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Sunday, November 4, 2007

When Heavies Lighten Up (originally published 3/99)

In the long ago days of ancient Greek theater, when tragedy was the dominant form, a rather interesting tradition emerged. Instead of presenting a single play as an evening's entertainment, the Greeks would devote entire days to theater. The event became a festival, complete with competitions between playwrights, not so different in some ways from today's film festivals. What was distinctive about these Greek theatrical events was the very specific order in which plays were presented. The morning would be devoted to a trilogy of tragedies, telling an extended story in three parts. The afternoon, on the other hand, was reserved for comedy, balancing the morning's heavy drama with a welcome infusion of levity.

The impulse to balance serious drama with comedy has not diminished over time. How else can we explain an actor like Robert DeNiro, who has built his career on heavy, dramatic roles, suddenly deciding to appear in a Harold Ramis comedy? In "Analyze This," the redoubtable DeNiro broadly lampoons the tough-guy image he has so carefully crafted in films ranging from "The Godfather, Part II" to "Goodfellas." In making this move, DeNiro places himself squarely in a long tradition of movie actors who have chosen to lampoon their own hardnosed image. For a sampling of earlier examples, look for these titles on video.

"The Whole Town's Talking" (1935). The defining role in Edward G. Robinson's career was the title role in "Little Caesar" (1930), a tough, snarling mob boss. A mere three years later he was already spoofing this image in a comedy called "The Little Giant" (1933). That film, regrettably, is not available on video, but Robinson's second parody of his gangster persona, "The Whole Town's Talking," is available. In it, Robinson plays a dual role, as a meek and mousey hardware clerk and as a notorious gangster. The striking physical resemblance between these two otherwise utterly different men is played for exquisite comedy, one being mistaken for the other with unfortunate consequences. This unjustly neglected film represents a fascinating confluence of talents. The script is by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, two of director Frank Capra's longtime collaborators, and was adapted from a story by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel on which "Little Caesar" was based. Robinson's co-star is Jean Arthur, also a frequent Capra collaborator. The director, however, is not Capra but John Ford, who is best known for Western movies like "Stagecoach" (1939) and "Fort Apache" (1948). This little gem proves that Ford could handle comedy with an equally sure hand, and it deserves to be a much better known part of the Ford canon.

"Beat the Devil" (1954). Director John Huston, having made several of the defining classics of the adventure genre, decided with this quirky picture to do a witty send-up of the genre, with the capable assistance of co-scriptwriter Truman Capote. Humphrey Bogart is permitted to gently poke fun at his own screen persona as the ringleader of a gang of adventurers bent on acquiring uranium-rich land in East Africa. The comedy, however, is subtle. Not wishing to go for broad parody, Huston had his actors play it absolutely straight-faced. Audiences at the time largely missed the joke, causing the film to lose money, but since then it has become something of a cult classic.

"Some Like It Hot" (1959). Writer-director Billy Wilder's gender-bending comedy is best known for the lead roles, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in which two male musicians on the run from gangsters dress up as women to join an all-female band. Equally delightful, however, is legendary screen heavy George Raft's very funny turn as Spats Columbo, the gangster from whom the boys are fleeing.

"The Freshman" (1990). Marlon Brando's performance as Don Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972) must be one of the most widely parodied performances ever committed to film. By far the best lampoon, however, is Brando's own. As Carmine Sabatini, a mafioso who hires a freshman film student (Matthew Broderick) to perform bizarre services for him, Brando forever silences his would-be parodists with the ultimate Godfather send-up.

Maybe that's why perennial movie heavies seem so eager to parody themselves. Since other people are bound to burlesque their work, why shouldn't they get in on the act? And, as Brando admirably demonstrates, who is better qualified to poke affectionate fun at a role than the actor who originated it?

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