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'Mother' Instinct

Debbie Reynolds & Albert Brooks
Eliott Marks

The "Mother" of All Movies: Mom (Debbie Reynolds) and regressing son (Albert Brooks) relive conflicting memories at the zoo.

Albert Brooks begs to be loved on his terms, but even Debbie Reynolds sees through the whining in the new comedy 'Mother'

By Richard von Busack

ALBERT BROOKS and Debbie Reynolds seem almost insanely mismatched, like a Barney the Dinosaur show directed by Ingmar Bergman. In the new Oedipal comedy Mother, Brooks, one of the driest of American comedians, teams up with an actress synonymous with sweetness and bounciness--as described by Santa Battaglia in the novel A Confederacy of Dunces: "That little Debbie Reynolds ... she's darling ... so petite. You ever seen her in that cute picture where she played Tammy?"

Brooks has directed, starred in and co-written (with Monica Johnson) the films Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (his most popular film, 1985) and Defending Your Life (1991). The vague titles cover a series of sketches on a theme--usually parodies of the spirit, if not the letter, of other films.

Lost in America depicts the comic disasters awaiting people with an Easy Rider fixation. Defending Your Life is Brooks' version of after­life movies like Heaven Can Wait. My favorite, Real Life, was spurred by the infamous PBS television show An American Family, which followed the day-to-day activities of a family of textbook ordinariness, the prosperous Loud family of Santa Barbara.

The PBS cameras provoked an equally textbook-like demonstration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle--observation of an experiment affects the experiment. Once the cameras started rolling, it turned out that son Lance Loud was gay and that Mrs. Loud wanted a divorce.

In Real Life, Brooks plays a director who's dying to break out of the mold of the conventional feature film by following around a volunteer family in Phoenix. But his much-repeated hatred of Hollywood is really self-delusion, since he exudes show-business oleaginousness through every pore.

The family, headed by Charles Grodin--the archetypal nice guy, perfect for menacing by Brooks' tentacles--is free of angst; nothing much happens to this group. Brooks panics. He's poised to drive the family to drama through intrusiveness, manipulation and bribery. In the movie's most hideo-comic scene, Brooks is halfway to seducing Grodin's neglected, tetchy wife (Frances Lee McCain), and halfway in her face, intimate, like a studio-era director with an intractable female lead.

School of Comedians

BROOKS IS no common gagster. He was a prodigy as a stand-up comedian, having famously received the endorsement of Mel Brooks, who called Albert (no relation) the funniest person he knew when the younger Brooks was only 18. The persona no doubt comes from growing up in show business as the son of a popular Greek-dialect comedian on the radio, Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein. (Brooks may not be his real name, but Albert is; the comedian's birth name was Albert Einstein.)

Brooks studied the peculiar passive-aggressiveness of stand-up performers when he was a guest on the Dean Martin and Ed Sullivan shows. "The Albert Brooks Famous School of Comedians," first written as an essay for Esquire and then made into a short film, was a Learning Annex parody before there was a Learning Annex.

The piece instructed the talent-free in the mechanics of old-school funnymanism. Brooks advised wannabe comedians to find an unclaimed disease to use as a telethon and explained the correct use of the phrase "But seriously, folks ... ." He was an early anti-comedian, a key figure in the history of stand-up, monologue and performance art.

Brooks' character has changed little over the past decades. It's always the same persona--a man so full of love for his own sensitivity that he's blind to anyone else's feelings. Brooks could be compared to Woody Allen, another stand-up comedian turned auteur. Like Allen, Brooks seizes upon the language of pop psychology to drill into the flaws of others while excusing his own numerous shortcomings.

But Allen is harmless, slight, while Brooks sports the thin eyebrows, thick forehead and slit eyes audiences associate with B-movie bruisers. Brooks has a lot more in common with John Cleese, really.

Cleese, like Brooks, doesn't make many movies. And like Brooks, Cleese in his best moments--say, frog-marching Connie Booth's Polly around the halls of Fawlty Towers--has size, menace and the strength of the truly desperate. Both Cleese and Brooks are bullies who turn out to be collapsible. Their tactic, when cornered, is to bargain and then, when denied, to dissolve into a pleading mess.

The core of Brooks' peculiarly excruciating comedy can be seen when he is forced to beg. In Real Life, when, finally, the family has had enough and is ready to send him packing, he begs, abjectly, to stay, to be there on Thanksgiving when they carve the turkey. In Lost in America, he wheedles an unyielding but amused Las Vegas casino owner into returning his gambled-away life savings. He is best known for the sequence in which he cascades into a pond of flop sweat in Broadcast News.

Going Home

THIS DEDICATED unwillingness to come off as a nice man turns up again in Mother. In Brooks' version of the obligatory humanizing scene of actors frolicking at the zoo, a grown-up son and his mother see the elephant the man used to feed when he was a boy. Reminded that elephants never forget, he points out the special pachyderm, but the beast snubs him. His mother guesses, "Maybe he remembers you, but he just doesn't like you."

Brooks plays John Henderson, a blocked science-fiction writer--divorced, cleaned out and unable to rustle up any dates in Los Angeles. Seized by an idiot scheme, he decides to stay at his mother's house in Sausalito in hopes of rediscovering the lost thread of his life.

