One weekend last month, while in Toronto to publicize his latest movie, Permanent Midnight, Ben Stiller gave 35 television interviews and five roundtable interviews to approximately 30 print and radio journalists. As far as junket weekends go, it was a fairly light load: An average junket weekend for a major motion picture can involve upward of 60 television interviews in a single day. But the $3.5 million Permanent Midnight is a modest movie by Hollywood standards, and Stiller's junket in Toronto was modest in turn.
Not that the actor-writer-director hasn't been busy. A week before he arrived in Toronto, Stiller hosted the annual MTV Music Video Awards, a seemingly endless three hours in which he dived off stage, played second banana to his father, Jerry Stiller, and sent up the Boss and the Backstreet Boys both. A few days after he returned from Toronto, Stiller flew to New York for another junket, and by the end of that week he was back home in Los Angeles for yet another press day and the film's September 18 opening. The results of this publicity grind have been evident on newsstands and television since summer, reaching something of a fever pitch in the last few weeks. There have been profiles in the New York and Los Angeles Times – both featuring Stiller eating oatmeal and wearing black – along with interviews in the New York Daily News, Newsday, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Time Out (cover), Black Book, Icon (cover), Indie Magazine, Premiere, The Village Voice, US, Vogue, the men's supplement of W (cover), the “It Issue” of Entertainment Weekly, and appearances on Good Morning America, Rosie O'Donnell, The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder and Charlie Rose.
There are, in Hollywood, an infinite number of ways to become famous, only some of them actually having anything to do with real talent. The most obvious explanation for fame is DNA – how else to comprehend the ascendancy of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Neve Campbell or the poignantly talentless Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of Robert Wagner and the late Natalie Wood? Luck, too, plays a hand, as does timing, along with a few of the mortal sins, which generally helps to explain the careers of those industry types whom East Coast magazines still insist on calling “players.” There is something else, though – a rarely acknowledged secret that generally doesn't rate a mention in the glossies or on the nightly entertainment shows, because it doesn't sell luxury-car advertising.
Ben Stiller's schedule for Tuesday, September 15
(as coordinated by his personal publicist):
9:15AMBLS Limousine will pick you up at your home
10:00AM Arrive at ROSIE
11:00AM Taped appearance with ROSIE O'DONNELL
12:00PM BLS Limousine will return you to your home
Time TBD ROLLING STONE
4:00PM BLS will pick you up at home
4:45PM Arrive at Late Show With DAVID LETTERMAN Grooming
5:30PM-6:30PM Show tapes
6:45PM BLS Limousine pickup for the Premiere
7:00PM Arrive at Sony Lincoln Square
7:30PM “Permanent Midnight” Premiere
9:15PM BLS Limousine pickup
9:30PM-12:30AM Post Premiere Party at Carbon
12:30AM BLS will return you to your home
“Yeah, I work a lot,” Stiller admits. “I'm trying to not work as much, but I have mixed feelings about the whole 'workaholic' thing. I do think it's a legitimate syndrome, a way of channeling whatever you're not dealing with. But being a creative person, somebody who uses his feelings about his life and his experiences, it becomes a way of both getting away from it and dealing with it. I'm trying to figure out the balance of my life, but I'm also becoming more aware of how you just have to know that this is what this time is about.”
Permanent Midnight is Stiller's fourth film to be released this year. Although it is certainly important to him – it's his first starring dramatic role, and is responsible for his close friendship with Jerry Stahl, on whose life and book the movie is based – it is by no means the most important. That distinction belongs to Bobby and Peter Farrelly's There's Something About Mary, the yuk-fest that is fast on its way to becoming the most profitable movie of the year. It's impossible to say if Mary alone could have given Stiller the terrific heat he suddenly seems to be radiating – his other two releases this year are Jake Kasdan's offbeat detective story Zero Effect and Neil LaBute's art-house scandal Your Friends & Neighbors – but the Farrelly brothers' film has without question pushed him closer than ever before to stardom. As Bill Gerber, the former executive vice president of Warner Bros. and producer of Stiller's dream project, What Makes Sammy Run?, puts it, “Ben is the man of the hour.”
