MOVIES : ROB REINER IN HOLLYWOOD : The Sweet Misery That Fame Brings

Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Just before his fifth movie, "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," was about to come out in 1989, Rob Reiner, the director, was waiting for his car at a West Hollywood restaurant. "The parking guy says to me, 'Hey, Mr. Reiner, four pictures, not a stinker yet,' " Reiner recalls. "And I'm wondering, does he think 'Harry and Sally' is a stinker?"

Such doubts come readily enough in Hollywood, where directors commonly spend tens of millions of dollars and 12 to 18 months working on a film from start to finish. The month before it opens consequently is a time of fear, great expectations and sifting the remarks of valet parkers. It happens to be that time of the year again for Reiner, whose adaptation of Stephen King's novel "Misery" (from a script by William Goldman), starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, opens in theaters Friday.

Reiner, who has a tendency to appear glum under the happiest of circumstances, is riding a wave of improbable success behind the camera that still hasn't crested. Far from a stinker, "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," the unfashionably talky romantic comedy about friends who become lovers starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, turned out to be his biggest hit yet, grossing close to $100 million. It also attracted his first career backlash from an array of reviewers who charged him with poaching on Woody Allen's piece of Manhattan.

But the criticism put only a small dent in Reiner's growing reputation as a major director, one who made an odds-defying leap to the present from his role as Michael (Meathead) Stivic, Archie Bunker's live-in nemesis on ABC's "All in the Family" for eight years (1970-78).

The period he spent between the end of "All in the Family" and the release of his first film, "This Is Spinal Tap," in 1984, provided the basis, Reiner says, for his identification with the subject of "Misery," which is about a popular writer of romance novels who is kidnaped by a demented fan at the moment he has killed off the fictional heroine who made him famous.

Reiner's experience was nothing as dramatic as what happens to the novelist--played by James Caan--who is held captive in a mountain cabin by a dreamy, homicidal fanatic (Bates). "I wasn't in the position of being a sex symbol or anything like that," Reiner says. "The insight I have is more from the standpoint of what any creative person goes through in the process of growing. In my case, I went from being a sitcom actor to directing features."

When "All in the Family" ended, Reiner was offered what he describes as "an enormous amount of money" to appear in a spinoff. Instead he sat out four years while he tried to answer the calling that he felt was his all along.

"As an actor I was always more aware of everybody else onstage, or if I was doing 'All in the Family,' I was aware of where all the cameras were, where the other actors were, the audience. I was always more interested in the script and in the structure of the script than I was in my performance. Which is not such a great way to approach your acting job."

But when he ventured out into the executive suites of Hollywood asking for the chance to direct "Spinal Tap," a satire about the excesses of rock 'n' roll and its reverential treatment in conventional documentaries, he couldn't get anyone to take him seriously.

"It was right on the cusp of the time in which people who came out of TV were thought to be pariahs. You just couldn't go into features. Now, people are actually looking for television stars to be the locomotives for films."

Among those who are in demand for such assignments is Reiner's ex-wife and "Laverne & Shirley" star Penny Marshall (they divorced in 1981), who directed the 1988 hit comedy "Big" and the upcoming "Awakenings."

"But in those days," he continues, "it was very hard for me to make the crossover."

Yet crossover he did, with an eventual assist from his former "All in the Family" boss, Norman Lear, who supplied the money necessary to finance not only "Spinal Tap" but Reiner's subsequent films, "The Sure Thing," "Stand By Me" and "The Princess Bride." All proved to be profitable and drew wide critical approval, followed by "When Harry Met Sally . . ."

" 'Harry and Sally' was the biggest hit I ever had, and it got the worst reviews of any picture I've ever done," Reiner says while characteristically hunched over his lunch in Beverly Hills. When he says the film got bad reviews, he means it only got a "75-80%" affirmative vote from the nation's critics, according to his assiduous calculations. "But 'Spinal Tap,' I'm not exaggerating, literally didn't get one bad review--that I read. 'Stand By Me' and 'Princess Bride' were pretty even, about 90% (positive). 'Sure Thing' was about 85%."

