November 16, 2006
Want to spoof Purim and the Oscars? Be our Guest!
Click big arrow to play In their previous screenplay collaborations, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have satirized such offbeat subjects as small-town theatrical productions ("Waiting for Guffman"), championship dog shows ("Best in Show"), and old folk music groups ("A Mighty Wind").
But for their latest, "For Your Consideration," they've really gone out on a limb with an obscure target -- Purim movies.
"For Your Consideration" chronicles the making of a tear-jerking melodrama, "Home for Purim," in which the dying matriarch of a Southern Jewish family, Esther Pischer (Catherine O'Hara), waits for the holiday-season return of her wayward daughter, Rachel (Parker Posey). Both the Yiddish and the southern accents are thick.
So why take on Purim movies? Guest, who also directed "For Your Consideration," explains, "I don't think we can satirize something that doesn't exist. So it's not a satire, really. We're creating a new genre. There will be many, many movies about Purim after this. But we wanted to be the first."
Guest is being deadpan during an interview at his suite at Regent Beverly Wilshire. "For Your Consideration's" target isn't really Purim movies. It's spoofing the way the Hollywood hype-factory can promote the alleged "Oscar-worthiness" of bad movies for the sake of ego gratification.
He and Levy picked "Home for Purim" as an easy way to make their point, because the notion of a Purim-set drama itself is funny. In reality, O'Hara plays Marilyn Hack, a borderline washed-up actress whose role as Esther Pischer may be her last big chance. Similarly, Posey actually is playing Callie Webb, an actress who hopes her casting as Rachel Pischer helps the industry forget her last project, a disastrous one-woman monologue called "No Penis Intended."
"For Your Consideration" also features "Home for Purim's" two sanctimonious screenwriters (Michael McKean and Bob Balaban), who resist changes to their script and are clueless as to how hokey it is.
"It was a subject for a movie that seemed funny in relation to these two writers who were not necessarily competent, but had an intensity about writing the play -- which came first -- about a Jewish family in the South with a dying mother and daughter," explains Levy, who is sitting at the other end of the hotel room sofa from Guest.
"It seemed funny coming from these two guys, and the fact it was a Jewish holiday like Purim that had no real religiosity to it," he says. "It seemed funny to take this holiday so seriously. 'Pischer' is a funny word." (Both men are aware of the double-meaning; "pisher" is a term of insult and sometimes endearment in Yiddish.)
Together and separately, Guest and Levy have accumulated a veritable Comedian's Hall of Fame worth of enduring accomplishments. The New York-born Guest, 58 and married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis, was a writer and performer for several of the early 1970s National Lampoon projects as well as a writer and cast member on "Saturday Night Live" during its outstanding 1984 season.
Trained as an actor and musician, he co-created and co-starred in his most famous work in 1984, the Rob Reiner-directed mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap," about an imaginary rock band.
While "Guffman," "Best in Show" and "Mighty Wind" also were mockumentaries, "For Your Consideration" is not. However, like the other three, it gives its cast room for improvisation. But the "Home for Purim" scenes were tightly scripted. Levy, 59 and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, was a key member of the classic Canadian and American "SCTV" television series of the late 1970s and 1980s.
That show satirized an imaginary television network and also provided a start for O'Hara, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, John Candy and others. Levy has gone on to be a notable supporting actor in films like the "American Pie" series and "Bringing Down the House." His name was bandied about for a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for his role as Mitch Cohen, the lost-soul folkie attempting a comeback in 2003's "A Mighty Wind."
But during this interview, neither man tries to make wisecracks. The gray-haired Guest, especially, is matter-of-fact and almost formal in discussing his work and background. Levy, whose dark hair also has plenty of gray and who has trademark dark eyebrows, is more relaxed. They're both dressed for business, wearing dark-blue sport coats. Levy wears blue jeans and a black shirt; Guest has on a crisply ironed, dressy light-blue shirt and dark pants.
Levy grew up in a Jewish household and listened as his mother sprinkled conversations with a few Yiddish words. But he doesn't see himself as a Jewish comedian, per se. He credits his interest in comedy to a love of Jack Benny's mastery of the art of being reactive to others, and to spending time at Hamilton's McMaster University with some very smart, funny students like Short, Thomas and Ivan Reitman.
"There have been Jewishisms that creep into each movie [with Guest], but I don't consciously try to make it Jewish," Levy says. "It's just stuff that comes up as humor in the office. Mitch Cohen was the name of the character [in 'A Mighty Wind'], although there's nothing innately Jewish about him in the story outside of the fact his name was Mitch Cohen and he looks like me, which people might then wonder if he was Jewish.
"You can't hide the fact I'm Jewish. It'd be hard for me to play a priest. I am who I am."
Guest's mother, too, was Jewish -- a first-generation American born of Russian immigrant parents. His father was British (the family name is Haden-Guest), a UN diplomat whose membership in the House of Lords meant Guest visited England often while growing up. But he also studied acting and the performing arts in high school in New York and attended Bard College and New York University. "I was brought up basically by two atheists and had no religious instruction of any kind," Guest explains.
He was influenced by Jewish humor as much as anyone who was young and into comedy in New York the 1960s, he says. "After Vaudeville died, the next generation -- Alan King, Jan Murray -- got their training in the Catskills," he says. "Those were the guys on television. And Jewish humor was cultural humor -- people throwing out Yiddish words so people would laugh.
"It's the same thing we did with Purim here. Those words have always been funny."