Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Tag: Bill Murray

“For MadMen Only:” Crash Course in Comedy Legend Del Close

 

Patton Oswalt in “For Madmen Only”

The name Del Close is not one most of us associate with the pre-eminent comedians of the past twenty-five years, but we should.

In the documentary “For Madmen Only” from Heather Ross, narrated by Michaela Watkins we learn about this guru of comedy who helped discover and ultimately shape such talents as Bill Murray and Chris Farley.

The number of talking heads who pay homage to Del Close as their teacher is lengthy. Here is a quick look at who you will find in this documentary talking about Del Close: Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt,  Mike Myers, Will Farrell, Chris Farley, Steven Colbert, Jon Favreau, George Wendt, director Adam McKay, Ike Barinholtz, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Catharine O’Hara, Jason Sudeikis, Rachel Dratch, Howard Hesseman, Tim Meadows, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and “Better Call Saul’s” Bob Odenkirk.

The early performances onstage by famous comics is legendary.

Who was Del Close? And what, exactly, did he do to help that impressive list of comics get their start?

Amy Pohler in “For Madmen Only.”

John Belushi in “For Madmen Only.”

In 1960 Close moved to Chicago, his home base for much of the rest of his life, to perform and direct at Second City, but was fired due to substance abuse. He spent the latter half of the 1960s in San Francisco where he was the house director of improv ensemble The Committee. He toured with the Merry Pranksters, and created light shows for Grateful Dead shows. In 1972 he returned to Chicago and to Second City. He also directed and performed for Second City’s troupe in Toronto, in 1977. Prior to those Chicago years with Second City, Close had, at age 23, become a member of the Compass Players in St. Louis.

When most of the cast—including Mike Nichols and Elaine May—moved to New York City, Close followed. He developed a stand-up comedy act, appeared in the Broadway musical revue The Nervous Set, and performed briefly with an improv company in Greenwich Village.

Del Close, subject of “For Madmen Only.”

Del Close was certifiable. He ran away from home at the age of 17 and joined the circus, working as a fire-eater and being shot from a cannon. He spent time in mental hospitals and was checked out to do his show in Chicago and then checked back in to the Cook County Hospital Psych Ward. He had had a complete breakdown while supervising the Great White North in Toronto in 1976, a Second City outpost.

From a troubled childhood that saw Del’s alcoholic neglectful father commit suicide came a highly intelligent and highly creative comic genius who was devoted to promoting improvisation as an entirely separate art form, which he called “Harold.” He also supervised a magazine for D.C. Comics called “The Wasteland,” although he admits, “Most of our readership didn’t quite get it.”

This documentary written by Alan Samuel Golman and Heather Ross describes Close as “a living legend in comedy.” Bill Murray organized a deathbed party for the inveterate smoker, who refused to quit even when emphysema was killing him.

Jason Sudeikis of “Ted Lasso” on “For Madmen Only.”

The Del stories involving pot, alcohol and psychedelics never quit, starting with groups like the Merry Pranksters and continuing on until his death. Close died on March 4, 1999, at the Illinois Masonic Hospital (now the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center) in Chicago, five days before his 65th birthday. An early birthday party was held for him by Bill Murray, who summoned many of Del’s former students to his bedside, a party which is on film in the documentary.

Close bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre to be used in its productions of Hamlet, and specified that he be duly credited in the program as portraying Yorick. Charna Halpern, Close’s long-time professional partner and the executor of his will, donated a skull—purportedly Close’s—to the Goodman in a high-profile televised ceremony on July 1, 1999.

A front-page article in the Chicago Tribune in July 2006 questioned the authenticity of the skull, citing the presence of teeth (Close had no teeth at the time of his death) and autopsy marks (Close was not autopsied), among other problems.

Halpern stood by her story at the time, but admitted in a The New Yorker interview three months later that she had purchased the skull from a local medical supply company. Halpern is shown onscreen bemoaning the fact that the public learned that this was not, in truth, Del Close’s real skull.

This film is a tribute to the creative comic who lived and taught this credo:  “You have a light within you. Burn it out.”

“For Madmen Only” premiered on July 27th and is available on Apple TV and Altovid

The Dead Don’t Die: Observations from the Theater

An Irish illustrator, John Rooney, sent me his work on “The Films of Bill Murray.” Since I just took myself to see “The Dead Don’t Die” in Chicago at the AMC Theater, I told him I’d run his artwork with a few observations about the film. It’s not really a “review,” but simply some observations after my viewing of same.

The Dead Don’t Die film was exactly what I had anticipated: an oddball display of Bill Murray at his hipster best, playing a small town Sheriff with a deputy, played by Adam Driver of “Star Wars” and “BlackKlansman.” Zombie fare has been hot for a while now and this is a bit like “The Walking Dead” in that the principal characters (Murray, Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton) are told to “aim for the head.” Carol Kane also has a brief bit as a corpse who “changes” while in police custody.

