Friday September 17, 1999
It's too bad the title "Unzipped" is already spoken for: The fit would be perfect for the genial profile of writer Bruce Vilanch called "Get Bruce!"
That 1995 film, a portrait of designer Isaac Mizrahi, has a lot in common with "Get Bruce!" Both documentaries put a camera on smart, amusing, uninhibited individuals and their friends, then got out of the way. While "Unzipped" was set in the world of high fashion, the focus here is show business all the way.
While Vilanch's name probably registers only with that segment of the public that regularly watches "Hollywood Squares" (where he's chief writer and frequent player), it's something of a mantra to some of the biggest names in entertainment whose material he often ghosts when they appear at awards shows and charity events. "It's a very interesting, intricate kind of relationship," Shirley MacLaine says, "between a comedy writer and a person scared they're not going to be funny."
"Get Bruce!," produced and directed by Andrew J. Kuehn, opens with celebrities publicly singing his praises. Here's Rosie O'Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg dishing on Rosie's TV show and agreeing that "he's the guy you call when you want to say something funny." Adds Nathan Lane, "He's given more great lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer."
Prone to wearing distinctive eye wear and a daunting variety of T-shirts ("Will Work for Liposuction," "My Other Body Is in the Shop" and "Almost Famous" read a few), the bearded, elfin Vilanch (who actually played an elf on the TV movie "It Nearly Wasn't Christmas") is not just a sharp and funny writer.
Rather, he has both an exact knowledge of what the public personas of various celebrities are and how to write words that fit smoothly with their image. For Roseanne, known for her "gum-chewing dismissal of the world," he writes lines about the need for a "Trailer Court Barbie" and an "Eating Disorder Barbie," while he has an elaborately gowned Raquel Welch ask a crowd, "Do you like my dress? I borrowed it from Ru-Paul."
Though Vilanch has worked, in his own words, with everyone "from ABBA to Zadora," the biggest part of "Get Bruce!" are the segments devoted to the four people he's collaborated with the most and feels closest to.
The longest of Vilanch's creative relationships has been with Bette Midler, whom he met in the early 1970s when he was working as an entertainment columnist for the Chicago Tribune. They shared similar tastes (it was Vilanch who introduced Midler to the work of Sophie Tucker), and when she at one point asked him, "You got any lines?," it was, to quote Vilanch, "a phrase that has echoed through the corridors of time."
Another close collaborator, Goldberg, was responsible for Vilanch's most embarrassing moment. He apparently wrote, though at Goldberg's suggestion, the infamous blackface appearance of her then-boyfriend Ted Danson at a Manhattan Friars Club roast.
"Get Bruce!'s" most inside show-biz sequences involve Vilanch's work with Billy Crystal on Crystal's celebrated run as Oscar host. It's amusing to again see the clever sequences intercutting Crystal with nominated films like "Titanic" and "Jerry Maguire" and to hear about the playbook, "not unlike a football team's," potential material compiled by the writers. (Vilanch has written for nine Oscar shows, and on taking home an Emmy for one commented, "I'm very sorry I didn't have to sleep around to win this award.")
Another frequent collaborator is Robin Williams--though Vilanch says that writing for him is more a process of "holding on." Appearing here unbilled, Williams shows off the brilliant comic riffing he never gets to do in films anymore; his spontaneous routine about what "The X-Files" would be like if the two investigators were Jack Benny and Rochester is a pip.
Director Kuehn (in an earlier incarnation the founder of Kaleidescope Films and one of the key figures in the evolution of the modern trailer) offers these laughs as well as an accurate sense of how today's Hollywood works by showing, for instance, how smoothly Vilanch accommodates tender egos like the one attached to action star Steven Seagal.
"Get Bruce!" offers only a few brief glimpses of Vilanch's more personal side, like his poignant comment that many of the people he works with are understandably too focused on themselves to be true pals. And even at his most vulnerable, crying after receiving an award at an AIDS benefit, Vilanch can't resist a quip. "I find myself breaking down for no reason," he says. "Like an old Buick."
Get Bruce!, 1999. R for language and risque humor. An AJK production, released by Miramax Films. Director Andrew J. Kuehn. Producer Andrew J. Kuehn. Executive producers Gregory McClatchy & Susan B. Landau. Cinematographer Jose Luis Mignone. Supervising editor Gregory McClatchy. Editor Maureen Nolan. Music Michael Feinstein. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.