LOS ANGELES -- Danny DeVito is waving a cigar, explaining how hard it was to direct a classroom full of rambunctious children for his latest movie, "Matilda," when the film's star, Mara Wilson, enters the room.
She and a friend crawl all over DeVito, picking his pockets and cackling uncontrollably.
"What're you doing?" DeVito mock protests. "Look at this, see? Now tell me, you direct 20 of these in a movie."
The girls kiss DeVito and take off, laughing joyously, leaving a pretty good indication of just how he handled all those kids. Children see right through his curmudgeonly screen persona, which goes all the way back to "Taxi's" Louie De Palma and continues through his "Matilda" portrayal of Harry Wormwood, quite possibly the world's most negligent father. And they love the not-so-big kid behind the grumpy facade.
The DeVito effect is especially heartwarming in 9-year-old Wilson's case. The young actress, who came to prominence in "Mrs. Doubtfire," and was showcased in "Miracle on 34th Street," recently lost her mother, Suzie, to cancer. Earlier in the day, she seemed on the verge of tears as she gamely struggled to promote her new movie.
But in DeVito's presence, Wilson became playful. And according to him, the secret to directing kids is encouraging that side of their nature.
"The whole idea is to lay down the law and set the rules: There's a time for playing and a time for work," says DeVito, himself the father of three. "And we did that, they played. They knew that this was a goof. But it was still hard."
"Matilda" is indeed one of the goofier children's movies in recent memory. Like "James and the Giant Peach," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Witches," it's based on a book by the late Roald Dahl. And like many of the British writer's stories, "Matilda" is packed with surreal satire and dark themes that could be considered far more adult than childlike.
In the movie, Matilda is the second child of the crass, used-car-selling Wormwoods (DeVito and his real-life wife, Rhea Perlman). A genius, Matilda starts reading books at an early age and develops telekinetic powers, all while her bingo-obsessed mother and lemon-unloading father remain oblivious to her gifts.
"This ain't 'The Little Princess,' " DeVito admits. "But I made this picture for my kids; they loved the book and I basically had to get their approval on everything I did. Early on, someone at studio read the script and said, 'You're not really going to throw a kid over a fence, are you?' But if I'd taken that out of the movie, my kids would rebel. I don't think I'd be able to go home."
While he definitely wanted to make a picture that amused adults, DeVito feels "Matilda" is fine for most children, too.
"Adults can absolutely get overprotective about this kind of thing, although I think it's good to direct your children and be the monitors of what they see," he says. "Every kid is different, but I think those between the ages of 6 and 14 are going to go ballistic over the picture.
A onetime hairdresser from New Jersey, DeVito drifted into experimental theater as a young man, appearing in an acclaimed stage version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," among other productions. When his good friend Michael Douglas produced a film version of the mental hospital allegory in 1975, DeVito got his first major movie exposure.
Years of ranting as "Taxi's" nasty dispatcher, coupled with a juicy villain role in Douglas' action movies "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile," established DeVito as Hollywood's master of meanness. And while he could also play the occasional sweet loser ("Terms of Endearment"), the vast majority of his acting jobs -- in "Ruthless People," "Tin Men," "Twins," "Other People's Money," "Batman Returns," "Junior" -- were unsavory characters.
But DeVito's most intriguing psychological shadows can be found in the films he directs. His first feature, "Throw Momma From the Train" (1987), was pretty much about what the title indicates. "The War of the Roses" took a comedic look at homicidal resentment between spouses.
Does DeVito have some unresolved issues about family?
"It sort of balances," says a laughing Perlman, the "Cheers" star who's executive producing her own new sitcom, "Pearl," for the fall television season. "If he didn't have that outlet, I think I'd be in very big trouble."
"People ask me why I gravitate toward these reprehensible characters like Louie De Palma and Sam Stone, who wanted to kill his wife in 'Ruthless People,' " DeVito says. "It probably has something to do with the family I came from. My mother and father stayed together for 50 years and they probably shouldn't have."
Pub Date: 8/05/96