Crystal gazing

Comedian Billy Crystal takes control both behind and in front of the camera in fictional biopic Mr Saturday Night. Alan Morrison listens as the funny man turns serious.

Heard the one about the American studio that opened a film about a Jewish comedian on the holiday weekend when all good Jews were obliged to stay at home‘.’ It was no laughing matter for Billy (‘rystal. who saw his long-cherished project Mr Saturday Night fail to register even a tnolehill against the combined box office mountains of his previous two comic outings. WIth Harry Met Sally and ( 'in Slickers. What made the pill even more bitter for the 42-year-old was that this time he was not only the lead actor. but co-writer. producer and director. The American media’s unhealthy over-emphasis on box office takings meant that Mr .S‘aturday .‘v’ight was not only written off. but understood by those who hadn‘t seen it to be pretty bad because of its poor opening weekend receipts. Immediately there were fears that. maybe. Crystal's baby had too narrow an appeal. that it was dare we say it - too Jewish'.’

‘No one ever said this movie was too Jewishf he argues back. ‘If you do. would you say The Godfather was too Sicilian. Dances With lib/res too Indian. Malcolm X too . . . long . . .

He may slip in the odd wisecrack. but the Billy Crystal who‘s visiting the UK to promote his directorial debut is in a somewhat more sober mood than the Billy Crystal we're used to. Still. he's cheered by the fact that both he and co-star David Paymer were nominated for Golden Globes and that. as the host who makes the three-hour ()scars ceremony almost bearable. he was on hand to see Paymer receive a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

The cool Stateside reception of the movie was doubly disappointing since its central character -- Buddy Young Jnr. a fictional stand-up comedian whose career is charted frotn childhood to old age has been part of Crystal‘s life for around a decade. Buddy’s first appearance was as one of a number of comedians (all played by Crystal) in a TV parody of A Chorus Line. called A (‘omic's‘ Line. A couple of years later. he popped tip again. with a few wrinkles courtesy of the make-up department. on .S'aturdav Night Live. By the time another TV special came along this time a documentary with director Rob Reiner reviving his Martin I)i Bergi character from This Is Spinal Tap Buddy had developed a rounded life of his own. To Crystal. working on a draft script while shooting (‘in Slit‘kt't‘s. it seemed the natural step to add a more serious side to the parodies by

means of a biopic feature film.

‘Ile's a fascinating character.’ explains ('rystal. ‘and I set out to make a movie that was like Willy l.oman with laughs. I find him to be a very tragic and funny character at the same time. A lot of people »— not just comics. actors or people in our business -- are afraid of success and dynamite the road. plant landmines in the wa} of success_ This movie is much closer to Raging Bull and [he l‘Jl/(‘I'lHl/lt’l' than it is to. say. The Sum/zinc Boys. 'l‘here’s no candy -coated moments in this movie it's warts and all. There's a montage when Buddy 's on the road. playing a bowling alley and judging a beauty contest and sitting alone in a room. Well. I've done those things and I did them young. You don't have to be 73 to be lonely in a roomf

‘I set out to make a movie that was like

Willy Loman with laughs. I find him to be

a very tragic and funny character at the same time.’

It’s not just ('ry stal's stand-up background interrupted for his four-year stint as Jody on Soap that brings a touch of reality to Buddy ’s highs and low s. but his family life. .-\|lhough his parents were born in the States. two of his grandparents were Russian and he was very much the product of that close family spirit that is the foundation stone of Jew iin humour. ‘\\’e lived in a very joyous house.‘ he renunisces. ‘complicated. in a good way. by the fact that my dad was in the music business. He produced great ja// concerts and oyy ncd a record store. so the house was always filled with the greatest jazz artists


Billy Crystal: producer. director, co-wrtter and star Jot Mr Saturday Plight

of the day. It always smelled of chicken sotip and bourbon.‘

The film certainly embraces all things Jewish. but Crystal's Willy l.oman reference is apt. as it also has a universality that switches from touching to tragic. Like so many comedians. Buddy uses his jokes as a way of winning affection. as a barrier he can hide behind. as a vicious means of attack. as a prop to bolster his confidence. Likewise. (‘rystal the director knows when to twist the comic effects in order to draw on the audience's sympathy or. elsewhere. to alienate tis from Buddy's selfishness. (‘rystal who majored in directing at college. studying beside Martin Scorsese at New York I'niversity delivers an accomplished piece of work from behind the camera while. as an actor. he shows a greater range of ability than ever before. You will laugh. you will

I cry. btit most of all. you will feel almost nauseous at i the unasbamed sentimentality of it all.

‘Sentimental‘.’ Yes. because these guys arc sentimental.‘ he says in defence of the old-style comedy. ‘IIalf of these guys. at the end of their act. break down crying on stage. singing songs to their mothers. They‘re sloppy. but they‘ve got a good heart. I grew tip with the old comics. and to me there is something different about them. They have a machine-like quality and they prowl the stage like Terminators. They talk in violent terms “I killed them. I murdered them. they split a gut". As for the new guys. anything goes. Back then. there were twenty comics and five were good. .\'ow there are ten thousand comics. And five are good.‘

' Mr Saturday Night opens in Scotland on /-'ridav .i’ll l April.

24 The List 23 April—6 May 1993