Obituary: John Candy
Monday 07 March 1994
UNCLE BUCK is probably the best of John Candy's half-dozen star vehicles and the best despite the rather simple-minded humour endemic to the films written or directed by John Hughes. Candy is Uncle Buck, called in to look after his brother's children when his wife is called away because of her father's illness. He is accepted faute de mieux, and as he tries to prepare breakfast for his sassy older niece she makes it clear that she will not be friends at any price.
This was the sort of situation in comedy which Candy excelled at: too kind and well-meaning to fight back, though sensible enough to offer a few barbed comments before the inevitable ending - when the girl would discover that within the slob there was a heart of gold.
Candy was a big man, with a bulk which made him an unlikely movie star. In the Silent era no one was going to take Fatty Arbuckle seriously. In the Thirties, Charles Laughton commanded stardom by sheer depth of his talent. As Robert Morley once remarked, he 'put a lot of courage and hope into us fatties' - who included, in the 1940s, Laird Cregar and Sydney Greenstreet - two more fine talents usually typecast in sinister roles. In the same era, William Bendix was equally convincing as a lovable cabdriver or a ruthless villain.
Candy's sheer affability prevented him from being cast as a rogue. Even when threatening his niece's boyfriend with an axe in Uncle Buck there was a twinkle in his eye. Physically he was a contradiction: good-looking despite the fat and with a deep authoritarian voice - unlike such predecessors as Oliver Hardy or Lou Costello.
He was not a natural comic talent, like Tom Hanks, whose brother he played in Splash (1984), the film in which most people first noticed him (in fact, the 16th in which he appeared) or a clown, like Steve Martin, with whom he co-
starred in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). Candy was in fact a versatile and energetic actor whose figure trapped him in comic roles.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles was another of Hughes's projects - Candy had played a park-keeper for him in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) - with Martin and Candy cast as a modern Laurel and Hardy, a 'take' on The Odd Couple, with Martin in Lemmon-like hat and overcoat and Candy a Neanderthal man in a series of preposterous loud shirts. In Martin's case they're unwilling fellow-travellers; Candy is both too innocent and obtuse to realise that he is not wanted, even as he drags Martin from one disaster to the other. Eventually Martin realises that inside the huge frame is a lonely soul - and he asks him home for Christmas.
To an extent Uncle Buck was a rehash of this formula. Both films were big successes, as was another of Hughes's, The Great Outdoors (1988) - written by him but directed by Howard Deutch. The contrasting types this time were Candy and Dan Aykroyd, playing his obnoxious brother-in-law.
Aykroyd and he had been friends since their teenage days in Toronto. It was Aykroyd who encouraged Candy to audition in 1972 for the Second City troupe in Chicago, which led to the Second City television series in 1977-80. He had already made his movie debut in a Canadian film starring Anthony Newley and Stephanie Powers, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (1976), in which he and Lawrence Dane played bumbling detectives - which sufficiently amused audiences for the two of them to make a sequel the following year, Find the Lady. Another colleague from Candy's Second City days, Paul Flaherty, directed Who's Harry Crumb? (1989), one of the proliferating throw-anything-at-the audience comedies, in this case a private eye spoof. As well as playing the lead, Candy exec-produced, so could only blame himself when the public stayed away in droves.
By this time, both as supporting player and star, Candy had been in a number of failures. He was also realistic enough to realise that he wasn't a natural star, even if he could carry a film. He had also popped up in several guest appearances - as, for instance, a moronic television announcer in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) - and from Uncle Buck, his biggest success, to his premature death he accepted both large roles and small.
Hughes took Macaulay Culkin, Candy's nephew in Uncle Buck, and put him into Home Alone (1990), an even more popular film, if not exactly for Candy, who only appeared for a minute or so, as a musician dressed up as a yellow bird. The director was Chris Columbus, who went on to fashion a vehicle for Candy, Only the Lonely (1991), playing a Chicago cop with an Oedipus complex. Maureen O'Hara returned to the screen after two decades to play the fearsome Irish mother. Candy recognised 'the tendency to go over the top and give a real sappy, maudlin performance' - and emphatically didn't do so.
That year he did a guest appearance, a glib adversary in dark shades of Kevin Costner, the District Attorney, in JFK, and was a writer of soap operas who becomes embroiled in his own situations in Tom Mankiewicz's Delirious, which went straight to video in Britain. A further weak one was Once Upon a Crime (1992), with Candy as a compulsive gambler tramping through France and Italy with James Belushi, Cybill Shepherd and Sean Young.
Candy took billing after the West Indian actors playing the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team in Cool Runnings (1993). He played their coach, a broken down stumblebum who hadn't drawn a sober breath since wrecking his own Olympic chances by cheating years before. The scene in which Candy realises that one of the team is being told about this brings both him and us close to heartbreak. In what is good popular entertainment, on a higher level than John Hughes's films, the laughs go to the team. The laughs have not been written for Candy; but in an outstanding performance he shows why we care about him - because within that huge frame he was vulnerable with a very personal integrity, as when he eats humble pie in pleading with the committee to reinstate the team.
He had completed another film, Canadian Bacon, and it is as yet unclear whether the film he was making in Mexico when he died - a comic Western, Wagons East, on which he had been working for two months - will be finished. So we may have one or at best two new chances to appreciate one of the most likeable talents to emerge from the Saturday Night Live
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