Stiller is ubiquitous, inescapable. “Yes,” wrote The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, “he's been in every movie released this year.” He hasn't, of course, but in between the trailers and posters, the articles and appearances, it somehow seems that he has. In less than a year, he's gone from being independent film's favorite comic foil, as well as director of Jim Carrey's only flop, to one of Hollywood's brightest new lights. Ben Stiller has become undeniable. Does it matter, then, that the hour is easier to fathom than the man himself?
On the third floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Toronto, a small battalion of publicists hovers quietly outside closed doors. It's the first day of the two-day Permanent Midnight junket, which Artisan Entertainment, the movie's U.S. distributor, has coordinated to coincide with its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. At this moment, “the talent” – Stiller, co-star Maria Bello, writer-director David Veloz, and former junkie and memoirist Stahl – are sequestered in identically furnished rooms providing soundbites for radio journalists and filler for their print counterparts. Inside the claustrophobic rooms, at round tables veined with black wires and cluttered with tape recorders, pens, paper and pitchers of water, journalists wait five, six at a time for the talent to be shuttled before them in the public-relations version of musical chairs known as “roundtables.”
A late-arriving reporter steps off the elevator and moves to a table on which copies of Stahl's tale of fear and loathing in Hollywood are neatly stacked. “Would you like a book?” a publicist asks brightly. Minutes later, inside one of the interview rooms, the same reporter announces to Stiller: “People have been talking about how talented you are in general. How does that make you feel?” Stiller, slightly nonplused, pauses briefly before answering, his leg jiggling violently. “Uhhh . . . good,” he says, setting off a ripple of laughter. A few questions later, the reporter confides to the room: “When we saw you back in January for Zero Effect we had no idea you'd have such a great year. We're all happy for you.” Just before the interview ends, another journalist asks Stiller for his autograph.
The third print roundtable is more memorable. The reporters flash the obligatory smiles, but their questions are tougher. A man in a ponytail wonders whether Stiller's being in four movies in a single year might constitute overexposure. “Yeah, possibly. I don't know,” he answers. As he has done previously, Stiller describes preparing for his role in Permanent Midnight, a process he says Stahl calls “Junkie 101.” Stiller visited the places where Stahl once copped, learned “little tricks of the trade” and how to shoot up, but admits that onscreen it's water, not junk, that flows into his veins.
“That's a particularly colorless description of Junkie 101,” blurts one of the reporters. “Colorless,” Stiller repeats dully, leg jiggling. “I mean,” she continues, “all you can come up with is 'He took me to a few places.'” She laughs. “Work with us here.” Surprisingly, Stiller obliges, and for a few minutes talks about his parents, fame (“I'm learning to not talk about what I don't want to talk about”), about not having a girlfriend, and whether there was as much comedy in Stahl's life as the film suggests. “That ultimately is the director's choice,” he says of the movie's gallows humor, “the tone.” Not surprisingly, no one in the room bothers to ask Stiller if he thinks Veloz's tone was the right one for the story.
Afterward, out in the hallway, as publicists and journalists buzz about, Stiller and Stahl slip on their sunglasses and lean into the wall, a couple of Hollywood badasses waiting for their next cue.
Given his choice of projects – most recently, a pair of eccentric independent features, a druggie memoir, a gross-out comedy – Stiller's career trajectory might seem haphazard, even chaotic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The second child of the comic duo of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he began performing as a kid, putting in appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and his mother's television series, Kate McShane. When he was 10, his father gave him a Super-8 camera, and he began shooting films with his older sister, Amy. He dropped out of UCLA film school after nine months and started working at the Actor's Studio in his hometown of New York, where he swept floors and stage-managed Norman Mailer's play about Marilyn Monroe. Through his mother, he got a chance to audition for a key role in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves in 1986; he won the part. Three years later, he joined Saturday Night Live as a writer-actor, leaving after five weeks because he wasn't allowed to make short films. He moved back to L.A., in part, he says, because “I needed to get away from where I grew up and spend some time on my own.” There were roles in Empire of the Sun, Fresh Horses (in which, one critic wrote, he played “a letter-perfect Reagan-era adolescent”), Next of Kin, Stella. In 1990, he began producing and acting in the first incarnation of his now-famous eponymous sketch-comedy show for MTV. The Ben Stiller Show ended up at Fox two years later, was canceled after 13 episodes and went on to win a posthumous Emmy.
