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Say Yes: Mel Brooks at 95

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.jpeg

Mel Brooks was born in 1926; he will (god willing) turn 96 in June. That’s something of a non-Newtownian age — the length of his career warps our usual generational physics.

Let’s try to put it in context. Brooks was born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth (II, don’t be cheeky), Marilyn Monroe, and John Coltrane. He’s old enough to have served in World War 2 (which he did), and that he was already in his 40s when he became a filmmaker, with The Producers. People sometimes point out that Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Frank were born in the same year, to note how exact contemporaries can belong to such widely different time periods — yet Brooks is three years older than that trio.

Brooks was somehow a contemporary to almost everybody — I was surprised recently, reading the Tom Stoppard biography, that Brooks and Stoppard spent time together in New York City the early 60s, when Stoppard was a young theater reporter and Brooks was performing with Carl Reiner. That’s a fifth of the comic DNA of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead right there. (Yet, somehow, Brooks is eleven years older than Stoppard.)

One of my favorite clips of Brooks is a 1975 appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show where he essentially takes over the show (the YouTube video is 53 minutes long).

Brooks has a new book out, a memoir titled All About Me! My Remarkable Life In Show Business. (I have not read it, but I want to.)

He’s done a requisite (funny, thoughtful) interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air, where he shares some homespun wisdom:

I’m so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and sometimes a roast beef sandwich for dinner. I’m so happy that I still have somewhat of an appetite. I’m having trouble sleeping. That’s a problem. But otherwise things are pretty good for being 95 and I’m getting around fairly well and my basic emotional attitude is still more positive than negative. I’m still looking forward to talking to people, to meeting people, to have dinner with people.

The book, too, seems to be more positive than negative; during the interview with Gross, she tries to prod him about moments of depression he mentions in his childhood, and he basically dismisses them. Alexandra Jacobs notes that Brooks “would prefer to kvell over the talents of his frequent collaborators Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder and Carl Reiner, than linger on, or even mention, their departures from this crazy world.” In old age as in childhood, humor can be a lifeline.

It’s also a strategy. Michael Schulman touches on this in his interview with Brooks:

You have some wonderful stories of basically getting away with stuff at the studios.

I’d learned one very simple trick: say yes. Simply say yes. Like Joseph E. Levine, on “The Producers,” said, “The curly-haired guy—he’s funny looking. Fire him.” He wanted me to fire Gene Wilder. And I said, “Yes, he’s gone. I’m firing him.” I never did. But he forgot. After the screening of “Blazing Saddles,” the head of Warner Bros. threw me into the manager’s office, gave me a legal pad and a pencil, and gave me maybe twenty notes. He would have changed “Blazing Saddles” from a daring, funny, crazy picture to a stultified, dull, dusty old Western. He said, “No farting.” I said, “It’s out”… You say yes, and you never do it.

That’s great advice for life.

It is. Don’t fight them. Don’t waste your time struggling with them and trying to make sense to them. They’ll never understand.

Writing for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman has what’s probably the most comprehensive take on Brooks’s biography, and makes the best effort (although not entirely successful) to get past Brooks’s comic defense mechanisms.

Brooks’s story begins - as it did for so many American comedians of his generation, including Reiner - in a working-class Jewish family. “People say, ‘Out of the suffering of Jews, the need to laugh is critical for the survival of the race.’ But we didn’t become comics out of misery. We became comics because there are a lot of laughs in Jewish households. There’s always some wiseguy making cracks about how fat Aunt Sadie is, and it’s a need for that joy to continue that was the engine for all of us to become comics. It was fun being a little Jewish boy in a household with three older brothers and my mother; my aunt and my grandmother living next door,” he says.

