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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006 04:27 pm

Crazy actors

When they turn the cameras around, things get weird

Hollywood’s biggest recent controversies stem from the behavior of two of its biggest stars. Ironically, the one who committed the lesser crime is the one who was fired. Why is a major studio so shocked at the odd behavior of an actor? Are people who spend their lives pretending to be other people normal? Of course not — and Hollywood has always known this. Even when they turn the cameras on their industry for a little self-examination, actors are rarely portrayed in a positive light. The quintessential Hollywood story, A Star Is Born, has been durable enough to survive three versions, four if you count its inspiration, What Price Hollywood? (1932). The story of a rising star who is married to a washed-up actor unable to deal with his wife’s growing fame worked best in the Janet Gaynor-Fredric March 1937 version. The character of Norman Maine became symbolic of a has-been.

Billy Wilder must have hated Hollywood when he unleashed his vitriolic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Gloria Swanson, whose career took a nosedive in the 1930s, made a temporary comeback as Norma Desmond, an unbalanced, reclusive actress who awaits her comeback. Wilder’s too-close-for-comfort casting also includes Erich von Stroheim as a former director who is now Desmond’s butler. von Stroheim’s real-life directorial career was cut short by the powers that be early in the sound era, and Swanson herself fired him from Queen Kelly (1929). Adding insult to injury, Wilder cast another Hollywood casualty, Buster Keaton, among his gallery of failures. Wilder seems to get better press for his frivolous Some Like It Hot (1959), but Sunset Boulevard is his greatest achievement.

Dustin Hoffman has always had a reputation for being difficult, and he parlayed this image into the monumental comedy Tootsie (1982). Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is an unemployable actor who takes the drastic step of pretending to be a woman to get a part in a TV soap opera. Tootsie is a rarity among major Hollywood comedies. The elements click beautifully, from Larry Gelbart’s perceptive, witty script to the incredible ensemble cast, which includes Oscar winner Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray (uncredited), and George Gaynes. Director Sydney Pollack nearly steals the film as Dorsey’s baffled agent. With Hollywood’s history of self-awareness, you would think studio management would be prepared with damage control. Instead a major studio fires its greatest moneymaking machine. Who is crazier?

New on DVD this Tuesday (Sept. 12): The Game of Their Lives, The Wild, and Lucky Number Slevin.

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