In 1994, Stiller became a reluctant spokesman for that commercial construct known as Generation X by directing (and playing the token yuppie in) Reality Bites, a sleek, well-crafted movie apparently loathed by every member of its ostensible demographic. Soon afterward, he received what looked like the break of his career: a chance to direct Jim Carrey's next movie, following the wild successes of his Ace Ventura comedies. Hugely anticipated, The Cable Guy not only set a benchmark for star salaries – Carrey was paid $20 million by Columbia Pictures – but promised to reveal the comic in a new, far more shadowy light.
For various reasons – Carrey's salary and the studio's loss of faith among them – the film was widely perceived as a disaster. It did have its partisans, but it was eviscerated in the mainstream press – The Wall Street Journal called it “so repellent as to be almost literally unwatchable.” Yet the fact that papers such as The WSJ and The New York Times hated the film worked, curiously, to Stiller's advantage. What did it matter that fogies like Joe Morgenstern and Janet Maslin didn't dig Carrey's lisping menace? Stiller was dark, interesting, perhaps dangerous. More important still, what did those fogies matter when the movie earned $60 million domestically and over $100 million worldwide? In the end, the film gave Stiller credibility with alternative tastemakers and the industry establishment both: Here was a guy with an edge, albeit a guy with an edge who could direct a star-driven studio picture.
“Cable Guy is much more my sensibility than Reality Bites,” Stiller says now. “To me, it's probably one step away from, you know, my soul sensibility.” “Ben's a really, really, really dark guy,” says Stahl. “If he wasn't, we wouldn't be friends. For all the depths of my own personal whatever, he's right there with his own version. I think that's why we clicked and why it's such a great friendship.”
Stiller won't say what constitutes dark (“I don't really know what that means”), and neither will Stahl (“I don't know, I'm not that deep”), at least not directly. Stahl will say of the man he calls his best friend that “because of the bent of his psyche, he's every bit as big an alien, or alienated, as you or I. You'd have to get the e-mail at 4 in the morning to know what I'm talking about, but it's pretty intense – and funny.”
Stiller does furnish some clues about that dark side, mainly in regard to his childhood. When asked two years ago whether his family sat around making jokes while he was growing up, he answered sharply, “I don't know what that weird fantasy is. People go, 'Oh, you must have had a great childhood.'” “I think,” says Stahl, “that there is a world of very unique, specific torment that went along with that particular life. I just remember him telling me, 'Jeez, half the time, the only time I got to see my parents is when they were on Ed Sullivan.' I mean, that's like, you know, if Kafka were in show business, that's how he would be raised.”
What Ben Stiller thinks is funny (partial list): Albert Brooks, This Is Spinal Tap, Second City Television, Saturday Night Live, the Farrelly brothers, Preston Sturges, Ace Ventura.
It is notoriously difficult to articulate the mysteries of comedy, to nail what makes good timing, to explain why Andy Kaufman was funnier than Steve Martin, or why David Spade is not funny at all. What makes Stiller funny is less obvious than what makes a bellicose oddball such as Stiller Show alum Andy Dick funny. And while at first glance Stiller comes across as a male counterpart to his friend Janeane Garofalo's hipster malcontent, he seems far more transparently eager to please. Garofalo, whom Stiller cast in both The Ben Stiller Show and Reality Bites, calls him a fellow cynic, but says that “the difference is that he has the desire to make people happy, which a lot of cynics don't. His parents enjoyed making people laugh, making people happy, so he's grown up with that ethic of 'I want to perform, I want people to see my work' as a means of expression. But,” she adds, “also 'So that people can get as much joy as I got watching SCTV. If I can make people feel the way I felt growing up when I watched Eugene Levy.'”
