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Friendships star, as Hollywood sells same-gender bonding rites BUDDY MOVIES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's a question being asked more and more in Hollywood: Buddy, can you spare $40 million to make a movie about . . . buddies?

And the answer, more and more, is yes.

The buddy movie, in which a duo of adventurous rogues quip their way through explosions, disasters and conspiracies, has blossomed into the most popular American film genre of the '90s. Spatting like kittens in a sack, our heroes or heroines are far more interested in each other, in the nature of their relationship and its pleasures and pitfalls, than in the various forces trying to erase them.

This is worth mentioning not merely because next week the ne plus ultra du cinema des amis, "Lethal Weapon 3," opens, but also because most movies are buddy movies; or, put another way, the buddy theme, the dream of idealized friendship as steady as the North Star, has worked its way into genres as disparate as feminist parable, macho cop movie, western and even sci-fi. Just last week, without anybody remarking upon it, the two big openers, "K2" and "Leaving Normal," were also buddy movies. The most hotly debated movie of last year, "Thelma & Louise," was a buddy movie; in a funny way, "The Silence of the Lambs" was, too -- the buddies being an apprentice FBI agent and a hyper-intellectual psychotic killer. What a barrel of laughs they were!

Buddy movies have their origins in the lower realms of show biz tradition, in the vaudeville teams of the last century and early in this one. Somehow, it dawned upon early performers that two bubs reacting against each other and out of well-established personalities could be a lot funnier that a single comic telling jokes to the audience and putting bananas in his pants.

This minor tradition on the burlesque circuit found its first cinematic expression -- and perhaps its purest expression -- in the works of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Perhaps other comedy teams had been joined before 1926, when Hal Roach decided to link the two, but if so, they haven't entered the vernacular of film legend. Laurel and Hardy really invented the form of the buddy movie as it's practiced today: Two carefully defined personalities united in a minuet of extraordinary timing, each move choreographed for maximum comic destruction. James Agee, writing about Charlie Chaplin (whom he admired almost as much as I do Laurel and Hardy), claimed that the core of Chaplin's genius was his ability to find a through-line that penetrated the laugh rubric: the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh and finally the boffo. The very best of the silent comics could trip the light fantastic on this stairway to heaven, delicately torturing you with subtly escalating comic nuance until you were helplessly in the vise of oxygen debt and thoracic cavity cramp.

Silent to sound

Laurel and Hardy's refinement of the Chaplin through-line might have been called tit-for-tat-for-total destruction. It, like most great comedy, realized that humor is really stylized aggression, projected into the realm of the ridiculous or the absurd. Typically, they'd spat, but instead of expressing their aggression directly, each would turn to a different hemisphere of the immediately available environment and begin, slowly and with stately grace, to deconstruct it. Their madness soon passed the bounds of logic; and as it spiraled toward the surreal, it became more and more hilarious.

But the true astonishment of Laurel and Hardy was that, unlike any other silent comic stars, they were able to make the transformation to sound without missing a step. If anything, their work became sharper because with dialogue they could punch up the personalities -- the prissy, vaguely pompous and authoritarian Hardy, and the vague and wispy but surprisingly stubborn Laurel -- that formed the basis of the act. And, of course, through all the surrogate aggression, what one felt was their true affection for each other and the faith that their love would ultimately conquer all.

Hey, Abbott!

Laurel and Hardy gave way in the '40s to two more traditional vaudevillians, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy, these two had worked together for years before finally getting into films (they buddied-up in 1931 and made their first movie in 1940).

Their reputations haven't lasted, perhaps because their humor wasn't as visual, or as cinematic, as that of Stan and Ollie. It was one-dimensional; its ideal medium was radio, where they first made their fame: It featured brisk wordplay almost always based on confusion, and it depended on crackerjack timing as it escorted audiences up the laugh stairway. The most famous routine, of course, was "Who's On First," in which the comic device was pretty lame: "Who," see, isn't a pronoun, he's a guy who plays first base, which the lanky Bud knows but poor, chubby little Lou doesn't. It goes round and round chasing its tail like some mad comic whirligig, suave Bud percolating mildly along while poor Lou gurgles with increasing agitation as he veers toward implosion, his little eyes bugging out like deviled eggs. But I must confess I've heard it a thousand times, and maybe sometime in the next thousand I'll actually laugh.

The two were hardly photogenic; in fact, it's hard to believe that two Irishmen, looking like race track touts with the sex appeal of the rear ends of horses, could for 10 years regularly crack the Top 10 box office list. And unlike Laurel and Hardy, there was really no love between them: The animosity was real, and in 1957 they'd broken up for good.

Thanks for the memories

A more enduring and endearing team of the late '30s and '40s was Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their road pictures, usually with Dorothy Lamour. The teaming was again entirely fortuitous, but it clicked perfectly: Hope had an edge of peppy despair and a trunkful of one-liners, while Crosby was so sleepy and unflappable he barely seemed to notice. It was a much more entertaining teaming than a brief fling at a Crosby-Fred Astaire union, in 1942's "Holiday Inn," which seemed based on similar principles, Crosby's mellowness uniting with Astaire's rigid pep. But Astaire was too intrinsically neuter and seemed too rarified or dandified somehow to mesh with regular guy Crosby. Ski-nose Hope, as regular as the seasons, was a perfect match.

