I’m asked to host screenings and events quite often, and there are only seven nights in a week; the biggest arbiter of when I agree to participate is whether or not the people involved interest me. So when the Los Angeles Film Festival proposed an on-stage conversation with the two stars of their opening-night movie Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater, it was easy to say yes. Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black? But rather than conduct a conventional q&a they wanted the event to run like a quiz show under the title “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” The premise was to ask each performer questions about his/her own career.
As it turns out, both of them were a bit nervous about this idea lest they look foolish in front of an audience. Over dinner I reassured them that we would keep things loose and flexible, and use the questions only as a jumping-off point for open-ended talk. It seems to have worked out well. I was told to go an hour, or more if I needed; no one was more surprised than I when I checked my watch and found that 75 minutes had already gone by!
Shirley admits that she has little memory for the content of her films, and once she starts spinning stories about her costars and—
—directors, it’s easy to see why. (As she says in her touring show, what she remembers most is how much she weighed at the time and who she was in love with.) There was a palpable chill in the room when she described how distant and unfeeling Billy Wilder was with her during the making of The Apartment. During the screening of dailies, which everyone on the film was encouraged to attend, following a scene that the director felt she hadn’t nailed, he got up and said with a shrug to the assembled group, “Well, I tried.”
That, she explained, was one example of how she had to rely on her own reserve of confidence. Another was early on, when she was cast by producer Hal Wallis in the next-to-last Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis picture, Artists and Models, not a happy experience for any of its stars. For one staircase scene in the candy-colored Technicolor picture she was wearing an eye-catching yellow outfit; what’s more, the scene favored her, and when Lewis sensed that during a run-through he walked off the set, went to his dressing room and wouldn’t come out! A reporter from Movieline, Louis Virtel, filed an accurate report on the q&a and some of MacLaine’s best anecdotes, which you can read HERE.
Although his career isn’t nearly as long as Shirley’s Jack has made so many appearances in movies, TV shows and pilots, online videos, etc. that it would be difficult to keep track of them all. (He revealed that his first appearance on-camera was in a videogame commercial when he was 13 years old.) Just for kicks, I started out the “quiz” by asking if it were true or false that he had a part in the notorious 1995 Kevin Costner movie Waterworld. To the surprise of many in the crowd, the answer was True. He played a pilot, and while he’s barely recognizable in the movie, he was on location in Hawaii for quite a long time. This led to an interesting chat about his early days as an actor-for-hire, and what it was like to go out on cold auditions.
When I quizzed him on the name the song he sang at the end of his breakthrough movie, High Fidelity, it took but a moment for him to recall that it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Sure enough, someone in the theater called out, “Sing it!” Being the kind of guy he is—and a performer who doesn’t like to disappoint an audience—he belted out a few lines, to great applause. In fact, the sold-out crowd seemed to love everything the two stars had to say.
It helps a great deal that Shirley and Jack have formed a mutual admiration society, having enjoyed working together on Bernie. In fact, they’d love to appear in a Broadway musical together. (At one point in the film, Black performs in a school production of The Music Man, singing “76 Trombones.” Fans of his band Tenacious D already know he has a great voice, but I reckon they’ve never heard him do musical theater standards…and he’s terrific.)
As for Bernie, I’m sorry to say that the film is still looking for a distributor. It’s a great showcase for both actors and a fascinating, oddball, story based on a real-life incident about an extremely sociable and well-liked funeral director in Carthage, Texas who was accused of murdering the town’s wealthiest woman, with whom he had forged a friendship that evolved into… something else. Linklater waited twelve years to make the film, after reading an article about the incident and its colorful cast of characters in Texas Monthly magazine. It’s a black comedy (no pun intended) that deliberately blurs the lines between real-life and movie reality, and features another first-rate performance by Matthew McConaughey as the local district attorney who prosecutes the case. Bernie doesn’t deserve to sit on a shelf and I hope it finds its way to an appreciative audience sometime soon. If nothing else, it’s a major credential for both Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black.