Stahl believes the reason Stiller is funny is “that he doesn't try. There's a certain stillness, a certain non-manic thing that's at the heart of whatever's happening. It's all in the eyes.” Garofalo thinks it's brains. “In my opinion,” she says, “the truly funnier people are above average intelligence, therefore they take in a great deal and probably read quite a bit and know what's going on. They're tuned in not just to pop culture, but to things that run a little deeper. The common denominator between Ben and I is that we both worship Albert Brooks and SCTV. Not that we don't laugh at a Farrelly brothers movie, but as a rule, I prefer to laugh at Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and Hal Hartley.”
With its sketch format and parodies of pop-cultural reference points such as Beverly Hills 90210, Bruce Springsteen and The Last of the Mohicans (the movie, not the book), The Ben Stiller Show had more in a common with SCTV and SNL than with, say, Allen, Brooks or Hartley. “What I'm proud of,” Stiller says, “is the fact that it's so well-respected. It was a real collaboration. It's hard to explain – I guess it feels like the thing that kind of came together the most in my career so far.” Still, while the show enjoys something of a cult reputation, it pales in comparison with the early, great years of either SCTV or SNL. Part of the problem is the unformed, raw quality of the young ensemble, which often plays less like a band of authentic outsiders than a clique of smart-ass brats who just don't get that they're not as funny as they seem to think they are.
The greater problem, though, may be the limits of parody itself. Comedy has always fed off culture, from Aristophanes' The Birds to the Farrellys' Dumb and Dumber. And Stiller's limitations seem to be, at least for now, the limits of popular culture as much as any limits of his own interior landscape. Our culture isn't particularly sophisticated or bookish or political, and neither is he. Garofalo lists Christopher Hitchens alongside Harry Shearer, James Carville and Mary Matalin among her favorite wits, but what's made her famous isn't trading in political cynicism, but her Eve Arden-lite turns in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and even Reality Bites. What's made Stiller famous is playing a dweeb whose penis gets caught in his zipper, a moment of excruciating public humiliation that has been eagerly embraced by a country rebounding from a strangely parallel public humiliation suffered in the White House.
“Growing up, Spinal Tap was the ultimate comedy of all time,” Stiller said two years ago. “That's what I want to do. Of course, you get to a point with parody where you can't really go much further with it, no matter what level of success you have, because it ultimately is feeding off somebody else's creativity. You start to feel like, 'Well, what else can I do? I have to wait for Bruce Springsteen to come out with his next album.' Hopefully you go past that to finding your own voice, which I feel like I'm kind of in the process of doing.”
That sense of limitations, says Stiller, is what finally made him abandon one of his most intriguing projects, a parody called Smooth Daddy, about a bitter former child star. When asked, however, to explain the difference between Smooth Daddy and something like Zoolander, his script about the blissfully clueless male model he created for the VH1 Fashion Awards three years ago, Stiller grows vague. “Zoolander works more as a kind of a comedy that's more like a satire in a way, that is almost a parody. There's a difference.” He pauses. “I just think Zoolander's funnier, you know, and Smooth Daddy is closer to that kind of . . .” He searches for the words. “It's more pathetic and depressing,” he laughs. “Not that it isn't funny, because I think it's really funny. It's just that I couldn't figure out what form to put it in. Sometimes you work on something for a long time, and then you just go, 'This isn't what I want to do right now.'”
If Stiller can't parse the difference between Smooth Daddy and Zoolander, perhaps it's because there isn't all that much difference between the two. Both were born out of pop culture, and both take comic aim at easy targets. That push-pull toward all things pop seems to define Stiller: He's a TV baby who's made his name lampooning the medium, a self-professed sitcom hater who's attached to produce a movie version of Green Acres. Just as he did two years ago, he insists that he doesn't want to be dependent on pop culture. “Right. Right, right, right. Right,” he says. “It's not very satisfying.”
A few months after The Cable Guy opened in June of 1996, Stiller received the script for Permanent Midnight. He liked it; he liked Stahl. So much so that over their initial lunch Stiller asked Stahl if he'd like to collaborate on What Makes Sammy Run? While waiting for a green light on Permanent Midnight, the pair wrote Sammy, finishing a first draft in January 1997.