Critics have praised the warmth and light touch of Reiner's films thus far, lending him an image as a leading mensch , or good guy, in a business famous for the other kind of guy. "There's tremendous heart in all his films," says Bruce Evans, co-author of the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Stand By Me." "And that's him. What you see on the screen is Rob."

With the record of five popular films now behind him, Reiner, 43, is no longer struggling to raise money or persuade anyone that he can point a camera in the right direction. Castle Rock, the company he founded with his longtime associate Andrew Scheinman and three other partners in 1987 (and named after the fictional Oregon town in "Stand By Me"), is now making four pictures a year, as well as television shows, including "Seinfeld," featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He received a Directors Guild of America nomination for "Stand By Me." He was able to offer his father, veteran comedian-director Carl Reiner, a job directing the recent film "Sibling Rivalry," which Castle Rock financed.

But success evidently brings its own problems. "It puts pressure on you, it does. It's much easier to climb that mountain than to stay on top of the mountain," he says. "Because, before, you had something to shoot for. You could see the goal. But once you get there, you've got to create your own little goals and things. It's much more difficult.

"The climb is much more fun, weirdly enough. You've got to enjoy that struggle because that's really where the fun is. You can't know real depression until you've had great wealth. Real, abject depression . Because there's always this idea that if you make money, all your problems will be solved. Then you find out it's all an internal struggle. Well, that's what ("Misery") is about. A guy who's trapped by success. He's got all the money he could possibly want, but it becomes about your own internal struggle and your desire to grow and keep going."

Reiner is a bear of a man who towers over three of his Castle Rock partners when they cluster around him in the hall outside their offices. He is dressed simply in khaki pants and a white dress shirt. He has small blue eyes that lie still under the long curve of a handsomely balding pate. He rarely takes a drink, is a better-than-average tennis player and when he was younger, was good enough at billiards to moonlight as a pool hustler.

While in his five previous movies he has already stretched himself beyond the perimeters of the laugh lines for which he and his father are famous and into some moderately serious and touching territory, "Misery" will likely be seen as his most atypical movie yet. It's a campy psychological thriller that depends on suspense as much as a Hitchcock film. The humor is anything but light, and in one painful scene, Bates breaks both Caan's ankles with a sledgehammer.

Some of the scenes required "a lot of cuts, a lot of angles, a lot of tight inserts to build all that frenetic tension," the director attests. "You watch a lot of films and you see how people do things like that and then you try to make something your own. You watch a lot of Hitchcock because he's great at it. 'Fatal Attraction,' I liked that film a lot. But ultimately no matter how many films you look at, you still filter it through your sensibility and it comes out looking the way it would if you did it."

This is Reiner's second adaptation of a Stephen King book, following "Stand By Me," which was made from the King novella "The Body." "Misery" involved more alterations from the original, some of which were actually suggested by Warren Beatty, who once considered playing the Paul Sheldon role eventually filled by Caan, the former box-office star returning from early retirement.

"It involved making the character a much more active victim," Reiner says of Beatty's suggestions. "In a series of meetings with him, he kind of unearthed that and forced us to deal with Paul's character. I give Warren a lot of credit.

"In the book, he's more passive. The book is really about a guy who is in prison and is wrestling, trying to get out but ultimately accepts his imprisonment--his addiction, if you will. This one is about a guy who is in prison who breaks out. That's a very big difference."

For the record, King has given his stamp of approval to the altered story line in the film, going so far as to call Reiner's "Misery" his favorite of the 17 film and television adaptations that have been done of his books. At a private screening in Los Angeles, he walked up to the director and gave him "a big hug," Reiner says.

The changes made for the film, he stresses, are not just those required by the different demands of movies. "The difference is not just one of mediums but of sensibility. My sensibility is about somebody who wants to grow and move on. And Stephen, I think, although a great writer, at times feels trapped by his own success in a way. Or, I'm interpreting that."