Brooks also distinguishes between Jewish humor and New York humor, telling Schulman:

Yiddish comedy, or Jewish comedy, has to do with Jewish folklore. Sholem Aleichem, that kind of stuff. The mistakenly called “Jewish comedy” of the great comics—it was really New York. It was the streets of New York: the wiseguy, the sharpness that New York gives you that you can’t get anywhere else, but you can get it on the streets of Brooklyn. Jewish comedy was softer and sweeter. New York comedy was tougher and more explosive. There’s some cruelty that you find in New York humor that you wouldn’t find in Yiddish humor. In New York, you make fun of somebody who walks funny. You never find that in Sholem Aleichem. You’d feel pity. There’s no pity in New York. There’s reality and a brushstroke of brutality in it.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.jpeg

In a way, what I think Brooks is describing is the ability to blend the traditional with the contemporary. It’s a kind of Jewish humor, but it’s not old Jewish humor. This is essentially the gag behind the 2000 Year Old Man — a character who has experienced the tumults and tragedies of history, but can talk about them as if they happened to himself and his neighbors just last week:

Reiner: Did you know Jesus?

Brooks: Thin lad, right? Wore sandals? Hung around with 12 other guys? They always came into my store. Never bought anything, just asked for water.

And maybe that’s why Brooks feels both so eternal and so contemporary. It’s right there; it’s in the jokes.

Tom Stoppard and the Last Crusade

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 21, 2020

Tom Stoppard - Young.jpg

Hermione Lee has written an authorized biography of playwright, screenwriter, translator, and man of letters Tom Stoppard, called Tom Stoppard: A Life. It was released in the United Kingdom on October 1st and should appear in the United States on February 23, 2021.

Here’s an excerpt from the core of Kate Kellaway’s glowing review in The Guardian:

“He put on Englishness like a coat,” Lee writes - and one imagines a particularly dashing coat because Stoppard compensated for his reserve by being an unretiring dresser (a recent photograph shows him, in his 80s, still modishly draped). But the English coat was possibly over-buttoned. Stoppard had an exile’s gratitude to England. He found his boarding school in 18th-century Okeover Hall “paradise”. Yet Lee qualifies the received idea - an oversimplified, dismissive slur - of Stoppard as unswervingly conservative. For a start, he is too entertaining to be stuffy…

His championing of political causes is shown to have stemmed more from empathy with individuals than from abstract ideals. His support for Belarus Free Theatre makes particularly fascinating reading, as does the account of his friendship with Václav Havel, Czech playwright and president. Havel is presented as the person Stoppard might have been had he not become an Englishman.

Lee’s studies of the plays are masterly - especially of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Arcadia (1993) - and her book will be a formidable resource for Stoppard enthusiasts. She makes a persuasive case for the importance of emotion, challenging - even in the early work - the old complaint that Stoppard is all head and no heart. Jumpers is “a sensational exercise in mental acrobatics” but also “a play of grief and love. It carries the sadness and the guilt of living in a malfunctioning marriage with a wife who is having a breakdown and it opened two days after his divorce.”

The British edition from Faber & Faber is 992 pages long and weighs 1.33 kilograms (about three pounds). It also retails for £30 in the UK, about 40 USD (used to be more, but the exchange rate has been low—point is, it’s an expensive book). Mercifully, Knopf’s US hardcover will be only 897 pages and cost $37.50, with weight unchanged.

It’s a big book by a biographer known for big books about major literary figures, sadly mostly dead. Stoppard is very much alive, and although quite private, agreed to sit for hours of interviews over a course of years. Lee was also able to interview Stoppard’s friends and colleagues, including actress Felicity Kendal (who starred in multiple Stoppard plays, including in roles written for her), director Trevor Nunn (in charge of three of Stoppard’s world premieres), and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

This last might seem like an odd choice, but Spielberg and Stoppard have multiple points of contact. Stoppard wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and served as an uncredited ghostwriter on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In fact, not only was Stoppard not credited, the lack of credit was actually given to a pseudonym, “Barry Watson.”

Everything suggests that Stoppard’s contributions to the film were substantial. In a brief oral history of The Last Crusade, now lost to linkrot but still preserved by the Wayback Machine, Spielberg says, “Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.”

