A few weeks back, I reviewed the movie "Pulling Strings," a bilingual, cross-cultural romantic comedy set around the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. I found the film to be unexpectedly charming, with a sort of breezy appeal many recent Hollywood rom-coms strain toward but fail to achieve.
My review made a mention of the actress Stockard Channing, noting that she "steals every scene she's in because, well, she's Stockard Channing." This was followed by a parenthetical: "About all that need be said of Tom Arnold's performance as a bumbling embassy administrator is that he is not Stockard Channing."
Sometime in the evening on the Friday my review appeared in print, I was surprised to receive an email from Tom Arnold. Subject line: "Busted!" One word in particular stuck out for him in the review (more on this below) and his note painted a rather vivid image of me falling back on him as an easy target and punch line. His retort rang true, and it stung.
I suddenly realized I am a secret fan of Tom Arnold. Not any specific performance but just of him, the way he has stuck it out and stuck around far longer than most anyone might have expected. His notorious marriage to Roseanne Barr and his defining sidekick turn in "True Lies" made him eminently dismissible. Say what you want about Tom Arnold, he can take it. And at 54, he's not going anywhere.
So I wrote back to Tom — one immediately feels on a first-name basis with him — to ask him to come down to the L.A. Times offices for an on-camera conversation about reviews, critics and being Tom Arnold. When I submitted his name for a visitor pass, the security guard asked, "Is that Tom Arnold, Tom Arnold?" Indeed, the one and only.
After a brief introduction for the camera, but before I was able to ask a proper question, Tom jumped right in. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Tom Arnold: I was shocked when you wrote me back. Obviously, there are a lot of reviews of things that I do, and I respect that. And I thought your review was very fair to the movie. But once in a while something latches on, and I think it was, I felt you had taken a joke, which was "Tom Arnold is not Stockard Channing" and then sort of worked backwards on that part of the review.
I've seen that in sitcoms, when they've got the punch line and now they go backwards to write the show. I felt you had done that and I thought I would just let you know, I'm on to you, I know what you're doing and as a matter of fact, in the setup you screwed up because you called my character "bumbling." Now oftentimes I do play bumbling characters, but in "Pulling Strings" I was absolutely not bumbling, and I might have been the least bumbling of all the characters in the movie. I felt you were a little lazy there.
Mark Olsen: It's partly what got to me about your note, the reminder that movies do matter to the people that make them and that, as a critic, every word can make a difference. I was trying to sum up a Tom Arnold character in a single word, and if I had just called your character "nervy" or "dorky" instead of "bumbling" we likely wouldn't be having this conversation. But do you always read your reviews?
TA: My publicist would rather I didn't, but I believe you can't read the good ones if you aren't going to read the bad ones. And over the years there have been a lot of really personal reviews about me. I just always hope that they're objective. I really worry about the other people in the film. If somebody has a personal thing against me, which does happen sometimes, where they can't believe I'm still working 30 years after I started, I just don't want it to color the rest of the film. I'm also afraid, I'm starting a film in the next few weeks and what if the director reads this review that I was bumbling once again and I'm no Stockard Channing and maybe he rethinks casting me in the movie.
MO: Do you think critics and audiences give you a chance, or do they immediately see you as the stock version of yourself?
TA: Mostly people are super fair to me. Mostly the movies I'm in are good, sometimes they're not good. Sometimes I'm good in them, really good sometimes even and sometimes not good. I'm usually as good, or I'd like to think a little bit better, than the material. That's my goal.
When I started in my career, because I became famous by being with a famous woman who was successful, working on the "Roseanne" show — I was her pal at first then her boyfriend and then her husband — and in our business that doesn't make the critics say, "We're going to take this guy seriously." In my life I feel I've worked past that.
A lot of times with celebrities you don't think they're human; you don't tap into that human side. It's the same way with writers: You don't feel like a critic is a person, and now I see that you are some kind of person here.
MO: Have you ever written a critic before?
TA: Nikki Finke, who has a [website] called Deadline, I enjoy her. Just knowing there is somebody out there doing what she does, it reminds me of old Hollywood. And my friend Ben Silverman was running NBC, and she was on him mercilessly. And I had done a pilot with him and he's a very good friend.
So I wrote her as she was piling on and there was a little bit of back and forth. And then Ben sort of jumped in and it became a thing. So we were out at Nobu in Malibu and we were talking about what are we going to do, let's do something. And Jeffrey Katzenberg comes up to us and said, "You guys will do nothing. This is over, this is stupid."
And I keep that voice in my head so I don't respond to things. But [I was hoping] ... you'd write me back to say, "you know what, you kinda were right." And Roger Ebert, everybody talks about him, he was hard on me a few times, rightly so, but I always found him to be fair. And that's what I hope all you guys are.
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