“Since The Cable Guy, it's been a real growth period for me as a filmmaker, believe it or not, having not,” Stiller says, “directed a film. I've been acting, but I've also been focusing as a writer, and now I've written two scripts, both in collaboration with other people. It's a great thing for me to just take that responsibility for myself.” Although he cheerfully denies being in therapy, Stiller uses the word responsibility frequently, along with the plaintively turned, somehow weighted phrase, Do you know what I mean?
“I think responsibility is a good word. I feel like I've been given all this opportunity, so that's what I take responsibility for. It's like figuring out what it is I want to do, and there's nobody to blame . . . I spend a lot of my time” – he pauses – “trying to let go of the fear of failing. It's such a public thing, this business. I think the answer is to keep going forward. That's why I really admire Woody Allen. I want to get into a groove of doing the one, being involved in the next. You know? Boom, boom. I really believe you get better by doing it – you've just got to keep on doing it.”
It's hard not to think that when he talks about his groove – boom, boom – Stiller sounds very much like Sammy Glick, the Hollywood antihero of Budd Schulberg's lacerating, legendary 1941 novel. “The whole movie,” says Stiller, “has got to have the energy of Sammy. He's the guy who pushes the movie. I just want him to be this kind of locomotive that doesn't stop.”
Stiller first read Schulberg's story of the Machiavellian office boy turned studio boss three years ago while in Hawaii visiting his then-girlfriend Jeanne Tripplehorn, who was in the midst of production on the blighted epic Waterworld. Stiller loved the book, and paid a visit to Bill Gerber, who had bought the rights to Sammy the dec-a ade before when he was an executive at Warner Bros. (he is now producing the film under his own shingle at the studio, Populuxe). Stiller pleaded his case to Gerber, who suggested he try writing a new script, since neither of Schulberg's earlier drafts had gotten the film its go. Stiller subsequently brought in Stahl, and the third draft of their very good, very faithful adaptation will serve as the film's shooting script when it goes into production next year.
“I've spent the last year of my life trying to get it made,” Stiller says of the film, which he will direct and in which he will star. He's shooting Sammy in period, and promises to keep the original's darkness, including a juvenile gang-bang. “I know they hate that stuff,” he says of Warner Bros., which will distribute the movie. “That's the stuff, of course, Jerry loved.” Although his and Stahl's vision remains true to Schulberg's, one of Stiller's inspirations was to include three Hollywood veterans who bear witness to Sammy, an idea borrowed from Reds. “I thought it would be great if these guys talk about him as a real person,” says Stiller, his voice picking up speed, “like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, Sammy Glick. I remember Sammy Glick. He gave me my first screen test in 1938. He told me to get my ears pinned.' Or, 'If you really want to know about Sammy Glick, you gotta know about Al Manheim. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Al Manheim, he's the real story.' Then you pop back to Sammy meeting Al. The story is linear, but it flips between scenes from Sammy's life when he's a kid and scenes from when he's made it to the top and is dedicating a wing at Cedars-Sinai.”
Ben Stiller isn't Sammy Glick. If anything, he's far closer to Al Manheim, the conflicted narrator of What Makes Sammy Run?, who follows his former copy boy to Hollywood from New York, becomes a screenwriter, and spends much of the book trying to reconcile his sense of self and his sense of Hollywood, as well as answer the question posed by the novel's title. “Hollywood may be full of phonies, mediocrities, dictators and good men who have lost their way,” says Manheim in one of the book's most memorable passages, “but there is something that draws you there that you should not be ashamed of.” For all his admitted ambivalence about Los Angeles (“It's nice, but I've never, ever felt comfortable here”), Stiller gets what Al Manheim gets: “I came out here because I wanted to be in the business as an actor, as a director,” he says. “I made that choice.”
Ironically, while Permanent Midnight is clearly the most personal film for Stiller, and while There's Something About Mary is the movie that matters to Hollywood, it's Stiller's performance in Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors that best shows what he might bring to the quicksilver character of Sammy Glick, a character at once loathsome, pathetic and irrefutable.
