February 19, 2009
The Comic Chameleon
Behind the Scenes With Bruce Vilanch
Bruce Vilanch is not going to ruin this year’s Oscar surprise, even though he could. The ceremony is two weeks away, hoopla is swirling, and Vilanch, who writes for the show, seems relatively unfazed. His grilled cheese is way more interesting than those appalling rumors that — oh my! — certain movie stars may not walk the red carpet. Knee-deep in writing his 20th Oscar script, Vilanch remembers how it felt the first time: It was two decades ago, they still didn’t pay well, but the honor of getting the job meant to him that he had really made it in Hollywood. At the very least, working on the telecast on Oscar night was a significant improvement upon the Oscars of his youth. Back then he’d celebrate in Paterson, N. J., in a bathrobe, eating Chinese food.
“Twenty years ago, Allan Carr called me and said, ‘Do you want to come and write it?’” Vilanch, 61, recalled. “That year was known forever as ‘The Snow White Year,’ because they had Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White in the opening number, and Disney sued.”
Things today are quite different; Disney now owns the ABC network that will broadcast the 81st annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, and even though the company’s foreign rights department is still quietly conflicted over renewing its contract, Vilanch said they’ll do it. Sure, ratings have dropped — last year’s broadcast holds an all-time low record of 33 million viewers, down from 40 million in 2007 — but things aren’t that bad. “It’s the greatest show on earth, seen by millions of people,” Vilanch said with a child’s enthusiasm. Even though they did away with those decadent gift bags (“Thanks to George Clooney, who sold his on eBay for charity”) he’s still the fan he was as a kid.
Only now Vilanch is a primary creative force responsible for the show’s success. His name is as commonly associated with the Oscars as it is with “gay,” “Jewish” and “funny” — all of which describe the whole of Vilanch’s career; his humor is both derived from and engineered to reflect those sensibilities. Vilanch is a comic chameleon who, for more than 33 years, has written material for many of the greatest luminaries in show business — Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Shirley MacLaine, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg — and that’s just a few of them. Each time, his work so expertly fits an entertainer’s style that you’d hardly believe it was Vilanch’s genius playing out undetected. Yet, whether he’s a ventriloquist or a collaborator, he remains, for the most part, behind the scenes. And so you wonder if the little boy who once dreamed of becoming Zero Mostel is content staying out of the spotlight.
When he enters a room, you can’t miss him: his wild, blondish locks, signature campy T-shirts and his bold frame take up more than their share of airspace. He’s vaguely recognizable, though it’s hard to know where from. For one thing, he has shrunk considerably over the past two months, since undergoing a procedure that reduced his appetite. Now 75 pounds lighter, his black slacks are baggy, and he seems more at ease moving around. Before, he said, “I took two steps and couldn’t breathe — I had reached critical mass.” There are some unpleasant side effects to his new state, however — he had only eaten half his sandwich when he became visibly uncomfortable.
Growing up gay, Jewish and adopted in New Jersey prepared Vilanch for trials with discomfort. “I had a grounding in guilt rich with lore,” he said sardonically. He discovered his sexuality at a very young age and quickly realized that a sense of humor could deflect insults and physical abuse. His theatricality is no doubt connected to his mother, whom he describes as a “would-be showgirl,” though she never managed to eke out a career. Instead, she met his father, an introverted optometrist, and they married young. They raised Vilanch in a Conservative Jewish community where “the temple was kosher, but we weren’t” and they identified as “Jews who wanted to assimilate, but didn’t want to disappear,” he explained.
“It was considered that the Reform Jews wanted to give away too much, and the Orthodox were the people who couldn’t live in the real world.” By a fluke, Vilanch became a bar mitzvah twice. (“There was an unprecedented hole in the schedule, and they invited me back to do an encore presentation of my haftarah; it was Ovadia, the minorest of the minor prophets,” he recalled.)
