I'll be frank (even though my name's not frank): Airplane! is the funniest movie I've ever seen.
Bold claim, sure, but every time I watch this 1980 classic, from comedic masterminds Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, I discover something new. Another joke that slipped by when I busy cackling with ecstatic laughter. The movie's relentless delivery is inspired, firing off jokes at rapid pace and never slowing down to let the lesser ones fall flat. The method wouldn't work with every comedy, but the writing/directing trio made it click in Airplane!, which is why the movie's stood the test of time.
Airplane! hits Blu-ray this week and in honor of the release, I got a chance to talk to the star of the film, Robert Hays, the solid foundation of the movie's zany antics. While some actors interest in their most popular work wanes over time, Hays remains impassioned over Airplane!. Out of the two of us, I wasn't expecting him to be the one continually quoting the film:
How are you today?
Wonderful! I'm continually amazed bythe lasting power of Aiplane!. For something so incredibly ridiculous—but wonderful. Why do you think this film has captured people in this way?
I think it took people by surprise, and I think that it continues to surprise them. You know?
Even though they know. It’s just that—the boys created something, when they wrote it, that was so tight and insane. And then, I think because we all did it so seriously, which is what they wanted, and which was perfect, it still really holds up. I have people come up to me and say, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ and then they say, ‘And don’t call me Shirley!’ or ‘Do you still have your drinking problem?’ and things. And then they say, ‘Can I have an autograph for my son?’ And I asked this one woman, ‘Yeah! How old is he?’ [She said,] ‘He’s twelve.’ Wow. And another one came up later, and said, ‘Can I have an autograph for my son?’ And I said, ‘How old is he?’ [She said,] ‘He’s ten.’ And then I had a woman come up and say, ‘I’m introducing [my son] to comedies. And he loves the Marx Brothers, but his favorite film of all time is Airplane!.’ And I said, ‘Well, how cool is that! How old is he?’ [And she said,] ‘He’s six.’ [Laughs] Six! So, right there, we have new generations of people.
Now that’s staying power.
Yeah! So we’re gonna have more, you know, at my funeral. They’ll be saying, ‘Yo, can I have your autograph?’
Don’t call them Shirley at your funeral either.
My God, it’s a coffin! A coffin, what is it? A box with a body in the ground, but that’s not important right now.
Have you ever seen the film Zero Hour!, the 1957 disaster film from which many of the scenes in Airplane! are lifted?
I saw it, but I’ve only seen it since [filming Airplane!]. I never saw it before. I knew it was the basis, because they had it cued up and running back in the booth. They’d go in, and certain scenes, they’d have…the same angles, and the same lighting and everything. So that’s another little inside joke—for that part of it that was based on Zero Hour!. It was based on, basically, that for the framework, but then, so many other films, too.
So it wasn’t just a framework, it was an on-set guide.
They had a little booth. When we were on set, there was a little cabin, kind of a little room, that David and Jim would be in. And they’d have the monitor taped off so they could see what’s gonna be on the screen—just what is on film. You know, the cameraman sees what’s all around it, so he can see if anything’s gonna come in and mess up the shot, or whatever. But in the video feed, that’s what came on the monitor. So they taped it off so you could just see what’s actually on the shot. Jerry was out with us, on the camera, and afterwards they’d confer. And if they agreed on it, they’d say, ‘Good! Cut! Print!’
But they had a few scenes that they wanted to make sure had the same lighting. You know, in paying homage to the film, and also for the little inside…you know, all the little trivia things.
When you first landed Airplane!, where did you feel, career-wise? Was getting the movie a big deal for you?
Yeah! It was a feature film.
Was it your first?
Very first film, yeah.
What was it like transitioning to films and working with the [Zucker] Brothers in that world?
It was a low-budget film. It was about three-and-a-half million, something like that. At that time, it was really considered low-budget. Now, everything has grown so much. Just like, instead of having four or five channels on TV, we’ve got how many hundreds of channels on TV. Back then, you only had so many kinds of categories. And that was a low-budget film. Just as an example, when we went to Paramount, my publicist went to them and said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to do publicity! Bob’s ready! Maybe you could do some sideshow,’ or whatever. And finally, they said, ‘Listen. You should just be happy that we like you. Urban Cowboy is our big film this summer.’ And they were filming Urban Cowboy right on the other side of the lot, and that’s when I met John [Travolta]. And we just laughed and laughed…I kept telling him scene after scene that we were filming. Donna Pescow, who I was doing Angie with, introduced us.
So that wasn’t their big film. It was just kind of a small, low-budget film. And then it wound up breaking every box office record in every theater that it played in. And then after that, things changed a bit. It was my first feature, but it wasn’t like I was in a huge, multimillion dollar Spielberg production. It was a small unknown thing with unknown actors. So that was all actually exciting and fun. Probably a lot more fun because people weren’t paying as much attention. As we were filming it, the dailies…oftentimes people say, ‘Well, I’ve got something else I’ve got to do. Tell me how the dailies look. I’ve gotta brush my teeth,’ or something, you know.
No one cared!
Yeah. And with these, they kept having to run the dailies two, three, four times, because eventually everyone wanted to come and see them.
So it was making sense to people? That’s what I always wonder. When you first came on set or picked up the script, did it make sense? Did it seem like it was going to be funny?
I read it on a plane, with a bunch of people including Donna Pescow, who I was doing Angie with, and Howard Cosell, and a whole bunch of ABC people. ABC was flying us out to Minneapolis—St. Paul—for a big celebration of an NBC station changing to ABC. And I read [the Airplane! script] on the plane flying out there. And there was something on every single page that made me laugh out loud. It just got me. It was just funny.
Do you have a favorite joke from the movie?
There’s so many! I love Bob Stack doing his Eliot Ness, when he turns to the camera and then leans into it. I think that was after Lloyd [Bridges] had been sniffing glue and then ran screaming out a window. And they all watched him go and then he exploded. And then he turns back to camera, and then he does that Eliot Ness move into it. And Leslie [Nielsen], with the stethoscope. ‘Excuse me, are you a doctor?’ And he says, ‘Yes, yes I am.’
What was it like working with Leslie Nielsen? I mean, he’s a classically trained, Shakespearean actor.
He was this serious, wonderful guy. I remember him as Marion the Swamp Fox on Disney. I was a little kid. And this handsome leading man. And here he is with a little fart machine off camera making you laugh your butt off.
Most importantly: What was it like working with the blow-up copilot?
Oh! Otto was great. Had his own agent. Very demanding. He had to have the biggest motorhome. And he had to have…I think he wanted the brown M&Ms.
What a diva.
The biggest. But other than that he was a good guy.
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.