“Of course we are all here for one reason, and that’s because Deadline Hollywood might tweet a link to a write-up about this and we all might get mentioned,” Ben Stiller joked in his very funny acceptance speech as the recipient of the 26th annual American Cinematheque Award on Thursday night at the Beverly Hilton. Friends and co-stars including Jennifer Aniston, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Laura Dern, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Stiller’s wife Christine Taylor among others offered tributes to the star-writer-director-producer-humanitarian the Cinematheque’s chairman Rick Nicita called a “Renaissance man of comedy” — to which Stiller said later, “I didn’t know you could be a Renaissance man of just one thing. It’s like being a jack-of-all-trades of carpentry.” But judging from the numerous clips and in-person tributes, he is about much more than just “one thing”.
The American Cinematheque makes a point of honoring people who are in the midst of a successful career, not at the end of one. Just before he headed into the ballroom, I asked Stiller how he felt about getting such an award. “I’m thrilled and dreading it at the same time,” he told me. 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos walked up and said, “It’s good for Ben. He needs the humility. He’s too successful.” Many of Stiller’s biggest hits have been for Fox — including the Night At The Museum films and There’s Something About Mary – and now he has directed and starred in the upcoming Christmas 2013 release The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty for the studio. In addition to Gianopulos, outgoing co-chair Tom Rothman was also there on Stiller’s big night. Both were listed as co-chairs for the event.
For a second year in a row the show did not have a television deal in place and so will not be seen outside of the confines of the Hilton ballroom. Executive Pproducer and Cinematheque director and co-founder Barbara Smith told me there were some producers in the room scouting out the show for future telecast possibilities and that it seems a shame no one stepped up this year or last, when Robert Downey Jr was honored.
Comedian Patton Oswalt, who co-stars in Walter Mitty, didn’t help the potential of a TV deal by getting things off to an uneven start with only a mildly funny bit about working for Ben in Iceland. And that was followed by forgettable routines from David Cross and Andy Dick — the latter painfully awkward and unfunny. Jack Black rescued things a bit as he proceeded to “eulogize” Stiller before realizing this wasn’t a funeral. “Fuck this”, he said. “Next time I get the prizes and you get to talk about how great I am”.
Perhaps the most genuinely funny segment came from Stiller collaborator Justin Theroux, these days best known as Aniston’s boyfriend. He displayed brilliant comic timing introducing and producing a video segment featuring Tom Cruise and others talking about Stiller’s comic masterpiece Tropic Thunder. Then Will Ferrell, Stiller’s Zoolander co-star, showed up to stretch a one-joke bit about Stiller’s male organ into five embarrassing minutes before introducing another clip package.
Laura Dern talked about his talents as a dramatic actor in his debut film Empire Of The Sun, The Royal Tennenbaums and Greenberg, “which I will never forget as long as I live”, she said. Taped bits with Stiller’s famous parents Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller and sister Amy and a funny clip with William Shatner revealing he is really Ben’s father preceded another “package” introduced by his Along Came Polly co-star Aniston. “Every shiksha on a J-date is looking for this boy.” she said. Katzenberg came out to talk about Ben’s voice work in the Madagascar series of animated features, saying Ben is the three p’s: “perfection, prolific and a planner”.
One taped bit that worked well had “perfectionist” Stiller trying to direct Conan O’Brien into giving a heartfelt tribute to himself. It was followed by Stiller’s wife Taylor talking about his impressive and longtime humanitarian work in Haiti, for which his Stiller Foundation created Artists For Haiti. She said it raised $13.9 million in just a one-hour auction of paintings. Former President Bill Clinton appeared on tape to futher emphasize the good works of the comic star before true comic pros Eugene Levy and Martin Short came out to present him with the award. “Steven Spielberg, the man who gave him his first movie break, is going to direct him in a sequel to Lincoln called There’s Something About Mary Todd Lincoln,” said Levy. Short added Ben’s lineage was “half-Irish and half-Jewish, so we call him a Jew”.
Stiller in a hilarious acceptance speech proved why he was the star of the night with a funny, at times self-deprecating thank you. “When I heard I was getting the American Cinematheque Award, my first reaction was to run home and google ‘What is the American Cinematheque Award?’ and a lot of results popped up saying ‘movies’ and ‘nonprofit’ and I was like, ‘Oh cool, they saw The Watch’. Then I saw the list of previous winners like Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson, Ron Howard — all black guys. And then they gave it to Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner, Mel Gibson and other prominent members of the Jewish community,” he said to big laughs in the room.
He thanked numerous participants in the show including Katzenberg for “teaching me a press junket is not just for fun, it’s a way of life”. At the end he finally thanked his wife Christine. “I have a incredible wife. I love our life together. As you guys just saw she’s the funniest person I know next to Andy Dick.”
He closed by getting a little serious, but not too much, when he said: “The best movies are where someone took a chance, and I hope I can go forward and keep taking chances. Right after I do Night At The Museum 3.”