Vilanch came out during a transitional moment in the homosexual community — a “pre-gay” period, as he put it, before the Stonewall riots galvanized political activism. Though he would later become something of a gay icon, he suffered as a young man.
“If you were black, you couldn’t hide, but if you were Jewish or gay, you had the choice to lead an authentic or inauthentic existence. If you chose an authentic one, you were asking for trouble. It was much easier if you didn’t have to tell anybody anything.”
In college at Ohio State University, Vilanch decided he didn’t care anymore. He read an essay by historian Merle Miller, who wrote, “a faggot is a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room,” which reminded Vilanch of a similar slur about Jews. That was the end of his hiding.
He double-majored in theater and journalism at a time when the campus was a hotbed of 1960s countercultural revolution. He and many of his classmates were in school mainly to avoid getting drafted for Vietnam, and the campus was rife with student protest. Vilanch worked as a reporter for the school newspaper covering anti-war protests, which were so intense that the National Guard was called in with tear gas to suppress them. “One of the reasons why people rarely talk about what they did is because everybody avoided going to Vietnam — George Bush, Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle — nobody went,” Vilanch said. “The revolution was on; the war was on; we were all chemically altered.”
Vilanch pursued journalism and figured that eventually he’d find his way back to the stage. He landed at The Miami Herald, where he helped launch Tropic Magazine by writing celebrity profiles. (His colleague, Larry King, wrote a column there that he likens to Page Six of the New York Post.) But it was a profile of Bette Midler he wrote while working at the Chicago Tribune that was the catalyst for his writing career in Hollywood. Midler was so impressed by what he wrote, she hired him. Just recently, he created material for her live show, “The Showgirl Must Go On,” playing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
“I just called her to tell her she was on TMZ last night, but I didn’t tell her because she looked awful,” he said with genuine concern and maybe a slight chuckle.
By now, Vilanch has worked with enough celebrities that he’s learned how to handle them. And he has his own thoughts about the underbelly of fame: “What you discover is that the biggest stars in the world are type-A personalities; it’s the same drive that gets people to be president of the U.S. or head of Microsoft. You can never forget that they are priority number one, and you have to stay out of their way — or you’ll get run over.” He once asked Frank Sinatra how he should behave around him, and Sinatra replied, “Don’t pet the panther.” That became Vilanch’s motto when working with movie stars — he admires them, he enjoys them, but he keeps his distance. Sometimes, the intensity weighs on him.
Vilanch became a recognizable figure himself when he appeared on “Hollywood Squares,” the TV comedy game show. But he said he’s never had ambitions for bonafide fame; he lacks the drive to be center stage, the implacable ego. Perhaps that makes it easier to work for famous people who get most of the credit for his work. “I never consciously felt jealous, but I suppose you don’t get to 350 pounds by not having some kind of emotional reaction,” he said. His humor, he adds, is about “finding the absurdity in being a big Hollywood personality,” something that might be harder to do if he were one himself.
His success in Hollywood, however, is substantial enough to make creating a private life difficult. Vilanch wanted to have children years ago, but said it would have been too difficult to introduce them into the life he was leading. Even though he is as much defined by his gayness as by his writing, he has not been in a significant relationship for 28 years, and didn’t want to parent as a single father. There were women friends who might have parented children with him, but every time he came close, “they met some guy.”
The pain, he said, fits the lesson that Hollywood offers over and over: “How to accept an endless series of rejections, no matter how big you get.”
It certainly doesn’t get bigger than Oscar night, where Vilanch will be backstage crushing on his friend — the evening’s host, Hugh Jackman. “I’ll be helping him change outfits,” he quips. The two have worked together before, during three Tony Award broadcasts, though they met while rehearsing different shows on Broadway. Vilanch views Jackman as “wonderful and uncomplicated” — a song-and-dance man who will bring style and showmanship to an event Vilanch considers one of the few common national experiences left.
“It’s about the movies, which is everybody’s fantasy life,” he said. And there’s no doubt Vilanch believes that.