The best screen comedies all have something in common.
Um, they’re funny, Tom.
Ok, yes, they are funny. Agreed. But when you think of your favorite screen comedies, I bet they share something else: the movies are nightmares. Things get bad then worse, then worse again. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, wow, here comes another disaster. One of my favorite movies of all time, Tootsie, does this beautifully. The last 30 minutes of Tootsie is a brilliant hail storm of abuse deservedly heaped on Dustin Hoffman’s character, Michael Dorsey. A recent comedy I find pretty amazing also follows this classic form: Bridesmaids. Early in the movie, Jill Clayburg, playing Kristin Wiig’s mother, tells Wiig’s character Annie she’s hit rock bottom. Oh my, no. Things go from bad to worse to.. well, you’ve probably seen the movie, one of the biggest hits of last year. Every time you think Annie’s hit rock bottom, the bottom drops from under her yet again. Bridesmaids is hilarious yes but it, too, is a nightmare. It’s also difficult to imagine Bridesmaids, or any of the recent spate of nightmare comedies, without having been preceded by one of the more brilliant screen comedies of all time, Blake Edward’s 10.
10 was released in 1979 and, like Bridesmaids, was an enormous hit, grossing the equivalent of 236 million dollars. The movie was controversial because it pushed the boundaries of what had been seen and discussed on film. One of the wonderful things about the movie is how envelope pushing and modern much of it remains. Even by today’s standards there are some wildly eye-opening aspects to the movie. And perhaps no movie has ever heaped such wonderful abuse on its main character.
In the movie, Dudley Moore plays George Webber, a rich, charming successful composer going through the mid-life crisis of all time. Fixating on a young beauty, played by the then unknown Bo Derek, he obsessively pursues her which leads George from one calamitous situation to another. I recently screened the movie for my very good friend (and fellow movie nerd) Bob, who had not seen it. About halfway through the movie, as we howled with laughter… there’s nothing better than a good friend who shares your sense of humor… Bob turned to me and exclaimed, “This is a horror movie!” I thought, ‘Yes! It truly is!” Which is when I myself realized the best screen comedies/farces are indeed horror movies of a sort. But that’s why they’re so enjoyable. Few things are more satisfying than a narrative where your main character goes to hell and back. It’s both wonderful and edifying to see a character you like go through the ringer yet finally emerge, however weary or beaten, changed for the better. This is true of both 10 and Bridesmaids. The creators of each movie are ruthlessly brutal to the main characters.
Both movies also go beyond just being funny. Each has surprising depth and, even more interesting, a main character who is often dislikable. It’s tricky to have a main character the audience can turn against. Few things kill a movie faster, yet both of these movies walk a daring fine line as both Annie and George act out, to use a modern term. Casting certainly helps. There are a few select actors who can get away with anything and we still like them. Cary Grant and Danny DeVito come to mind, two actors who in most ways could not be more different yet each shares the ability to play a reprehensible character and still keep the audience on his side. It’s certainly hard to dislike Kristen Wiig, which is part of the brilliance of her playing Annie. But besides Wiig’s innate likability, the movie keeps us rooting for Annie because unlike many similar movies, Bridesmaids refuses to let Annie off the hook. The movie challenges Annie and calls her on her faults. There is no blaming anyone else for her problems, ultimately, which is one of the many surprising things about the movie and gives it such depth.
The same is true in 10. Moore’s character frequently runs around like a child, trying his best to cheat on his girlfriend, played by Julie Andrews. He’s cheating on “Maria” and “Mary Poppins”, for goodness sakes, how potentially dislikable can you be? Yet Moore somehow pulls it off. He’s brilliant in the movie and keeps us with George throughout the horror. Like Bo Derek, Dudley Moore was pretty much unknown to American audiences when the movie was released. He replaced George Segal at the last minute, one of those divine accidents so famous in film history, like Bette Davis replacing Claudette Colbert right before shooting in All About Eve or Harrison Ford getting the part in Raiders because Tom Selleck couldn’t get out of his contract for Magnum P.I. Any of these parts are inconceivable without the leads yet each was a last minute fluke. Moore is incredible in 10. He has numerous bits of wild physical comedy that rival any on film. But he gets the depth of the character as well and when his comeuppance arrives, he plays it perfectly. The movie made overnight, worldwide stars of both Moore and Derek, leading Moore to another great horror comedy, Arthur.
What’s so eye opening about 10? First, it’s remarkably frank about sex, even for today. It’s a very ‘R’ rated comedy. So racy is some of the movie, Blake Edwards was one of the first directors to shoot ‘TV ready’ versions of scenes, changing dialogue and costume so the movie could be played on network television. The movie has an openly gay character played by Robert Webber (what a wonderful actor) and while gay men had been seen in movies before, the surprising thing about his character in 10 is not only that he’s not the typical mincing, fey stereotype so often portrayed, his being gay isn’t commented on, debated or viewed differently. He simply is gay, everyone accepts it as such, it’s no big deal in the movie. Even today that can seem envelope pushing but back then? Pretty daring and progressive. Additionally, the movie gets very serious for a stretch about 2/3’s of the way through. Edwards wasn’t afraid, after 90 minutes of wild comedy, to slow the movie down for a bit to really explore the emotion of what was occurring. Dee Wallace, for instance, has a lovely turn as a lonely woman who tries to sleep with Moore. She’s heartbreaking. (Brian Dennehy is also terrific in one of his first roles as a bartender who dutifully listens to George’s drunken mumblings.)
When George finally meets his vision face to face and has the chance to fulfill his dream, the movie turns back to comedy, though of a darker sort. The movie has a very complex moral point of view. Bo Derek is terrific in these final scenes and the presentation of her character is one of the envelope pushing elements in the movie. She has one of the more shocking lines in cinema; one can only imagine the gasps in the theatre in 1979. The character’s debatable amorality isn’t commented on by Edwards. It’s simply presented as such, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion about her character and the situation as well.
Another quick favorite of mine in the movie is Max Showalter’s hilarious turn as a pastor who wants to be a songwriter. Many of us know Showalter fondly as “Grandpa Fred” in Sixteen Candles. His work here, singing one of the worst songs ever written (Glee clubs of moonbeams…), is truly inspired and leads to what at the time was regarded as the funniest scene in the film, an encounter with the pastor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Kissell. Showalter’s song alone is worth watching the movie. As is Edwards wonderful use of the widescreen, rare in a comedy. And there is a lovely score by Henry Mancini, who worked often with Edwards. But the entire film, like Bridesmaids, is hilarious, at times darkly so, with a great deal of emotional depth. If you haven’t seen 10 or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out.
If you do watch the movie, as always, let us know what you think. I’d love to hear about other favorite nightmare comedies from people as well.