Steve Buscemi plays a racist who is not mourned when he bites the dust (or, more accurately, when the zombies bite him). He is featured at a local diner drinking coffee while wearing a hat that resembles the Trump red hat with the words “Make America White Again.” Seated next to him is Danny Glover, who, at almost 73 years of age, seems to be taking just any old role these days. I saw him in a movie about the Ebola virus at the Chicago International Film Festival of 2017. It was pretty bad. Here, he only has a few lines, but the one that Buscemi speaks to him about the coffee is something along the lines of, “That’s too black for me,” which he immediately doubles back on, saying, “I was talking about the coffee.”

At one point, when Murray and Driver are trapped in their car in a cemetery and Adam Driver keeps saying, “This will not end well,” Murray freaks out and tells him to stop saying that. Murray then demands to know WHY Driver keeps repeating the line, and Driver says, “I read the script.” Murray has a momentary outburst of outrage over the fact that Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch (renowned for his “quirky” films) didn’t share the entire script with him. It’s that kind of “inside joke” film.

Tilda Swinton plays a very strange mortician. Her finale in the film is the kind that cannot be predicted, because it is fairly illogical. But, then, this is a Jim Jarmusch film. It really plays like a  long commercial for the song of the same name, which is pretty good, but an entire film about the song? Really?

The horrible ending to the film, for me, was when I was charged $39 to park for 2 hours in the AMC parking lot under the theater. I was supposed to have had my ticket validated, at which point my charge would have been a mere $17. I spent 4 days trying to reach Tiara, who oversees 6 different parking lots, they told me. I did finally reach her, only to be told that she could not put the $22 differential back on my charge card. (Sigh)

 

Bill Murray’s Role in “St. Vincent” Generating Oscar Buzz

St. Vincent Director Ted Melfi managed to get Bill Murray to star in “St. Vincent” by being persistent and calling him “about 40 times” on his 800 phone line, because Murray has no manager or press agent. Says Melfi, “The hardest part about getting Bill Murray in anything is finding him, because he has no agent and no manager; he has an 800 number. I bet I called that 800 number 40 times. When he actually did call me back, at first, I didn’t think it was him. Then I realized that was his voice.”

 

“So Bill Murray says, ‘Meet me at LAX in an hour, which was 9 o’clock. And so I drive down to LAX, and, sure enough, Bill Murray comes down the causeway and says, “Ted? Let’s go for a drive.’”
“ We drive for 3 hours from L.A. to the Pechanga Indian Reservation and Casino. So, Bill says to me, “I like you. Do you wanna’ do this movie?”

I said, “Yes…that’s what I’m here for”
“Do you want to do it with me?”
I said, “Yes, and Bill Murray says, ‘Let’s do it!’”

“I say, the only thing is, do you think you could tell someone else besides me that this whole thing happened—that we were driving down the road and you agreed to do the film? I can’t go to the studio and say, ‘Hey! Bill Murray said yes in the back of a town car on the highway on the way to an Indian Reservation. That’s just not gonna’ happen.”
“I look at Bill Murray and I don’t just say, ‘He’s one of the greatest comedians of our time. He’s one of the greatest actors of our time. And what people don’t know about Melissa (McCarthy) is that this girl did 7 years of hard-core drama in New York theater. And the goal for us, on set, was to not be funny.” This is quite obvious in the dialed-down performance of the often over-the-top McCarthy. Naomi Watts’ part as the brash Russian hooker/stripper is quite the departure from the woman surviving the tsunami in Thailand, but she pulls it off (No pun intended). Writer/Director Melfi described her talent as “the tip of the iceberg.” Chris O’Dowd, as always, was genial and enjoyable.
Says Melfi, “I remember the first day, I said, ‘Bill—do you want to rehearse with the kid?’

And Bill says, ‘No.’ And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ be good.’

I bring the kid to the set and take him over to Bill and I say, ‘Bill, this is Jaeden; Jaeden this is Bill.”

Bill grunts. And walks away. And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ work out.’

And then they did a scene together and Bill comes up to me after and says, ‘The kid’s good.’ And I said, “Yeah—he’s pretty good.’ And Bill said, ‘He’s real good.’ Once he figured out that the kid was good and that he was not a “kiddy” actor, they became, like, very best friends. In fact, Jaeden got the part on Cameron Crowe’s new movie. And Jaeden goes to Hawaii and Bill is offered a part in the Cameron Crowe movie. And Jaeden goes, ‘You should do it.’ And so Bill flies to do the Cameron Crowe movie because Jaeden told him to do the movie, and they spent the whole month scuba diving. So, it’s like this most ridiculous love affair, father/son beautiful thing.”
Melfi shared the story of the film’s genesis (which he wrote and directed).  Melfi and his wife adopted his brother’s 11-year-old daughter after his eldest brother died eight years prior. Her Catholic school in Los Angeles made the assignment that is featured in this touching-but-funny movie. The students in Melfi’s daughter’s new school were assigned to write a paper on a “modern day” saint in their real life and a historic saint who shared the same qualities. She picked St. William of Rochester,  the patron saint of adopted children, just like Oliver in the movie. “And, ” adds Melfi, “she picked me. It was just like this touching, sentimental moment for us. And I said, ‘Okay. That’s the movie.”

