Gilbey on Film: being serious

Thoughts about comic actors turning straight.

There's a special frisson when a performer renowned for comedy goes straight. I didn't feel it when the stand-up comic John Bishop popped up as the hero's murdered chum in the flashback scenes during Ken Loach's Route Irish, but that's only because a mixture of luck and careful planning has enabled me to avoid that species of TV comedy show on which Bishop has appeared -- Live at the Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats, and all the other ones that you can watch for three or four minutes before the urge to grind broken glass into your eyes becomes irresistible.

I recognise his larky lad persona, and I can see why Loach used him: Bishop emphasises the present-tense chirpiness, rather than making the character a living portent of the tragedy which is to befall him. Besides, the director has a history of looking to the stand-up circuit and the working men's clubs of the north for his actors, among them Bruce Jones (star of Loach's Raining Stones, and later a Coronation Street regular) and Crissy Rock (who played the lead in the harrowing Ladybird, Ladybird).

With more established comics who bring the baggage of their previous work, the change of tone can be jarring; it may not always work, it may even capsize the film, but there's a unique tension for us in watching a performer from whom we expect warmth or humour, only to find those qualities absent or mangled. Maybe Stanley Kubrick was just having a terrific wheeze when he entertained the idea of casting Steve Martin in the role that eventually went to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. But he was undoubtedly prescient -- that was back in the late 1970s, when Martin's only leading film role had been in his delirious vehicle The Jerk, yet Kubrick must have seen in his mania something fraught that could be used to serve dramatic material. Sure enough, Martin was outstanding a year or two later in the rhapsodic movie version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.

Cut to a decade on and other directors (along with Martin himself) came round fully to the idea of him as a "straight" actor, with the comic playing earnest in Grand Canyon, untrustworthy in Leap of Faith and subtly chilling in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Is it the proximity of comedy and aggression (comics "slay" or "kill" their audiences, after all) that makes it strangely appropriate when comedians not only turn serious, but get sinister with it?

There are rebranding opportunities, to be sure. Robin Williams seemed pretty much spent as a comic actor before he relaunched himself as a nasty piece of work in a toxic hat-trick of movies (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One-Hour Photo). Those pictures prompted half the audience to marvel that they had no idea he could be so creepy, and the other half to exclaim: "So you didn't see Patch Adams, then?" Even if that defection to the dark side didn't stick, its residue could be felt recently in Williams's work in the pleasingly unpleasant black comedy World's Greatest Dad.

Likewise, Adam Sandler's career didn't take a turn for the avant-garde after Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a wuss with a temper in Punch-Drunk Love, but it's nice to think it let some fresh air into his persona, and allowed him to accept that he didn't always have to be the guy with whom moviegoers would most like to have a pint (see Funny People for another example of how fine Sandler can be when he's not sending valentines to the audience).

It must be galling that comedy is so rarely rewarded or even acknowledged by the award-winning bodies. Despite more than 20 years of devilishly inspired comic performances, Bill Murray never got within sniffing distance of an Oscar until he landed a Best Actor nomination for his melancholy work in Lost in Translation. I wouldn't claim Dan Aykroyd as Murray's comic equal but it's striking that he too was noticed only once he'd notched up some respectable, "real" acting in Driving Miss Daisy.

Will Ferrell has voiced his irritation with this divide between comedy and drama, where all the recognition goes to the latter. He put his case most eloquently in a song he performed with Jack Black and John C Reilly at the 2007 Academy awards ceremony. It began with Ferrell reciting: "A comedian at the Oscars/ Is the saddest man of all/ Your movies may make millions/ But your name they'll never call," and ended with him resolving to play "a guy with no arms and legs/ Who teaches gang-bangers Hamlet." Somewhere in between, he imagined dining with Jeremy Irons, then threatened to break Ryan Gosling's hips.

As with most comedy, it was deadly serious in intent. He told me: "I don't think the producers of the show even got what we were doing. They were backstage saying, 'Oh, that was lovely. Very funny.' They didn't realise every word was true."

Comedians are bitter and unhappy. This much we know. But it's rare that they reveal that side of themselves on screen. When they do, it can be deeply unsettling, chiming as it does with those moments in childhood when a cherished and apparently good-humoured parent shows a darker aspect to their character. Sometimes the sourness is already so present in their comedy that it isn't hugely jarring to find that it translates well to drama -- was anyone really surprised that Murray could play a bullying, insecure mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory?

That familiarity isn't always a shock absorber. I wonder if I will ever forget the sight of James Bolam, a fixture from my childhood thanks to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, playing an avuncular pimp in the gloomy British film Stella Does Tricks. Bolam's appeal was always mildly unsavoury, but it was inspired casting to imagine him as this predatory monster. He plays it like a cross between Michael Caine in Mona Lisa, Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He oozes ugliness; after his scenes, you feel like scrubbing yourself clean. Part of the disgust is inevitably bound up with his past life as a Likely Lad. You look at him and you think: "Oh, Terry..."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era