June is the season for graduations around the nation and the American Film Institute is no different. After handing out their 40th Life Achievement Award less than a week ago to Shirley MacLaine today the focus was on those just embarking on a career in the entertainment industry (in addition to two very well-known veterans).
This AFI Commencement stood out as a purely Hollywoood affair taking place not on their own campus, but rather a short distance away inside Grauman’s Chinese theatre. In addition to the 121 graduates receiving their AFI diplomas in fields including screenwriting, directing, producing, production design, cinematography and editing, the undisputed highlight of the 90-minute ceremony (presided over by AFI CEO and President Bob Gazzale) were the two Honorary Degree recipients Mel Brooks and David Lynch.
It was actually appropiate the two receive these honors together because Mel, through his production entity Brooksfilm actually gave Lynch his first big directing job on 1980’s much-acclaimed Best Picture nominee The Elephant Man resulting in a Best Director Oscar nomination for Lynch. After a funny intro from “best friend” Carl Reiner and a clip reel covering such Brooks classics as The 2000 Year Old Man, The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein among others, Brooks stepped up to tell Reiner he was confused by it all. “I’m very honored and I’m very happy but bitterly disappointed. When I was offered this award I thought I was gonna become a doctor. And in fact I was already set to perform a 3 PM colonoscopy at Cedars Sinai. Will someone here call Harvey Weinstein and tell him it’s off?”, said Brooks who wore a stethoscope with his cap and gown carrying the doctorate gag even further.
After reprising a bit of 2000 Year Old Man with Reiner Brooks turned serious and said he had actually been offered many doctorates over the years from well-known universities but didn’t have an “emotional connection”. With AFI he immediately said yes, in no small part to the fact that his late Oscar-winning actress wife, Anne Bancroft started her behind-the-scenes career as a writer-director at AFI, with her eventual directorial feature debut Fatso becoming the first release from Brooksfilm. Other films he pointed to with pride from the company in addition to Elephant Man and Fatso were Frances, The Fly, 84 Charing Cross Road and My Favorite Year.
“Good things come out of the AFI so I am very happy to do this”, he said and then offered up some final advice to the graduates lining the first few rows of the famous theatre, particularly the 22 screenwriting grads. “If you don’t feel it, don’t write it. If you don’t laugh, don’t write it because if you don’t laugh, nobody will. And try to get a scene like James Cagney’s where you put a grapefruit in somebody’s face. That always works”.
Next up Laura Dern, who co-starred in such Lynch-directed films as Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, called the helmer “my mentor, my guru and truly my best friend” and described how she herself dropped out of film school to take an acting gig in Blue Velvet. “So until today I never wore a graduation gown,” she said before pointing out that Lynch was a famous alumnus of AFI himself, class of 1970, and in fact literally lived in the stables on campus for five years. “I am grateful to AFI because you’ve also given me my career by inspiring David to pursue his,” she said before presenting to Lynch.
For his part Lynch, a man of few words, kept his prepared remarks to a minimum generally talking about his fellow honoree. “If AFI put me on the map, Mel Brooks came along and put me on a beautiful mountaintop. He called me ‘Jimmy Stewart from Mars’ but he’s the crazy one. He picked me after just one film to direct an Edwardian drama with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Wendy Hiller. It was my good fortune that Mel had this insanity. I don’t have any more speech,” he said as Dern came back out to get him to answer some question cards from the graduates. He dispensed advice like “Learn by doing. Act and react and your voice will come out and you must stay true to that voice”.
In his own remarks Gazzale reminded the crowd that in addtion to Lynch other famous AFI graduates have included Terrence Malick, Janusz Kaminski, Patty Jenkins, Darren Aronofsky and Wally Pfister among others. “This is your time and your story to tell. How it will end is up to you. But it all starts today”.