The legendary filmmaker hosts an hour of stand-up comedy while promoting his latest feature, “To Be or Not to Be”.
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Synopsis of “To Be or Not to Be”:
As Germany invades Poland, a theatrical company becomes entangled in a Nazi scheme to track down the Polish Underground in this faithful re-make of the 1942 classic.
Charles Durning was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in 1984. Anne Bancroft was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical. Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan were nominated for Best Adapted Comedy from the Writers Guild of America.
In today’s brand of cinematic director of comedy, it is rare indeed to encounter an entertainer anything like Mel Brooks. Not only did the man write, produce, direct, and star in his own comedy classics, Mr. Brooks actually put himself on the frontlines of the press junkets and promotional campaigns when his movies were first launched into the theaters.
While the comedy directors of today are shying away from the limelight, Mel Brooks can be remembered for singing, dancing, and boisterously screaming at you to buy a ticket for his latest show.
Like his character Yogurt in the forthcoming “Spaceballs”, the man understood merchandising.
So here stands Mel upon the stage, doing what few directors can actually do: entertain in person without any special effects, flashy girls, or ridiculous costumes. There are no show-stopping stunts, nor any elaborate musical numbers. Just Mel Brooks and an audience. And what more could anyone need?
The stand-up comedic form is a painstakingly difficult one to perfect. It involves a mastery of timing, almost supernatural confidence, and an expert ability to converse with surprised audience members. Most of the time, the comic becomes a typical wiseguy and we, the audience, accept the comic’s behavior as a tradition.
But Mel Brooks is above comic-centered tradition. Instead of needing to curse and indulge in sexual material (of which, I am also admit tingly a huge fan), Mr. Brooks coasts through his monologues with class, charm, and genuine wit. The audience feels more like a gathering of friends rather than a collective assembly. Isn’t it ironic that the man whose movies involve farting cowboys and masturbating cavemen can deliver such an intelligent and well-behaved performance?
Throughout the movie, Brooks covers engaging topics: his marriage to Anne Bancroft, Shakespeare, and even revisits some of the comic shtick that made him famous: the 2000 year old man. But instead of using straight man Carl Reiner as his interviewer, Brooks plays the character by answering the audience’s questions, showing his undeniable talent in improvisation.
But taking center stage of the various subjects discussed is the movie, “To Be or Not to Be”, his delightful remake of the 1942 classic starring Jack Benny. And of all the movies released by his production company Brooksfilms, Mel has declared that “To Be or Not to Be”, a screwball yet intelligent farce mocking the Nazis at every expense, is his favorite. In “Audience” he re-creates scenes from the picture with such apparent glee, you can tell the man truly loves his work as an actor and a producer.
“It’s a step forward in a very big and brave direction,” Brooks says. “And it’s not done tongue in cheek. It is heart on the line. And I’ve never done that before.”
Therefore, it would be ridiculous to review “Audience” without looking closely at this engaging story of a Polish theatrical company and the Nazis who have come to town.
Leaving the director’s chair empty this time for his friend Alan Johnson, who choreographed the dance sequences in “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles”, Brooks channels all of his energies into the sole role of performer for this movie. “To Be or Not to Be” also marks his first leading collaboration with Bancroft, who is predictably outstanding in her role as Anna Bronski.
Set in Poland in 1939, the story centers on Anna and her husband Frederick, who together run the Bronski Theatre Company. As the Third Reich tightens its leather-gloved grip upon the Jewish and homosexual citizenry in Poland, Frederick Bronski must endure not only Nazi aggravation but also a love tryst between his Anna and a young Polish lieutenant, Sobinski (Tim Matheson, Otter from “Animal House”).
One of the movie’s many highlights is the theatrical scene where Brooks’ Bronski performs Hamlet’s classic soliloquy, only to witness Lt. Sobinski vacate his seat in order to rendezvous with Anna backstage. Brooks’ onstage and restrained hysteria is something to behold.
As Sobinski learns of the Gestapo’s plans to thwart the Polish Underground Resistance, the Bronskis’ company becomes enmeshed in spy games, as their talents for disguises, diversions, and costumes come into play. Jose Ferrer gives a wonderful performance as the nemesis Professor Siletski, a treacherous operative working for the Nazis.
Great comedic performances enter from all directions, including Christopher Lloyd (never funnier as a flustered Nazi captain who blurts out “Heil Hitler” whenever at a loss for words), George Gaynes, and James “Gypsy” Haake. But the man who deserves the most attention in this feature is Charles Durning, with his hilarious performance of S.S. Colonel Erhardt.
Durning, a traditional character actor, actually served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In fact, he landed in Normandy on D-Day, 1944 and recovered from a mine blast to participate in the Battle of the Bulge in December of that same year. I have an everlasting affection for actors who have engaged in horrendous acts of war, only to challenge and ridicule them years later in the entertainment world. I have the same respect for Jamie Farr, who played Klinger for eleven years on “M*A*S*H”, and was the only cast member who actually served in the Korean War.
So it is extraordinarily funny to me, to see Mr. Durning dressed in full Nazi regalia while speaking with a childlike German brogue that makes his Colonel Erhart sound more like a nougat sucking fat kid at the candy store than an officer of the Third Reich. As he screams at his officers with hilarious German inflections, his jowls thunder and shake and his entire body mass seems to vibrate from the delivery. And it seems incredible and glorious that this man stormed Omaha Beach.
Whether or not Mr. Durning practiced his German accent behind enemy lines in Europe, the results are unmistakable. Colonel Erhardt is a comic performance of Academy standards. Durning was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1984, but lost to Jack Nicholson for “Terms of Endearment”. What can you do? It’s Jack.
Longtime Brooks collaborator Ronny Graham, who co-wrote the adapted screenplay, has a brief appearance as an audibly challenged stage director named Sondheim. In typical Brooks fashion, an inside joke in the film features Bronski telling Sondheim to “send in the clowns” for an upcoming sketch. Legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim wrote the song “Send in the Clowns” for his musical “A Little Night Music”.
In addition to writing the songs “Ladies” and “A Little Piece” with Graham, Brooks also wrote the novelty song “To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap)” featured in the soundtrack, but not heard anywhere in the movie.
An Audience with Mel Brooks