Thursday, August 8, 2019

Funny Man Not So Funny

Just finished reading a bio given to me as a present, Funny Man, by Patrick McGilligan, which is about Mel Brooks. It definitely holds your interest and even provides a laugh or two every so often. But while Brooks, still kicking in his early 90s, does not fit the sad clown-comedian profile perhaps most famously depicted in Leoncavallo's always delightful opera, I Pagliacci, the story does bear a resemblance to Billy Crystal's film, Mr. Saturday Night.

I always enjoyed Brooks's movies because he tended to push at the edges of being outrageous. The bio confirms that he only succeeded in producing top-flite films a few times. To me, The Producers will always stand apart, and I mean the original movie, not the musical, which I've not seen (the film of the musical did not get the raves received by the stage version). One reason it was so good was the perfect casting--Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars. 

Young Frankenstein, which I hadn't known was Gene Wilder's conception, had great moments, again with players including Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn making it work. And "The Inquisition" number in History of the World--Part I, performed by Brooks, offends a whole lot of people with panache and severely black humor.

He did produce 12 films altogether, not that many for a long career and there are other episodes in movies I've never seen in full, like the great song-and-dance scene in his re-make of To Be or Not to Be, where he and wife Anne Bancroft perform "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish. His marriage to Bancroft, which lasted more than 40 years until her death, was his second and seems to be one of the few really happy aspects of his life. 

It's also highly satisfying to compare Bancroft's career--always a fantastic actress, who was recognized as such, and who wisely kept her career separate from Brooks's until that song and dance late in both of their stories. One of the most moving events I read about for the first time was that Paul Simon sang "Mrs. Robinson" with acoustic guitar at a memorial for Bancroft at the Shubert Theater. She had many great roles but that's the one most will remember.

And last but definitely first, is the routine developed as a party piece by Carl Reiner, the perfect straight man (also still going strong, at 97), and Brooks--The 2,000-Year-Old Man, which provided Brooks with a continuing source of support--emotional as well as, ultimately, financial. Brooks always had limitations as a performer, eventually learned to direct without having to terrorize everyone on the set, and even had to get educated in writing comedy when he started out barely out of his teens as the junior on one of the greatest assemblage of writers ever--the gang that created Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. 

To me, what the book leaves you with is the recognition that Brooks missed enjoying much of his colorful career because he was so focused on making money. Many of his projects did not rake in profits, which of course is a sad truth prevailing in show business. But the story is full of occasions where he stiffed people and was chintzy when he didn't have to be, including to the three children from his first marriage.

It's encouraging that in his later years Brooks acknowledged that he had sacrificed a lot of enjoyment--especially with his children by his first marriage--by focusing almost entirely on his work. It's an object lesson because in many ways,he maximized a bunch of mid-range abilities--writing, singing, directing, producing--with the amazing comic inspiration of a truly great clown. It didn't always appear but we should be grateful for the handful of absolutely hilarious occasions when it did.

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