When he arrives, he clears all of his toys and trophies and his single bed out of the garage and puts them back into his bedroom to re-create the ambiance of his high-school days. Naturally, he regresses, becoming a fussy, dependent big baby.

His mother, Beatrice (Reynolds), loves him, but distractedly, at arm's length--though she's not above a twist of the knife ("Maybe, when you stopped eating meat, your writing got thinner"). Though the different physical types might seem to clash--Brooks as the olive-skinned and kinky-haired son of a classic WASP--they are matched in self-possession.

Beatrice keeps herself cool in the face of her son's neuroses. He gripes about something inane, and you can see her half-smile stay fixed while her eyes go dead--she's heard these complaints before. This is not a movie about a dumb mother; it's about one who's learned to tune out the whining of her children.

The obvious Oedipal situation is exacerbated by John's conflict with his brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow), which escalates into a tug of war and confrontation. Mother doesn't end well; Brooks makes it come out sweetly with a reward for a mother's sacrifice. It turns out that she nurses literary ambitions, which are renewed and fulfilled.

Mother offers a kind of coitus interruptus--when we're expecting a payoff, we're given a happy resolution as contrived as the films of Reynolds' heyday. Still, there is a beautifully dissonant climax. Jerry Goldsmith's music rises in a swell of honeyed strings as John, joyous in triumph, realizes the reason why his mother has always been a little distant to him. "We have so much in common," he says, "One of us is blocked and insecure; the other is angry and stifled."

Maternal Virgin

SUPPOSEDLY, Brooks wanted an actress ladylike enough to play the oblivious mother of an oblivious son. The story goes that he'd actually offered the role to Nancy Reagan before settling on Reynolds, who is, after a long string of cute movies during the '50s and '60s, semiretired. For our interview, Reynolds is polite and composed, but on occasion, she has the slightly grand habit of referring to herself in the third person, like an institution, for which who can blame her, really.

Reynolds positions herself in the center of a couch in an expensive San Francisco hotel suite, with the winter light sifting through the chiffon curtains behind her. She'd spent part of the morning receiving journalists too young to know that she'd ever been in a movie before. She's done well for herself, after some reversals of fortune along the way. She is a casino owner now, with a leading collection of Hollywood memorabilia--everything from Marilyn Monroe's famous dress in The Seven Year Itch to Dorothy's ruby slippers.

She tells me about some other red shoes. She was from Burbank, a beauty contestant who got a movie contract. "In Singin' in the Rain," she says, "I really was that girl, this little 18-year-old virgin. I didn't think I could do all of that dancing, but Mr. Mayer did. I tried it, because when you're young, you don't think you can fail. I learned all the dancing in three months. There was blood in all of our shoes. It wasn't fun. But Singin' in the Rain turned out to be such a classic that it's shocking to me to think that I was in it."

Reynolds tried out for the part of Beatrice at the urging of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who had been friends with Brooks for some time. "Carrie insisted that I fly into L.A. and meet him, at Paramount," Reynolds recalls. "I read one scene, and he told me I was fine. I asked him, 'Where are the producers, the studio heads?' He told me I was looking at them all. I didn't want to fool Albert. I hadn't done a movie in 20 years."

Actually, Reynolds has been in a number of small parts over the decades, including That's Entertainment! III and Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth. "Albert took a big chance on me," she continues, "and I wanted to prove him right, because there's a number of very good, bankable actresses who would have loved this part."

Performing as Beatrice was not just a different role, but a different style of filmmaking for Reynolds. Brooks wrote one of the better--well, why equivocate, the best--crotchless-underwear jokes Reynolds has ever played.

"My favorite line in the movie," Reynolds says, "is the one where a friend tells Albert that if he wants to leave some seeds behind, he'd be best off masturbating in the garden. The language here doesn't offend me. There's not a curse word in the movie. I'm offended by foul language, by nudity. But you could take your mother to see this movie."

Brooks' film has introduced Reynolds to the mechanics of the independent film. Like a lot of archivists, Reynolds is more interested in the past than the future. When I told her that fans had a Web page going, I found myself doing what I'd always promised I'd never do: explaining what a Web page was to a person who'd never heard of one.

She's similarly surprised by the practice of making a low-budget, independent film. "The point was to lose Debbie Reynolds, and become this mother. There were five to six pages of dialogue in a scene; it was a tremendous amount of work. Debbie had to learn to keep up. Remember, I was making movies in the days of Cinerama, which had a camera you couldn't get near.

"This hand-held camera is quite amazing, quite an invention; you don't have to cut, you can just pull back and keep shooting. But we didn't break up the photography with close-ups and master shots. These scenes in Mother were 12 minutes long--they were like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. But I'm proud of the fact that I didn't have to loop a line of dialogue."

In a sense, Reynolds' acridly comic, edgy performance brings her back to where she began. Remembering Singin' in the Rain, she mentioned Jean Hagen's comedy as part of the reason for the deathless appeal of the film. Certainly, no movie fan has ever forgotten Hagen's honking Brooklyn superstar whose sacrifices as an actor will all be worth it, if, as she says, "just for a moment, we've brought some pleasure to your wretched little lives." Albert Brooks has taken that one rich joke and made a career out of it.

Mother (PG-13; 104 min.), directed by Albert Brooks, written by Brooks and Monica Johnson, photographed by Lajos Koltai and starring Brooks and Debbie Reynolds.

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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