“Vincent is a timeless character because so many of us get to the end of our lives and go, “That was it?”
“So, what’s amazing about the movie, for me is that this little kid, Oliver, who’s 12, tells him, ‘Dude, you did great. You served our country in the war. You took care of your wife for 8 years. You did freaking great, so be proud of what you’ve done.
“Too many filmmakers think to themselves that they have to put their stink on everything they make,” says Melfi. Using Michael Bey’s films as an example, Melfi said, “I choose not to stink up the place” ( “Last Call” appearance with Carson Daley). Says Melfi, “The film is about an older gentleman who is a Vietnam veteran who is kind of a drunk curmudgeon who doesn’t have much to live for any more until a little boy (Oliver, well played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) moves in next door to him.” The young boy  shows the boozy reprobate that he hasn’t been such a loser, after all. Murray becomes the boy’s nanny/babysitter while mother Melissa McCarthy works long hours as an X-ray technician.
“It is like The Isle of the Misfit Toys,” says Melfi. “Bill Murray is a misfit gambler. Melissa McCarthy is a broken-down single mom who can’t get her life together. Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian hooker. So the only person who has their act together, really, is the kid.”
The film opens with Murray telling an Irish joke that involves confusion between the words porch and Porsche. (Fill in your own joke here). The joke’s not that funny, but, then again, the movie is not really a comedy, either. It’s more of a heart-warming “dramedy.” The humor it does contain is created by what we can call the Murray Mythos. Murray is laid-back. Eccentric. Cool. Funny in the Murray throw-away fashion. Gruff on the exterior; warm and fuzzy on the inside.
And, as we learn in scenes within the film, Vincent has been faithfully visiting his addled wife (in an expensive nursing home he can’t afford) for 8 years, even though she doesn’t remember who he is.
For me, the inclusion of Chris O’Dowd—who was so good in the little-seen movie “The Sapphires”—carried with it echoes of the younger Murray as he used to be on Saturday Night Live when he’d play everything from a bad lounge lizard singer to skits with Belushi and the gang. The troupe on SNL was truly remarkable. This cast is no less so, including Naomi Watts, Terrance Howard and the  trio of Murray, McCarthy and  child actor Jaeden Lieberher.
The scene we’ve all seen on television (official trailer above) where Murray tries to close out his bank account, only to learn that he has used up all the cash he received from a reverse mortgage and now has a negative balance is indicative of the kind of deadpan “so sad it’s funny” acting that Murray does so brilliantly.

What you don’t see on the film clip  is “the rest of the story.”

When the Asian bank teller initially asks him why he wants to close out his account, Murray says, “I do not want to tell you to go f— yourself, so let’s just leave it at that.” There are also some Murray Moments showing the cranky curmudgeon answering phone calls from telemarketers with his typical brioche.(“Come on, Coward! Try to sell me something.)
The film also drives a sharp stake through the use of the catch-all phrase, “It is what it is.” Murray boils it down this way, explaining that it really means: “You’re screwed and you shall remain screwed.”
Chris O’Dowd’s priest, a teacher at St. Vincent’s, the private Catholic School that Oliver attends, worked 12 to 14 hour days, flying in on the red eye and working for four days, as he was also simultaneously shooting a television project. O’Dowd’s scenes are  loose and genial. He gets the line, “Catholics are the best of all, because we have the most rules,” which he tells his classroom charges.
The concept of an adult who takes an innocent young boy out and exposes him to the seamier side of life was done earlier this year in Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words;” Murray’s taking young Oliver to the race track and a bar are scenes from the same playbook. The difference is that Oliver’s unsuspecting mother (Melissa McCarthy), who is waging a battle for custody of her young son, learns what “the babysitter” and his charge have been up to only when they are appearing in court. (The husband will be a familiar face from “Thirty Rock.”)

The other difference is that this is Bill Murray. Once Murray committed to the film, said Melfi, things fell into place. Other “name brand” actors wanted to work with Murray, in much the same way that marquee names known for taking films for reasons other than a gigantic pay-day attract other talented performers. This is an excellent cast, and they all deliver the goods.

It’s a fine movie with memorable performances. For emotional resonance, think of Clint Eastwood’s stint acting in “Grand Torino.” It’s always a pleasure to see Bill Murray in a role that lets him take the bit in his teeth and run with it, even if he’s running with a cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand.

So hunker down and enjoy the debut performances as well as those by an accomplished actor who seemingly can do it all.

 

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