and Emma,” both romances of a sort – have been middling.”Rumor Has It,” scheduled for release in December, has an irresistible hook for film fans. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner and Shirley MacLaine, it tells the story of a woman convinced that her family served as the basis for “The Graduate.” Reiner was not the film’s first director; he was called in a few days into filming to replace Ted Griffin, the screenwriter.”This was a picture in a lot of trouble,” said Reiner. “Amazingly, I’m thrilled with the film. I loved the challenge of having eight days’ preparation, and calling on whatever skills I have to pull it off.”Reiner doesn’t make much of the diversity of his work. “I’ve never thought I want to go from genre to genre. I just want the character to reflect something I’ve thought or felt,” he said. But there is one genre he would love to cross off his to-do list: the full-blown musical. One possibility he is pursuing is “Hairspray,” the John Waters film that was made into a Broadway musical.
Television may not have been the easiest path to the director’s chair. But it was with small-screen productions that Reiner absorbed the skill – how to please an audience while saying something meaningful – that has marked him as a significant filmmaker.”I was raised in a show business family,” he said. “I like to put on a show. I like to get an audience response. That’s always in the back of my head: ‘Is the audience going to enjoy this?'”That accounts for Reiner’s ability to please a crowd: think Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” in “A Few Good Men”; the satisfying ending of “When Harry Met Sally”; or Reiner’s letting Billy Crystal cut loose as Miracle Max in “The Princes Bride” – moments of pure cinematic pleasure.But Reiner has usually delivered more than entertainment. “Stand By Me” captures adolescent concerns with uncommon accuracy and honesty; “When Harry Met Sally” gets to the reality of romance like few romantic comedies.
“I had a great training ground, watching my father on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ which was groundbreaking – the first sitcom to look at how people are in suburban America,” said Reiner, whose father created the show. “And ‘All in the Family,’ which was an honest look at more urban American life.”In Frank Capra’s biography, he said the idea that you have people’s attention in the dark – that’s a responsibility. You should give them something worthwhile, and not pollute their minds and not give them cotton candy, but something that sticks to their ribs. You don’t have to be pure entertainment; you can say something. That’s the goal.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org