Reiner's career as a director can be read in large part as a mirror of his personal life. He has shown a penchant for finding material that addresses his preoccupations, then works closely with screenwriters to tailor the scripts to his own point of view. But that process, say the writers and other associates, does not reflect the master-slave relationship often found in Hollywood.

Even a writer as independent and acerbic as Nora Ephron, who wrote "When Harry Met Sally . . ," says about Reiner, "If one could do every movie with him, one would not have to think of needing to direct one's own."

William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for the fractured fable "The Princess Bride," as well as "Misery," says, "He has the best script mind of anybody I've worked with since George Roy Hill," who directed Goldman's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." "He's a wonderful listener. He's willing to admit he's wrong, and a lot of people aren't. Working with Rob and Andy is like being in a room with other writers."

Reiner's script development sessions with writers often include the presence of Scheinman, whom he describes as "a writer more than anything else," although Scheinman is generally listed in the credits as a producer.

"All of Rob's films are somehow a reflection of what he's going through in his life," says Bruce Evans, who wrote "Stand By Me" with his partner Raynold Gideon. " 'The Sure Thing' was about dating; 'Stand By Me' was about accepting his father; 'Harry and Sally'--when Billy Crystal's character got married, Rob got married."

Though Evans and Gideon discovered King's "The Body" on their own and wrote an early version of the script for Embassy before Reiner signed on (the original director was to be Adrian Lyne), they credit Reiner with giving the story much of its quality and depth. "There's always more to a piece that Rob does than what's on the surface," says Evans. "He's always interested in the subtext. His movies are about something."

"He's the most honest director we ever worked with," says Gideon. "He never tried to do anything behind your back. He doesn't have a devious bone in his body. Any season is replete with movies where the director tried to take over a script. That would never happen with Rob. He'll fight you hard on something he doesn't get, but in the end he shoots within four lines of the completed script."

Yet the line between Reiner and the story has sometimes been a fine one. He describes his identification with "Stand By Me" this way: "I was 12 years old in 1959. I know what it was like to be a depressed kid who didn't feel good about himself, who was concerned about whether or not his father loved him and trying to live up to his father."

His most closely autobiographical movie has been 'When Harry Met Sally . . ," which Nora Ephron wrote on assignment after meeting with him and Scheinman to discuss Reiner's idea (an obsession, according to colleagues at the time) that men and women can't really be friends without becoming lovers, which, if it comes to pass, then spoils the friendship.

Ephron, whose other screen credits include "Silkwood" and "Heartburn," sat down with Reiner and Scheinman and listened to "war stories" about women they had gone out with, relationships gone sour and other romantic misadventures of middle-aged men on the loose in the '80s. "I knew that I had the male character because Rob was hilarious," Ephron recalls. "First of all, he was depressed, but he was extremely attached to his depression. I found this very funny. He wasn't one of these depressed people who's depressing to be with. He was Harry in a way that was very useful for us working together."

Ephron has nothing but happy memories of the collaboration, which resulted in an Oscar nomination for her. "We had a great time, with a surprisingly tiny number of blips for a collaboration like this. He isn't like other directors. When he says he's going to do something, he does it. He's very decent. He's very down-to-earth. It's one phone call in 10 that he doesn't place himself."

When the script was finished, she says: "He made the best possible movie that could have been made from what was on the page. Most of the time, you're saying to people (after a film comes out), 'Trust me, that was funny.' With Rob, if it was funny on the page, it's going to be funny in the movie--or touching."

Reiner's talent as a director has also drawn on his experience as an actor, say actors who have worked for him.

"Like all good directors, I feel he had been there before me," says Kathy Bates about her role in "Misery," her first starring part in a film after a distinguished career as a stage actress on and off Broadway. "The thing I liked most about him being such a good actor himself was I could always be sure the direction I was getting from him was accurate. He has such an unerring sense of timing and music and a great ear for the coloration of different speeches."

