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There's Something About Mary has made Stiller famous, maybe even more famous than his father at the height of his Seinfeld popularity. But there is a world of difference between a mass phenomenon like Mary and a dark, chancy project like What Makes Sammy Run?, between the sweet silliness of the Farrellys, who never take themselves seriously, and the savage self-loathing of Jerry Stahl, who seems incapable of a taking himself any other way. You can feel Stiller pulling toward each extreme, struggling to define himself against each end - to be famous yet not too famous, dark yet not too dark, alienated yet never so alienated that he loses the audience's love.
For while there may be an infinite number of ways to become famous, including hard work, there is finally only one thing that creates fame, and sustains it, and brings it back to life when it's close to extinguished: the audience. Stiller belongs to a generation of comic actors who have learned to wrap themselves in irony in order to shield us, and them, from their own neediness. But while he's part of that post-Letterman generation, he was weaned on the old-fashioned show-business ethic in which the audience, rather than the performer, always gets the last laugh. As with Jim Carrey, an avatar of the old school, Stiller will sacrifice himself for the audience. Throwing himself on the altar of self-abnegation, he will let loose a ribbon of drool, as he does in his Backstreet Boys send-up. He will masturbate with feverish avidity in There's Something About Mary, feign bad sexual technique in Your Friends & Neighbors, jab a needle into his flesh for Permanent Midnight. He will even, in a genuinely perverse Oedipal ritual, allow his father to insult him in front of millions upon millions of the viewing faithful.
Stiller will give, and he will give some more. In return, he gets . . . Fame, certainly. Money, unquestionably. He says he wouldn't mind a lot of money and fame, but he also says, "I think where I'm at is fine, in terms of fame. I know Jim Carrey, and that guy cannot have a normal life." Yet for all his concerns about losing his anonymity, he compromises in the way that the famous tend to do - he drives a Jaguar with smoked windows, writes gracious notes to interviewers and refuses to reveal much of anything about himself. "You separate your own experience from what people think or write about," he says. "Because even if somebody writes about something that happened in your life, 95 percent of the time they get it wrong."
Nevertheless, Stiller isn't about to stop making movies, drop off the party circuit, deny the press or the fans, check into workaholics rehab or call it quits. And just as he separates himself from what people think and write about him, Stiller will continue to separate himself into the anxious entertainer with the man-eating zipper and the edgy auteur in black, trolling Hollywood with an ex-junkie in tow. There is something that drives him - boom, boom - from one deal to another, then the one after that.
At one point, when asked, "How can you relate to Jerry Stahl?," Stiller shoots back, "How do I not relate to him? I didn't know him. The minute I met him, I did. On the outside, the circumstances of our lives are very different. I never was a heroin addict. I never was a serious drug user. I didn't live in Pittsburgh, and my father didn't commit suicide." He pauses. "But in terms of his attitude about his work and himself, you know, and his feelings of self-loathing, not feeling worthy, those are all things that I connect with. I don't know where they come from, and I think it gets kind of boring to psychoanalyze it. But I think the way we both approach our work and creativity, as a way of channeling everything, is something we have in common."
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