Ben Stiller's friends and colleagues raucously celebrated the actor/comedian's career at the American Cinematheque's yearly benefit ball at the Beverly Hilton Thursday night.
Pals who showed up to give sincere or more often, irreverent, in-person tributes were Jennifer Aniston, Will Ferrell, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jack Black, Patton Oswalt, Laura Dern, Andy Dick, David Cross, Stiller's wife Christine Taylor and "Tropic Thunder" co-writer Justin Theroux, who was responsible for a hilarious homemade tribute video that aimed for pretentious greatness.
Scattered among the highlight reels were video tributes from Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, Judd Apatow, William Shatner, Owen Wilson, Robert Downey Jr. (last year's recipient), Conan O'Brien and Stiller's parents — legendary comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, as well as his sister Amy Stiller. (For another take on Stiller's status in Hollywood, check out this laudatory New Yorker profile.)
Highlights of the tributes to Stiller and his acceptance speech are below.
Presenting the award, Eugene Levy and Martin Short delivered the best round of jokes of the night–including stabs at General Petraeus. Levy thinks Steven Spielberg already has Stiller in mind for "Lincoln 2." It's called "There's Something About Mary Todd Lincoln." Short noted, "There's a name for people who are half Jewish and half Irish — we call them a Jew."
Once the award was in Stiller's hands, he realized the name on the object was Robert Downey Jr. He didn't let it stop him. To Levy, Stiller said; "When I was younger I wanted to be you, and now I just want to be me–younger."
Taking the sincere route was Patton Oswalt, who called Stiller the most focused person he knows, possessing some unknown energy source. On his work in the animated "Madagascar" franchise, Jeffrey Katzenberg said that "most people think voice work is the easiest job in the world, but not if you're Ben Stiller." Stiller improvised many of his own lines. Three words sum up Stiller for Katzenberg: "Perfection, prolific and planner." He congratulated him on "still going strong."
Others like Andy Dick took the self-deprecating sad-comic route, thanking Stiller for giving him his start: "Ben Stiller gave me everything that for the next twenty years I fucked up." He told him: "You're bigger than Abbot and Costello! You're bigger than any single or comedy duo!"
Will Ferrell went directly for the gutter, regaling the crowd with the "one area that won't be discussed" by anyone else. "Few people know that Ben has one of the most marvelous, exciting and vibrant penises I've ever seen. I've seen it in urinals, showers, one time just because he wanted to show it to me." And still there was more: "If we ignore this subject because of our puritanical beliefs, that would be a crime."
David Cross, who got his start working with Stiller on the short-lived "The Ben Stiller Show," recalled meeting him while he was eating a wheat-free chocolate cake on a treadmill. "Ben gave me my first job, and a lot of people blame him for that, but thank you," he said.
Jack Black ("Cable Guy," "Tropic Thunder") thought he was showing up for a funeral. "What can I say, the world is a little emptier without the magic of Ben Stiller,..[cries]…he was a friend..wait, he's not dead?" Black spoke about Stiller's philanthropic work, including an Art auction he arranged to benefit Haiti. Taylor later shared a video of The Stiller Foundation's work building schools in Haiti, and stated that the $13.9 million dollars raised by the auction went directly to organizations on the ground after the earthquake. In Clinton's tribute video he congratulated Stiller for "all the smiles you've put on all those children's faces in Haiti."
Laura Dern ("Little Fockers") spoke about his dramatic work (including "Greenberg," "Empire of the Sun," "Royal Tenenbaums"). According to their parents, Dern and Stiller knew each other and played as small children long before both had childhood appearances on The Merv Griffin show. She also revealed that she's been lucky enough to watch Stiller's rendition of "Grease Lightning." Dern thanked him for being "the first friend to write and call when you've seen a friends' work," and gushed: "You're always there to root for us, and that's such an amazing thing to give an artist or friend."
Jennifer Aniston, introducing a reel of Stiller's work as romantic lead, says that he has "that unique ability to make smart sexy and nebbishness nonchalant."
William Shatner's tribute video was mostly a self-contratulating exercise in which he determined that all of Stiller's best qualities, from musculature and looks to talent, are shared with Shatner–his true father.
"I'm really grateful and I care a lot about movies and history and to feel like some small part of that is wonderful,..This won't even be broadcast on television, which begs the question, what the fuck are we all doing here? The real answer is we might get tweeted in a link from Deadline — and there is the magic of cinema,..None of [the work shown in the reels or the things that have been said] are very specific, but when you add it all up it's something. I didn't know you could be a renaissance man of just one thing; it's sort of like being a jack of all trades of carpentry.
…I've gotten to play a lot of different roles,..I was even once a non-Jewish person..And to my friends and collaborators — you're all very talented and lucky to know me, I mean I'm lucky to know you — whatever — it's win-win.
…[Christine and I] had a deal that she would take ten years off to raise our kids, and that I would take a month off at some point, and honey, call your agent, August is looking good.
…It's been said that the older you get, the less you know,..as a movie maker that can be a really good thing, and I'm working on ["The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"] now and I don't know what I'm doing–don't tell the studio…The best movies are when someone took a chance, and I hope I can keep going forward and taking chances…right after I do 'Madagascar 3.'"
The Cinematheque also gave their Sydney Pollack award to Michael Kutza, founder and artistic director of Chicago International Film Festival. Accepting the award, Kutza recalled meeting Pollack in 1986 shortly after he had directed "Out of Africa." They became good friends, and Pollack was a great mentor and encouraged Kutza to support independent film. This is the third time the award has been given; directors of the Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals (Geoffrey Gilmore and Tom Luddy, respectively) are past recipients.