Peter Falk, who played the small part of the grandfatherly narrator in "The Princess Bride," says, "You know, when an actor goes on the set, and the director has been an actor, immediately there's a connection, an ease. Rob has no compunctions about cutting through al the B.S. He just says, 'Here, what about this?' And he can do it good and you get right to it and there's no problem. It was a wonderful experience, those four days."

Reiner himself minimizes his hands-on work with actors on the set. "A lot of actors don't like to get line readings, but I don't give line readings so much as show them what I mean by acting it out for them. The best actors that I've worked with don't mind that. They know that they're going to take it and make it their own."

"When you're working on a script, he reads all the parts out loud," says Ephron. "And he's a great actor. Underline 'great.' The whole time I was working on the movie, I desperately wanted him to play Harry. In fact, I also wanted him to play Sally."

Reiner still does the occasional cameo, as a waiter in the restaurant has reminded him. He can be seen currently in the Mike Nichols-directed "Postcards from the Edge" playing a fast-talking producer who oozes flattery on the strung-out Meryl Streep before asking her to take a drug test.

"It's fun if you only have to do it for a day," Reiner tells the waiter, who lets him know that he's going to be appearing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival soon.

"He's interviewing me too," Reiner says deadpan. "You're interviewing me, he's interviewing me."

He is amused by this. But you have to look closely to see the small grin on his face. He is not expansive in that way, reserving his larger expressions for the sort of friendly arguments that begin with declarations like, "No question. . . ."

"No question she's the best actress this year," he says about Kathy Bates, his voice rising with defiant logic against an invisible doubter. "And I'm not just saying that because it's my movie. It's as good an acting job as you will ever see in a film! She should get nominated."

The Woody wanna-be criticism of "When Harry Met Sally . . ." also brings out the exclamation point in his voice. "It bothered me because, I mean, look at my work. It's not like I've made six Woody Allen films! Because I made a relationship film that takes place in New York about two upscale-type people who are closely connected to myself, I'm in Woody Allen's area. So, nobody can make a film in New York about relationships unless they're Woody Allen? That's insane!

"I mean, we got criticized because we had white type against black in the opening credits. 'Just like Woody does,' " he drones, imitating some phantom TV reviewer or glib naysayer. "Jesus Christ, so does 'The Terminator' and I don't know what!"

Then there's the criticism of "Sibling Rivalry," the movie starring Kirstie Alley that his father directed: "We got killed," he says about the reviews, "and it's a funny movie. You may not like the movie. But you can't go to this movie and say it's not funny. It's not something you can say. You go to the movie and people are screaming in the theater. That means it's funny whether you like it or not."

Does Reiner ever think where he would be had it not been for Norman Lear, who, for example, not only bankrolled "Spinal Tap" but came forward with the $9-million budget for "Stand By Me" when Columbia scuttled the project (after buying Embassy), with only days to go before shooting was to begin?

"Who knows?" says Reiner evenly. "I always say, talent will out. The cream rises. But maybe it would have taken a little longer. Certainly he has been my main supporter all along."

He is remarried now, having met his wife, Michele Singer, during the making of "When Harry Met Sally. . . ." She's a photographer who, like her husband, has always wanted to direct movies. She has just directed her first music video.

People always ask him, he says, whether he shows his father rough cuts of his films or asks for his advice. "I've never talked about that with my dad. I talk about a lot of things with him, but not usually this stuff. If you screen a film for an audience you can kind of tell what's lacking and what works. You don't really need people to tell you."

Not that he won't be examining the subtext of what the guys parking his car might have to say in the next week as he puts his perfect record on the line in theaters across America. Then it's on to his next movie, an adaptation of the current Broadway play "A Few Good Men," a military courtroom drama by Aaron Sorkin. As the genres just keep on coming.

"Listen, you can just go ahead and do what you do," Reiner says with resignation. "I'm sure that over the years I'll have a lot of pictures that are flops. That's just the way it is."

More important is to get on with the simple, sweet misery of life.

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