In the '50s, the buddy franchise was taken over by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The movies aren't memorable. They've been further tarnished by the strange courses the two took after they broke up, with Dean becoming a Frank Sinatra pal, a third-rate James Bond clone and finally a slightly sozzled parody of himself, while poor Jerry astounded and horrified the world by become a megalomaniac show biz tyrant, directing himself in a series of increasingly bizarre movies in which, eventually, the unlovely contours of an unlovely personality became more and more apparent. The perfect summation for the horror that was to become Jerry Lewis occurs in the annual Labor Day rite of maudlin self-flagellation and sanctimony where Jerry tries to raise a few bucks for "his" kids and rescue his floundering career in one embarrassing swoop. His one post-Dino triumph has emphasized the darker parts of his personality, in Martin Scorsese's brilliant "King of Comedy."

But I happened to see a '50s vintage Martin and Lewis film recently on some cable channel, and it was . . . very, very funny. The two personalities are neatly structured for comic results: Dino is dumb but mild, fundamentally decent, sexy in a heavy-lidded reptilian way; Jerry, on the other hand, is hopelessly adolescent, the nerd's nerd, yet contains explosive fuses strewn through an entirely too rigid personality; at any moment, he seems about to explode into some blast of hyperthyroid frenzy, a mad ditz of flailing limbs and adenoidal chatter and crossed eyes. The movie is a piffle: Singer Dino is signed by a bogus Hollywood producer and he and pal Jerry head innocently out to Hollywood under the idea that Dino's about to become a star. It's set in that detail-less, generic Land of Bad Movies, where nobody has worked up background or milieu, the perfect Tupperware background for Dino's confusion and Jerry's increasingly erratic behavior.

The rhythms, however, are nearly perfect: It's not that either is funny; it was the equipoise between them, the yin and yang, as Dino tried in his stolid, dorky way to understand quite what demons possessed his nutty buddy. Without that counterweight, the true Jerry monster-ego metastasized into something truly horrifying.

Big yuks, little budget

Of course, all these team movies were fundamentally novelty acts, far from what Hollywood and America considered "prestige" pictures. They were genre pictures, almost always cheaply produced, almost always "successful" (meaning "profitable" rather than "megaprofitable") to the degree that they clung to the formula. Only rarely did a buddy picture get the big budget treatment -- Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in "Boom Town" (1940), about oil well wildcatters, is one of the few.

But many critics have noted that the true course of modern Hollywood has been to take the genre pictures of an earlier age and make them into the A pictures of today. What is "Lethal Weapon 3" but a $50 million Abbott and Costello movie?

This movement began in the '70s when two of the most successful films of the decade were buddy pictures but also A pictures: Robert Redford and Paul Newman, first in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and then in "The Sting." These films proved that the '30s formulas could work on a bigger scale and that the usual male relationship of the A pictures -- hero and sidekick, definitely inferior and clearly included for comic relief -- could easily be replaced with a doubling-up of star power that pushed the conventional male-female relationship to one side. (Does anybody even remember Katharine Ross in "Butch"?)

And, in the early '80s, a new bonding element was introduced that further exiled women: cross-race bonding. The movie that really heralded the arrival of the new buddy picture was the Nick Nolte-Eddie Murphy hit "48HRS.," in which the women were treated with open contempt as the boys got on with the serious business of their lives. The musical theme to that picture was dead on: "The Boys Are Back in Town," and through the '80s and into the '90s that's been true with a vengeance.

Same-gender bonding

In fact, recent offshoots of the buddy genre suggest that it's widened to permit appropriation by the hated others. What do women want? asked Freud. If he'd seen "Thelma & Louise" he'd know: The same thing that men want, which is a fast car, jeans that fit, automatic pistols and a wild splurge of wide-open horizon, signifying freedom. The movie troubled many critics, including this one, who felt that it took too much pleasure in the immediate power a gun confers upon a desperado without adequate acknowledgment of the horror it confers upon those it is pointed at. Needless to say, the movie was widely embraced by most critics and most women, who saw it as an expression of women's deep need to control their own destinies.

"K2" and "Leaving Normal" are far less successful, either as movies or as accounts of same-gender bonding. Yet what was astonishing about them was their utter lack of self-consciousness, as they moved through the familiar territory with such confidence. They had the chutzpah of the genre movies they secretly were.

And now "Lethal Weapon 3." The most wildly successful buddy movies of all time, the "Lethal Weapon" movies are, like classic Laurel and Hardy, based on notions of aggression, with a subtle twist. Originally, the Mel Gibson character stood for the principle nihilism: His Martin Riggs was a manic-depressive rocked by a wife's death, without mooring in a troubling world and yielding toward his own self-destructive tendencies. This makes him a ball of fire in action, a reckless, fearless boy with an appointment in Samarra slated for that afternoon. Then there's Danny Glover's Roger Murtagh, a family man, cranky and exquisitely aware of his own vulnerability and his family's (men with daughters was a subtext of the first); he knew exactly how fragile life was, exactly the wisdom Gibson lacked.

It was a brilliant conception, but no one could have predicted the intense emotional electricity between Gibson and Glover: The G-boys related in magical and persuasive ways and managed to move the movies beyond their rather banal, unbelievable plots and overwrought action sequences. By the second film, Gibson was "cured"; he'd rejoined the human race under Glover's ministration. The real curiosity of "Lethal Weapon 3" isn't the story, but where the relationship will go.

This development is perhaps unique to a time of deep sexual conflict. I believe that the emergence of the buddy has a secret meaning: It stands for a savage truth of our time, which is that although men and women need each other, have sex with each other, even live with each other, they really turn for emotional nutrition to their own gender. Movies about cross-gender friendship are as rare as movies about cross-gender dressing.

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