By: Jorjet Harper/Special for TRT–
The world contains quite a few people who seem to always be playing to an invisible camera. Bruce Vilanch is one of those rare people who is always cracking jokes off the top of his head that are actually funny.
The two-time Emmy Award winner has written material for many of America’s top comedians. He has been head writer for the Academy Awards since 2000 – and in 1999, was the subject of a feature-length documentary, Get Bruce!, about his life as Hollywood’s most sought-after humor writer. But he is probably best known to fans for his time as a regular on Hollywood Squares.
It’s easy to see why Vilanch is such a valuable commodity in Hollywood. In person, he‘s endearingly clever in a down-to-earth way. He loves playfully entertaining everyone around him and seems unable to stop saying things that are genuinely hilarious.
In a casting stroke of genius, Vilanch plays the comic/tragic character Fezziwig in the new film Scrooge & Marley, a contemporary retelling of the classic Dicken’s tale, “A Christmas Carol,” releasing this holiday season. We met him on set while filming.
Though he already had on his Fezziwig wig, the makeup department had not yet glued on his Fezzi-beard. He stroked the strawberry blonde locks of his wig lovingly, saying, “My old hair—it’s come back to visit. It’s been living in a condo in Boca Raton, and now it’s decided to come out of retirement.” In fact, his real hair, with its strawberry blonde color and shoulder-length Prince Valiant styling, looked rather similar to his Fezzi-wig—just a bit less bushy.
Not done hamming it up, Vilanch began to croon to his wig: “‘Hello my old friend …’ I feel like Sweeney Todd,” he quipped. “‘This is my burden … .’ Soon there will be a beard to complete the picture. I will look like a nightmare version of myself from the Seventies. I can’t wait!”
In Dickens’ original “Christmas Carol,” Fezziwig is young Scrooge and Marley’s boss. He’s a generous, ethical businessman who treats his employees like family, cares about their welfare, and throws lively holiday parties for all. Sadly, he is forced to sell his business to avaricious corporate interests who care nothing about worker morale. Scrooge and Marley, grown more callous over time, side with the heartless new owners.
“I play a different kind of Fezziwig,” says Vilanch. “He’s a guy who owns a disco in the Seventies and he’s Auntie Mame — Rosalind Russell.” Vilanch throws back his head, causing his wig to flounce. “He’s all, ‘Oh how droll, how vivid!’ He’s a pretty fabulous character, and he brings young Scrooge and Marley in [to his business] and of course they do him dirty — you know the story. And then we see his downfall. But then there’s a resurrection. It’s very biblical.”
Though Scrooge & Marley is a modern, gay-themed retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” Vilanch’s character follows the traditional Dickensian arc. “He’s a jolly old soul who gets caught up in his vices and gets caught up in their chicanery. Eventually, he’s something they [the spirits] show Scrooge, to show him what a bad guy he has been through the years. Fezziwig’s kind of a poster child for excess, but at the same time, he’s brought down by the hand of somebody who is genuinely sinister. And he’s not. I like him.”
Dickens’ Fezziwig symbolized the end of an era he knew well, the Industrial Revolution. Dickens’ saw it as a time when small businessmen and local industries like Fezziwig’s were disappearing, swept away by more ruthlessly profiteering business practices and cutthroat corporations. The Fezziwig in Scrooge & Marley also symbolizes the end of an era: the pre-AIDS gay culture.
“Fezziwig is the end of that party that was going on in the gay community in the Seventies, that was ended by the AIDS epidemic,” explains Vilanch. “Suddenly everything got very serious and everything that we were told would happen because of what we were doing suddenly happened—and not because of what we were doing. It was totally coincidental. It was the end of some kind of a party that had been going on since Stonewall. There was a great deal of joy about liberation and getting a movement going and all that, and that came crashing down when people began dying. And ironically enough, that movement, because of the epidemic, became a real genuine political movement, which is as forceful today as it can be.”
Vilanch was living in Chicago in 1970, working at the Chicago Tribune, when he met Bette Midler. Midler hired him to write jokes for her, marking the start of a successful collaboration that has lasted through the years. After moving to L.A., Vilanch began writing material for other famous comics as well, including Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, and Lily Tomlin, and for television shows like ABC’s original Donny and Marie Show and The Brady Bunch. Vilanch heard about the Scrooge & Marley project from his friend, the film’s co-director and co-writer, Richard Knight.
“I had done his radio show when I was in Chicago doing Hairspray, and we’ve been friendly ever since. He talked about making this strange gay take on “A Christmas Carol.” When you consider the film’s been done every other way — I mean, I’m waiting for the al-Qaeda version, that’s all that has been missed—I thought, how could I not be a part of it? It’s so original, so unusual.”
Vilanch also considered a gay version of “A Christmas Carol” in its wider cultural context. “I think that the reason to do a gay version of anything is to show that we’re all basically the same under the skin. The humanity is the same. We just have wildly different cultural perspectives and ways of expressing ourselves. But it’s the humanity of it all that’s important,” he observes.
“And gay community, and gay culture, for want of a better word, is just so much fun. It’s so festive and everything is in quotes and over-the-top exaggerated, because it’s a culture that had to live under the thumb of a straight culture for years, so its take on things comes from being oppressed. And that’s always funny,” says Vilanch.
“I mean, I’m Jewish, too, and we have that in common: we were oppressed for five thousand years. That’s why so many funny people are Jews. When you’re at the bottom, you kind of have to look up and laugh, because you don’t see the sun a lot.”
Vilanch pauses, then adds warmly, “And eventually, you do.”
A screening will take place on Sat., Dec. 1, at 6 p.m. The New England premiere of Scrooge & Marley at Holly Folly 2012 with one show only at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial Street, Provincetown. Tickets are $10 at door. This event is a benefit for the LGBT Aging Project.
Visit www.scroogeandmarleymovie.com for more information. The DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack will be available in time for the holidays.