Last year, narrative analyst Mike Fitzgerald broke down in detail differences between a draft version of the screenplay by credited writer Jeffrey Boam and the published draft, including revisions by Spielberg and a heavy rewrite by Stoppard. (You can actually download both versions of the screenplay on Fitzgerald’s site.) Again, Stoppard contributed not just lines of dialogue, but new scenes, a new structure, and changes in characterization.

Vast enhancements were made to every element of the story - character, plot, pace, humor, action, tone, clarity, dialogue. The result is a markedly more coherent, charming, and enduring script that truly belongs in a museum. I suspect that, absent the final revisions, this film would have been regarded by audiences as inferior to its antecedent sequel THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in tone, wit, and entertainment value…

TIGHTENING: The revised draft is 15 pages shorter, though material was not arbitrarily removed just to cut pages. I found 19 instances of scenes or beats being cut, 6 superfluous characters removed, several jokes deleted, and dialogue often pared down. Each of these extractions had a clear purpose to it, whether streamlining the plot, quickening the pace, avoiding redundancies, or simply that the material in question was superfluous and distracting. Note that the revised draft has also ADDED a substantial amount of new scenes, beats, jokes, and dialogue, so in order to counterbalance the new material and cut 15 pages, an ample sum of script was removed…

DIALOGUE: One of Stoppard’s most obvious revisions is to vastly refine the dialogue, and only by reading both drafts side by side is it possible to study those differences. I would ballpark that 80% of the lines have been substantially changed.

HUMOR: This manifests largely in the dialogue, but also in sight gags, character actions, edit points, and streamlining moments to make the jokes land with more precision. The quality of humor is also refined, by removing coarse innuendo and making the jokes smarter and less predictable.

Stoppard was responsible for reshaping one of my favorite scenes in the film. At one point, Henry (Sean Connery’s character) was going to use Indy’s gun (down to just one bullet) to shoot at the seagulls, who would in turn fly into the engines of the plane pursuing them and make it crash. Stoppard had Henry chase them with his umbrella instead.

(The Charlemagne quote is totally made up. Unclear whether Henry Jones is supposed to believe that it’s real.)

Stoppard emphasized elements of faith and history in the story. For example, he rewrote the character of Kazim, changing him from a Nazi stooge to a protector of the grail, and invented the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword.

Stoppard also rewrote Henry’s dialogue during the cavern collapse to have him finally call his son by his chosen name, Indiana.

One last thing: if you watch The Last Crusade now, as opposed to thirty years ago, certain things stand out. They used a lot of projected backgrounds. Those don’t look great. More substantively, the Nazis, while generally faithful to their portrayal in Raiders of the Lost Ark, plus some updates, feel pretty… thin. They’re bad guys, evil and a little scary, but you’d be forgiven if you came away from the movie thinking the problem with the Nazis was that they liked to burn books and despoil antiquities, while good people love libraries and museums. That ain’t it.

Stoppard was born Tomás Straüssler, in 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. In 1939, his parents, nonpracticing Jews, fled the Nazi invasion to Singapore. His father was killed in 1942 when the Japanese Air Force bombed Singapore, and Stoppard has no memory of him; Tom, his mother Marta, and his brother succeeded in reaching India, where he lived until 1946. His new stepfather, Major Kenneth Stoppard, was an antisemite; his mother hid her and her children’s Jewishness to be accepted by him and his circle, now in England.

Three of Stoppard’s aunts, all four of his grandparents, and his great-grandmother all died in the Holocaust. And Stoppard did not know this about his extended family until 1993, four years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It is tempting to ask, if Stoppard had been fully aware of and fully embraced his central European and Jewish roots, as he was when he wrote his new play Leopoldstadt, whether his approach to the Nazis, or the very Christian, very English themes of the Grail legend, or even the son striving to be reconciled to his father, might have been substantively different.

In many ways, the Grail legend was perfect for Stoppard: more English than the English, but still a little resistant, a little outside the nation’s own history. A crusade, a quest, a reclamation, a reconciliation.