CINEMA / Loathed, loved, and laughing: His movies have grossed a billion dollars. So why isn't John Landis more feted? Maybe because he's too entertaining. Anthony Quinn listens to him
No, you can bet he didn't mind. John Landis may have suffered in his time, but never from personal inhibition. For someone who first appeared on screen as an apeman in his self-directed debut (Schlock, 1976 - 'I was quite good in it, actually'), the idea of making a fool of himself wasn't really a worry. He's come a long way from that footling low-budget farce to . . . footling high-budget farce - or so his many critics think. One such was the critic Pauline Kael, whose strictures Landis recalls with rueful wonderment: 'She went quite bonkers, Pauline Kael. When she was in California she was writing really advanced stuff, then she went to New York and became a celebrity and she went crazy]' Did he have a run-in with her? 'I wouldn't say a run-in . . . though I did have a moment with Pauline that was very satisfying.' There follows as a preface to his Pauline Kael story a typical chunk of anecdotage about The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis's most enduringly popular hit, delivered at pace and bristling with emphatic punctuation - italics, capitals, exclamation marks - which still fails to capture exactly the screeches of excitement that animate his highly entertaining chat. Once Landis is off and running, it's the devil's own job trying to get a word in edgeways.
'The Blues Brothers came about kind of ass-backwards, but you have to remember when this was, like 1979. Disco was king - the biggest groups were Abba and the Bee Gees. Whiter than white. One of the wonderful things about music in the Sixties in America was that on pop radio you would have the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Motown, just this AMAZING melange of music of all different kinds, very exciting. By 1979 the music had gone white. Some of the great American artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, these people were practically unemployed, or at least not given the recognition they deserved. I'm not talking about itinerant blues musicians on Maxwell Street here, I'm talking about established legends. Now Danny (Aykroyd), who's a great blues man, incredibly knowledgeable about all blues, said, 'Look, we can exploit our celebrity - we can tell Universal we have to record John Lee Hooker live, we have to hire James Brown, we have to hire Aretha Franklin'. He's really passionate about it and going into these robotic rants like, 'We must bring recognition to these great American artists'. That whole 'mission from God' stuff was like, death to disco. So anyway, we make this insane movie, right? Pauline Kael (at last]) wrote this scathing review - she just loathed it. But she also wrote about how wonderful Aretha Franklin was in the movie, like this ESSAY on Aretha. I met Pauline years later, and she said, 'Oh you made that Blues Brothers, didn't you', very hostile and unpleasant, 'There was no reason to make that movie. What reason was there?' And I said, 'So you could write that piece on Aretha Franklin', and she was really taken aback. She did exactly what we wanted - and Aretha is back] Attention was paid to these very great artists] So when you think about why you make a movie, that's why.'
If Landis sounds defensive, even a touch paranoid, when talking about his films then it might be because he's spent much of his career under the critical cudgels. The frat-house frolics of Animal House (1978) proved enormously successful at the box-office, as did The Blues Brothers, but the reviews, by and large, stank. This could be put down to the fact that Landis is, first and foremost, a crowd-pleaser. He notched up some of the Eighties' biggest hits - Trading Places (1983), Spies Like Us (1985) and Coming to America (1988) - but whenever he tried something a little off the beaten track, like the leaden crime caper Into the Night (1985), the amiable western spoof Three Amigos (1986), or the period farce Oscar (1991), the critics still scoffed - and the crowds stayed away. So he went back to wooing the crowds. Behind his manic geniality, one senses something very like hurt at the shabby treatment he's received. What did I ever do to them? he seems to ask. 'Nobody sets out to make a bad movie,' he says. 'It's more difficult to be dismissive when you see how much labour and pain goes into the making.' But you can't, I suggest, simply award a movie a long-service medal. 'Yeah, but if a movie's bad, you can just say, 'It's a bad movie'. You don't say, 'It's a bad movie and you're ugly too'.'
