9 October 2007 | Chris Knipp
Polished portrait of a showbiz icon
Obviously it is very hard to be a stand-up comic. It requires good material, immense courage, and perfect timing. The ability to improvise may be very important. John Landis says Don Rickles, who is now 81 but still performing with amazing vigor, is not a comic but a performance artist. In fact, he does not tell jokes. He also does not use prepared material. He is a Jewish comic, though. He identifies himself as Jewish. He uses his schtick--he insults people--and he works with what comes up. National origin, weight, looks, a bad hairpiece, anything is fair game. Why do people love it?
This is what veteran filmmaker ('Animal House', 'The Blues Brothers'; Michael Jackson's 'Thriller') John Landis aims to tell us.He isn't looking for flaws, secret sorrows, bad relationships. He has told the press Rickles hasn't any of those. Landis has been a friend and admirer of Rickles for decades; he was an eighteen-year-old gofer on the set of 'Kelly's Heroes' in the Seventies when he first met the man. (Rickles has been in a lot of movies and TV shows and the film documents that.) This is an affectionate portrait. And it works. It's impossible to walk away from it without liking Rickles and wearing a smile.
Some of the speakers: Debbie Reynolds, Chris Rock, Martin Scosese, Joan Rivers, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Ernest Borgnine (he and Rickles played 'The Odd Couple' on Broadway), Roseanne, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, and many others--all admirers.
There are segments of a 2006 Las Vegas performance, and it is this, of course, that best shows what Rickles does and how good he is at it, but this is not a concert film. It's the story of the working life and an affectionate portrait of a man who, it seems, has practiced his trade of being "the king of insults" for 48 years and yet made no enemies?
How has he done that? The simplest answer is, Because he's good. He pulls out the worst clichés: a man says he's German and he goose-steps on stage. He makes you laugh in spite of yourself. In the end you may realize it's really good-natured stuff. It clears the air. Joan Rivers, Landis has said (Aaron Hills retells the story in the Village Voice) once recounted how a Florida judge came backstage where they were both performing and invited Rickles to play golf with him and Rickles replied, "Listen: One, I'm leaving town. Two, you're a putz. You're loud, obnoxious, incredibly boring, and I wouldn't play golf with you because I don't live here and you couldn't fix a ticket. No." But, Landis says, Hills left out the most important part: the judge loved it. He laughed uproariously.
Such an exchange makes one--it made the judge--into a figment of the imagination, the wild imagination--of a very funny man. It is an honor to be insulted by such a comic genius. Rickles has the good material, the immense courage, and the perfect timing. And they have never left him.
He also has been married for thirty years, has two sons, and is loved. He is, Landis said, in a long monologue at the NYFF press Q&A, a great "schmearer" (Yiddish term for tipping): everywhere he goes he passes out bills so when he comes back, he's more than welcome. But this isn't a payoff; it's niceness.
The film also shows some clips of Dean Martin roasts. Rickles obviously is the king of the roast--a gathering, among friends, where someone is honored by being affectionately insulted by everyone. The insults show they're friends. In a sense, by insulting his audiences at shows in big rooms at Vegas or Miami or Indian casinos, he's showing them they're friends; he's establishing trust. Otherwise, obviously, it would just be ugly.
One of the side benefits of the film is its portrait of Las Vegas. Extraordinarly, all the entertainers who performed when the town was run by the mafia are nostalgic for those days--when, they say, everyone was treated very well.
Again, the NYFF is not a venue for great documentaries. This is a very good-looking, neatly edited film. It will be shown on HBO. It is not a milestone in the art of documentary. John Landis was very entertaining at the press Q&A. He loves this subject.
A New York Film Festival 2007 official selection.