Thursday, December 20, 2012


Feldman Biography is Best showbiz Bio of the Year by Don Stradley

If your only memory of Marty Feldman is his hilarious turn in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, his life and career are illuminated in Robert Ross' Marty Feldman, The Biography of a Comedy Legend. Ross' book, a product of painstaking research, is as good as any showbiz biography you will ever read.

Before Feldman’s bulging eyes and wild hair became part of the American consciousness, he was well-known in England as one of the top television comedy writers of the 1960s. After years of writing scripts, he was finally coaxed into performing. Although he preferred working behind the scenes, Feldman’s acting style was a revelation. By mixing the deadpan humor of Buster Keaton with a bit of “Swinging ‘60s London,”  Feldman not only connected with British TV audiences, but provided a link between post war British humor and the 1970's style of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In fact, many members of the Python crew worked with Feldman and considered him a comedy sage.

Feldman’s humor may have been developed to deal with a problematic early life. Constantly punished at school for misbehaving, he left home at 15 to pursue a career as a jazz trumpeter.   Even though he scratched out a living, Feldman was often destitute, scrambling around in the company of drug dealers, third-rate musicians, and gangsters.  He was even homeless for a time, “sleeping rough” as the British say, before he began selling jokes to music hall comedians.  

Once he’d found success in England, Feldman craved recognition in America.  A syndicated British series called The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine began appearing on American networks, which lead to Feldman performing on such U.S. staples as The Tonight Show, and Hollywood Squares. At age 40 he struck gold as Igor in Young Frankenstein.  But soon after Feldman's world conquering year of 1974, his fortunes changed.  A chain smoker and drug user, Feldman worked himself to a nub until a lonely death in a hotel room in 1982. Ross’ description of the dying Feldman trying to reach his beloved wife on the phone for a last goodbye is heartbreaking.

As Ross tells it, two things prevented Feldman from capitalizing on his Young Frankenstein success. One was America's tendency to marginalize British actors; the other was Feldman's own disenchantment with fame.  At the time of his death he was planning a return to England, where he hoped to get back on British TV.

The book also explores Feldman's Jewish upbringing. Growing up in London’s East End as the son of Russian Jews, Feldman described himself as an outcast, although he said in a 1980 interview that he admired all things Hasidic, and had been quite devout as a young boy.  He also believed his love of the performing arts was probably linked to his respect for Jewish storytellers.

Ross presents Feldman as a brilliant but unhappy fellow.   It was as if the trauma of sleeping under bridges and being penniless haunted him, even as he walked where very few British comedians had ever walked before.

Starting with the opening pastiche of Parisian sights (obviously recalling the opening of Manhattan), it’s as if Woody Allen has finally delivered a Woody Allen movie. Gil Pender (Luke Wilson) is a frumpy modern Hollywood screenwriter stuck in Paris with his wife and in-laws. Just when it seems he can take no more of the pompous crowd, he finds himself in a Twilight Zone world where such Jazz Age icons as Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are still dancing the night away. When Pender begins flirting with Pablo Picasso’s young mistress, well, you can probably guess where Allen goes with the material.

Lacking Allen’s acid tongue and paranoia, Wilson gives Pender a kind of cottony-soft humanity. He's smart to avoid doing an Allen impression, as many others have done in Allen movies. The result is that Wilson becomes one of the most likeable characters in the Woody Allen canon, a baggy everyman trying to stay afloat in a world of very big ideas. You root for him as he mingles with his heroes, and you believe him when he says something is missing in contemporary life. Add some Cole Porter songs, and Midnight in Paris feels as if we, too, are visiting the past. I don’t mean the 1920s, but the 1980s, when Allen might have released this as a follow-up to such warm, smart comedies as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo.


Sam Peckinpah’s violent 1971 study of pacifists finding their survival instinct is given a teeth whitening treatment in this remake by writer/director Rod Lurie. The action has been moved from England to Louisiana, the couple under siege is recast as a vapid Hollywood pair, and the bad guys are now belly-scratching hicks. James Marsden, in the role once played by Dustin Hoffman, is too self-assured to earn our sympathy. Hoffman was better, scampering like a cockroach to protect his home from invaders. The original also benefited from social tensions created by the Viet Nam war, when academics were standing up to war mongers. Lurie’s early scenes of lonely swampland, and James Woods’ stirring performance as the town drunk, suggest a film that could’ve been made about the way isolation breeds ignorance. Unfortunately, Lurie resorts to clich├ęs about Hollywood versus the Deep South. He tries, but he can’t get this potboiler to boil.

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