Yet Landis's career was once threatened by something far more serious than a sheaf of lousy reviews. In 1982, during a location shoot on The Twilight Zone, a special-effects explosion caused a helicopter to crash, killing the actor Vic Morrow and two young children. After a year-long trial and millions of dollars in legal fees, Landis and several members of his crew were found not guilty on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence - but the trial by media dragged on long after, souring the director's relationship with the press perhaps irretrievably. He launches into another unstoppable monologue: 'There's this wonderful quote, I don't know from who - I'm full of unattributable quotes - it was told to me by Jim Neill, the wisest man I ever met - he was my lawyer at the Twilight Zone trial - brilliant man . . . from Nashville, Tennessee, with a thick Southern drawl - this is when I learnt I had a prejudice. I thought I was prejudice-free, but I wasn't. A deep Southern drawl, you think they're stupid. Boy, don't be fooled. He was brilliant, brilliant] Anyway, he once said to me, 'Never pick fights with people who buy their ink by the ton'. I'll give you a reason why. Rolling Stone magazine at the time of the Twilight Zone accident printed this AMAZING article, it was like science fiction, no kidding, this extraordinary . . .' He searches for a trope of suitable enormity. Tissue of lies? 'A tissue? More like a sailcloth. It was sophistry of a very high order, even for Rolling Stone. John Huston, who I didn't know, was outraged by it and organised a letter in response - extraordinary letter, signed by Fred Zinneman, Costa-Gavras, Billy Wilder, Jim Henson, George Lucas, a very impressive list, signed it and sent it. Say this letter was about eight paragraphs long: Rolling Stone printed one paragraph, and the signatures, and then printed a two-page response] And this is a relatively unimportant case, I'm just a film-maker] It's not like I'm a politician, or a scientist, or a general.'
Landis is in town to promote Beverly Hills Cop III, in which Eddie Murphy again goes on assignment to the ritzy LA suburb, wrecks a lot of scenery and generally makes himself a king-size pain in the butt. It's a surefire hit, of course, but it hardly stretches this director's talent. I wonder aloud if his early success - Landis was in his thirties when he scored his home runs at the box-office - and the subsequent weight of expectation didn't compromise his choices. Landis agrees to an extent.
''What did and does compromise me is that directors, like actors, are typed. With Oscar I did a foolhardy but brave thing - we were gonna fly in the face of contemporary comedy and do a traditional stage-bound farce, no moving camera, and we had this extraordinary cast headed by Sylvester Stallone. First preview, a card comes back: 'Why didn't he take his shirt off and kill anybody?' And I realised: We're doomed] Poor Sly . . . for all the buffoonery and silliness around him this is not an unintelligent man, this is the guy who wrote Rocky . . . he's actually very knowledgeable, believe it or not, about Edgar Allan Poe . . . no really] In any case, think about that for him] OK, he's not Gielgud, but all the same . . . he's not allowed to try anything different, so what does he do next? He makes Cliffhanger, a stupid, violent picture. Oscar got caught both ways, because not only did Stallone fans not want to see him but - I couldn't believe how snobbish people were - the people who would have enjoyed it didn't go either. It's always easier for me to get dollars 35 million to make a raucous comedy than dollars 4 million to make a small romance.'
Talking of money, Landis has recently been feted in Variety as the newest member of an elite club - those directors (11 to date) whose career box-office grosses have topped a billion dollars. Is he depressed by the talk of movies in terms of percentages and grosses? 'Demoralised is a better word. It's the influence of Rupert Murdoch - I blame everything on Rupert. I mean, why report the grosses? How much money a movie makes has nothing to do with its quality or whether you should see it.' Still, clout at the box-office enables him to devote time to smaller projects, such as the superb HBO comedy series Dream On (screened here on Channel 4), which Landis produces and occasionally directs: here, at last, is evidence of high-calibre wit, or as Variety calls it, his 'unique comedic vision'. 'I'm glad you like Dream On,' he says. 'There's an episode I've just made that I'm really proud of . . . It's the number one show in Jordan, did you know? They steal it from Israel]'
Landis is, in fact, hailed all over the world, from Italy to Japan - like the prophet, he's only despised in his homeland. He tells a story that explains why this might be. 'Fellini held this lunch for me once . . . The Blues Brothers was a big favourite of his' - he pauses, shrugs and gives me a look that says, 'Who knows why?' - 'anyway, all these prominent film- makers were at this lunch, a very big deal, toasting me and taking me very seriously. Deborah, my wife, leans over to me and whispers, 'I know what it is. To truly appreciate the cinema of John Landis you must not speak English.' ' He throws back his head and roars with laughter - yes, Mrs Landis may well have a point.
'Beverly Hills Cop III' (15) opens around the country on 24 June.
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