“There's a gravitas there,” says one Hollywood casting agent. The director himself says that initially he was thinking of someone like James Spader or Campbell Scott for the part of the impotent college professor. “Comedians by nature,” says LaBute, “go in front of an audience and say, 'I'm going to entertain you – please find me funny.' Would Ben be able to go to that fearless place? He would have a very unattractive sex scene, and literally every scene would top itself with smarminess. And he really did just bite into it. I think he looked at it and said, 'I want to go there, I want to erase myself.'”
When he saw the film, says LaBute, Stiller told the director it was “the first time he'd watched a movie of his in which he wasn't watching his performance. He was watching everyone else, and how they liked it, but part of it was his recoiling from what he was seeing. My mother,” he says, “came to the premiere. She said, 'He sat right ahead of me, and as I watched the movie his head just kept dropping lower and lower in his seat until, by the end, he was gone. He just sort of melted.'” Stiller's performance won him good notices (“squirmingly funny,” is how Newsweek put it), and prompted The Village Voice's J. Hoberman to dub him “the most fearless comic performer in American movies.”
Fearless, yes, but not just comic. “There is always room for this sort of Everyman,” says one high-stakes Hollywood manager. “Some people are our cultural ideals, and some people are more the way we perceive ourselves, as sort of underdogs, outsiders. You can look at Stiller and you can say he's Jerry Lewis, or you can say he's Dustin Hoffman. I think what he's been smart about is parlaying comedy into these other things. Comedy is obviously his strong suit, and I think we make more allowance for funny-looking movie stars as comics. But I think he aspires to other things, and in the low-budget arena you can have opportunities that a studio would never give you.”
“Funny-looking” sounds brutal, but Stiller himself has acknowledged that his looks have caused him difficulties in Hollywood. “Ben doesn't have matinee-idol looks,” says the casting agent, “but he thinks he's sexy. It has to do with a certain level of self-confidence. I haven't polled a lot of women, but I think there is that appeal even though, on top of everything else, he's a neurotic Jew. There's more aggressive sexuality than in, say, John Cusack. Ben's got a little more sexual spark, which makes it relatively new territory, a kind of hip urban neurotic. I mean, Woody Allen has played in romances that capitalize on his nerdiness, but Ben manages to have – on parallel tracks – the neurosis and the swagger.”
As it turns out, nothing reveals that dialectic between neurosis and swagger more than the MTV Music Video Awards. Stiller bounces onto the stage, dressed in monochromatic black, hair coifed into a Laurie Anderson-style thatch. For a few moments, fists curled around the microphone, he pumps up the howling crowd. He seems eager to play Arsenio, but there's something painful about the performance. Is this really Ben Stiller, one of Hollywood's edge guys, rah-rah-ing the faithful in a nimbus of cathode-ray sincerity? “This is such a huge thrill for me,” he yells. “To have come this far in my career, to be actually up on this stage, hosting this show, it's unbelievable. Thank you!” But just as it begins to appear that Stiller is taking his MTV too seriously, the wide-screen image of his father, Jerry, materializes behind him, monstrously huge and looming. “Ben, Ben,” his father squawks like father Costanza, “you're tanking.” The son pleads to the screen, “This is a big night for me, I've worked very hard to get here, okay?” “Ca-ca!” screams his father. “Getting your penis caught in your zipper is what got you here!” The crowd roars. Without skipping a beat, Ben Stiller turns to introduce the first act.
Last year, Stiller founded Red Hour Films, a production company funded through his two-year, first-look deal with Fox 2000 and an exclusive producing deal with ABC. The company has six full-time employees, including Stiller's producer, Stuart Cornfeld, best known for The Fly and Kafka. Located on an eastern thoroughfare in Beverly Hills, the company has a Mortal Kombat II video game in the reception area, with a creepy child-size mannequin made up to look like Eddie Munster facing the front door. A picture on one of the walls reads, “To Ben – Loved your show!” It's signed “Butch Patrick, 'Eddie.'” On the wall of Stiller's own office is a poster for a Don Ameche vehicle called The Magnificent Dope, which Stahl has rewritten and Stiller is considering remaking, and various framed photographs, including one of self-help guru Tony Robbins. A picture of Stiller's paternal grandmother sits on a bookcase with not enough books.