Until this month, one of the funniest men in show business could walk down the street without getting a second look. Take his experience before the 1994 Academy awards, for example. He and his wife were leaving the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on their way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “We fell into this group of movie stars,” he recalls. “We went through the revolving door, and the press was all outside. Every time somebody would come out, they’d lift all their cameras and flip on the lights and the flashbulbs. Morgan Freeman was ahead of us, and right away the flashbulbs came out and the screaming began: ‘Morgan! Morgan!’ Dianne Wiest came out and they yelled, ‘Dianne!’ Screaming, screaming, screaming. Then my wife and I came out and they all got excited, lifted up their cameras, and threw on the lights—and it was like there was a blackout! Every light suddenly turned off! It was like coming onto a moonscape of lights, and then you’ve stepped off the moon and fallen into a black hole.”
Welcome to the world of Douglas McGrath, a 43-year-old filmmaker, actor, and writer whose deadpan, somewhat prim sense of humor seems almost radical in an era when off-color humor rules the Hollywood roost. After a few minor writing and acting gigs, the Midland native co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen in 1994 and adapted and directed the movie Emma for Miramax two years later. For Bullets, he created such memorable exchanges as this one, between a theatrical producer and a dim-witted actress:
“Do you like the play?” the producer asks.
“It’s sad,” she says.
“It’s a tragedy.”
McGrath has stayed behind the scenes for the past ten years, acquiring a fan club of distinguished peers. “Doug is arguably the nicest, most generous, calmest director I have ever worked with, period, end of sentence,” says Donna Gigliotti, who was an executive producer at Miramax during the nineties. Says Woody Allen: “He’s literate. And I like that. He’s literate and he’s witty.” But this month McGrath takes center stage, starring in Company Man, a movie he wrote that also features Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, and Woody Allen. Now, perhaps, the public will begin to praise him as much as his colleagues do.
In person, McGrath’s humor is often aimed at himself. “Woody always has these great fears that he’s going to die before he has done all his ideas,” he says over lunch at New York’s Trattoria Dell’Arte. “Let’s just say that’s never a fear that crosses my mind before I shut my eyes at night. No, that’ll never happen to me. Tonight, I could go to bed and go, ‘Well’ ”—he slaps his hands together as if he’s finished a project—“ ‘everything’s done!’”
His self-deprecating humor and playfulness are reasons his peers want to work with him. “For about two and a half hours one night, while working on a script, we talked like [lisping character actor] Eric Blore,” recalls Stephen Banks, who co-wrote a television pilot for Showtime with McGrath in the early nineties. In conversation, McGrath frequently lapses into imitations of Truman Capote, Jack Benny, Woody Allen, or Victor