Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: It was Charlie Rose who remarked this week that the death of a Robin Williams or Joan Rivers — people who made us laugh — evokes an especially emotional response from the public (this observation in itself is amusing coming from Charlie, who looks like he’s in pain when he smiles). His point is correct for two reasons: We admire comedians because they can get away with saying anything while the rest of us are suffocated by the rules of political correctness. We both envy and appreciate that freedom.. Secondly, the act of standing in front of an audience to make people laugh is death-defying. We admire comic courage.
FLEMING: I never met Rivers and I can see that people are getting sentimental and showing her much respect and love, but is it wrong to admit I really wasn’t a fan? It seemed to me that she always blamed Carson for ignoring her, but why would she expect different? He was the only game in town, he empowered Rivers by making her his permanent guest host, and then she tried unsuccessfully to dethrone him. Now, everybody has a right to work, but that was a bad choice. So was her decision to devote her late years to making fun of what people wore on the red carpet, which seemed a catty and undignified niche to me. The easy contrast is Robin Williams, who was beloved despite having his struggles in his personal life. But I think of Don Rickles, who is still at it. Here’s a comic who got famous tearing people apart, and yet I hear they beg to be in his crosshairs. He seems like a nice guy who is revered and beloved. I get that Rivers was a pioneer for women, but she never achieved that status. Chelsea Handler hits me that way, too. I’d say it’s a gal thing, but then, Amy Schumer makes me laugh more than any comic of any gender working today and she is savage and ruthless. You knew Joan. What am I missing?
BART: I understand your points about Rivers but disagree. You forget that she was a major pioneer on many social issues like gay rights — she was out front on all this long before other comics. Her commentaries on fashion could be irritating, but, again, they defied the orthodoxy of the fashion gurus. Rivers was a contrarian — an attitude I admire. On the business with Carson, theories abound but here’s mine: Both Rivers and her late husband, Edgar, were scared to death of Carson. I remember at the time that both said they were going to talk to him and advise him that they were in negotiation to do a rival show. And they kept putting it off. I can understand why: Carson would have been furious and torn them both a new one. In recent years Rivers has revised her story, claiming that she actually called him but he hung up on her. That call was after the fact — he’d already learned about the show. Here’s the final irony: Rivers’ show on Fox was god awful. Carson never had anything to worry about. Rivers should have remained in her Carson cocoon.
FLEMING: Based on what you said, he could have been more gracious. That setback really hurt her.
BART: A final reason for you to reconsider: Like Robin Williams, Rivers was a truly nice person. Journalists know the dirty little secret that most comedians are famously rude. I remember being seated across from Johnny Carson at a dinner party as the hostess warned, “Remember Johnny is not a sociable person. Don’t try to make conversation.” Did you ever try to talk with Gary Shandling? In years gone by, Danny Kaye was so difficult socially that he once seated himself alone at a table at his own dinner party. By contrast, Rivers was a kind and gracious person, in contrast to her abrasive public image. I dined with her scores of times over the years and was lucky enough to share her good times and her down times. People who knew her loved her. And laughed with her.
FLEMING: Shall we move on?
BART: The appointment of Michael Wright, a TV executive, as president of DreamWorks reminds us how significantly the movie business is shrinking — even for Steven Spielberg. A few years ago DreamWorks had a major slate. Under new funding limits from its India-based financier Reliance, it may produce only two films over the next year. Wright formerly was president of programming for TNT and TBS, but at DreamWorks he will have nothing to do with television and apparently won’t have too busy a time in film. He succeeds Stacy Snider, who presumably will have a lot to do at her new gig at Fox under Jim Gianopulos. The DreamWorks dilemma was exemplified by its new release, The Hundred Foot Journey. Its biggest ’names’ were its producers — Oprah Winfrey and Spielberg. The cast, and movie, were less impressive. In making the announcement, Spielberg told the press “we have a robust ability to make movies.” I think he is speaking for himself: Spielberg will make two movies back to back and his appetite to work is imposing. Whether that appetite translates to his company remains to be seen.
FLEMING: I know that past TV titans-turned movie moguls like Gail Berman couldn’t duplicate their small screen success, but TV has so crushed movies in the past few years that Michael Wright seems to be going against the grain; he’s the only guy not stampeding from film toward TV. That’s the medium where they embrace good writing on cable and draw writers and filmmakers who find studio features repetitive. TV takes crazy risks, and because of an embrace of on-demand technology, they let you watch what you want when you want it. Spielberg is Spielberg, but if you’ve got a great job making cutting edge cable product, why would you want to have to struggle the way Snider did, both with funding and putting pics together?
BART: How goes Toronto?
FLEMING: Not too many deals, but just flat out fun. Like the St. Vincent premiere during Bill Murray day. This is a lovely, un-cynical festival; they love movies and appreciate talent. Boy do they love Murray, who appropriately wore a crown. I’ve written about how, while elusive, Murray was a mensch helping writer/director Ted Melfi craft what should be an Oscar nom for the actor. After, while they were bathing in a standing ovation at the Princess Of Wales Theatre, Chris O’Dowd raised the movie’s young star, Jaeden Lieberher, over his head. Murray then tried to the same with co-star Melissa McCarthy, who affectionately shooed him away as Naomi Watts and everyone else laughed. It was a classic charming Toronto moment. I met McCarthy at the party. You know I am a huge fan, and protective, as evidenced by how I jumped to her defense when that cranky Rex Reed called her insulting names. After we discussed how my son and I make it a point to see her films opening day, just like we do with Denzel’s films, we discussed a column you and I wrote. We had questioned the strategy of making herself increasingly unglamorous, particularly in Tammy. She recoiled a bit, asking if I’d say the same to John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I said no, those are fat regular guys who could be my neighbors and it somehow felt different. She’s very pretty and I asked her, having proved her chops as a physical comedienne who can really act, having won Emmys and carried big hits, isn’t it enough to use her skill in bringing to life characters who overcome adversity like in St. Vincent, where she plays a single mother in a bitter divorce who has no choice but to work around the clock and plant her child with this cantankerous drunk. McCarthy said the way she sees it, she is still just grateful to be working. Could an actress this gifted really feel that way? Someone should tell her she’s money and doesn’t know it. I think if she chooses carefully and does more movies like St. Vincent, she will win an Oscar and be able to do dramas like Robin Williams did. Like the Rivers thing, it’s easy to misread funny people. They probably are more insecure than the rest of us.
BART: Well, here’s another theory on this subject, and why we feel so strongly about our comics: they’ll do anything to entertain us. Most of the hottest movies and TV projects seek to depress us. Viewers who binge-view Breaking Bad need a weekend of binge-drugging to recover. Spend a few hours in The Knick, the place depicted in the new HBO-Cinemax series, and you will never go to a doctor again. All of the new crop of sci-fi movies depict a future so grim that ISIS is like a happy crowd by comparison. I’d prefer to live in present-day Atlantic City, with all its casinos failing, than linger in the Boardwalk Empire. So that’s why we love our comics. While most of the artists working in film or TV want to depress us and make us feel like Leftovers (HBO again), folks like Joan Rivers and Robin Williams wanted to entertain us. That’s a downright lovable trait.