Zero Tolerance

A producer I was discussing the vicissitudes of the film business with once described it as “a process of continually deferred satisfaction” (credit where due: it was Eddie Dick) which seems about right.

Proof of this lies in THE PRODUCERS, where Mel Brooks can lay claim to having written an as-good-as-perfect script (OK, the first scene is like twenty pages long, but it’s GREAT) and assembled an as-good-as-perfect cast to play it. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are so good together, astonishing (it’s worth seeing RHINOCEROS, the Ionesco adaptation they’re in together too, although I would prefer Alexander Mackendrick to have made his version, with either Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov. He was going to matte rhinos into London landscapes.)

The first woman to wear lipstick in New York, and the man from whom Brooks stole the Elephant Man’s hairstyle.

BUT — to prove that there is no real satisfaction to be had for the labourer in film, Brooks was dissatisfied with Mostel’s performance throughout the shoot. Editor Ralph Rosenblum, in his excellent memoir, describes how Brooks filled the cutting room with explosive rage at Mostel’s intractability. He couldn’t let go of it and concentrate on the editing, his mind was still chewing over the trauma of the shoot, where he had tried to get Mostel to imbue Max Byalistock, conceived as a kind of humanoid id, with a form of sweetness and likability. If you see Nathan Lane in the role in the remake, you’ll see exactly what Brooks had in mind — Lane became his vision of the part.

The end credits list Zero merely as “Zero,” which seems affectionate — maybe Rosenblum is responsible, or maybe it’s phony showbiz affection, or a hidden gibe, or maybe Brooks loved Mostel as a man even if he hated — HATED! — the performance. A little mystery.

Yet I find Mostel ideal, and don’t find him remotely lacking in sweetness and likability, (“The most selfish man I ever met,” says Leo Bloom, affectionately.) But I agree with Mostel’s interpretation that the man is in essence villainous. Mostel played a lot of villains and finks in his pre-blacklist period, and being blacklisted probably didn’t make him any less explosive. But he’s always hugely human, therefore loveable.

(When The Producers stage musical was to open in London and Nathan Lane was unavailable, Brooks cast Jonathan Cake, who had played Mosley, then fired him for playing it too villanous. Nathan Lane somehow became available.)

Mel Brooks has had as long and rewarding a career as you could wish for, achieving wonderful things as director and producer and star and writer and lyricist. But by some cruel caprice of fate, he can’t see how magnificent the lead actor in his first film is.

8 Responses to “Zero Tolerance”

  1. Mostel’s gibbering and capering to steal focus (on particularly egregious display in near the end of the first scene with Chrisopher Hewitt) doesn’t wear particularly well for me, but he’s still a force of nature and he and Wilder (never better than in this film) are indeed wonderful together.

  2. Other baffling director opinions:

    – Spielberg regretting the shark not working in Jaws
    – Polanski’s assesment of his own career (if I’m not mistaken, he’s said that Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby – near perfect movies – were just hackwork to get Cul-de-Sac and Downhill Racer made, or something)
    – Coppola viewing The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as just commercial projects to get his real work donw

  3. Yeah, Mostel and Wilder in RHINOCEROS are perfectly paired. Mostel does an amazing job of suggesting a man transforming into a rhinoceros without any make-up or effects (which seems like it shouldn’t work on screen).

    I love that RHINOCEROS also has Karen Black, Cronenberg regular Joe Silver, and a young Don Calfa (Ernie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). It’s the horror movie cast you would want for a play about existential dread!

  4. I never felt Mostel was trying to upstage anyone. I’d have to rewatch that scene, but my memory is that Roger DeBris is hypnotic. I looked Hewitt up and saw he was in The Lavender Hill Mob, and flashed on the notion that that movie might be an antecedent of Producers — the poster image of Guinness and Holloway looks very Bialystock und Bloom. Both films in which characters leave deadening straight jobs for a stimulating and spiritually enriching life of crime.

    I imagine all directors have baffling opinions about their own work. Monte Hellman thinks his best film is Silent Night, Deadly Night III.

    I think Spielberg now believes the shark trouble was a blessing in disguise. (Note: the shark worked fine: it just looked like what it was, a fake shark.)

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Rather remarkable that Mel didn’t care for ero’s performance as ero is so overwhelming. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that he couldn’ direct him, just UNLEASH him. Zero was full of quite understandable rage as the blacklist had taken is career away. Luckily he was able to reboot it all on Broadway. He was “named” as a Communist by Jerry Robbins — who did so because HUAC told him that of he didn’t name names they would “out” him — which in those days was career death. Of course the whole known universe knew that Jerry was a Big Ol’ Gay Homosexual, but no one was supposed to Say Those Words. And so years later the producers desperate to get their show on its feet brought Jerry in to direct and choreograph “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum” What to do? So they asked Zero and he said “Do I have to have lunch with him?” They said no and Jerry went on to do the show directing every aspect of it EXCEPT Zero Mostel


  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Roy mentions Zero here

  7. A rather brilliant performance of Zero’s rather brilliant HUAC testimony:

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Jim Brochu is a dear friend of man. He really “gets” Zero. See also Zero’s performance in “The Front”

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