Archive for Jonathan Cake

Zero Tolerance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2019 by dcairns

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.