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 Borge. (During lunch, he did his Capote while pretending to write on a small notepad: “When did you fiiind the people killed in the baaasement?”) The eldest of three children, he discovered his gift for mimicry while growing up in Midland, where his father, a Connecticut native, was in the oil business. “It wasn’t something he came to late in life,” says his brother, Sandy. “He was always interested in theater. He was an early and avid fan of the I Love Lucy show. At an early age, he would organize kids in little playacting skits.”
“My first memory of the theater—meaning a movie theater—was seeing Mary Poppins,” McGrath says. “And a terrible thing to say about myself is that I remember having no critical judgment about any movie I saw until I saw Midnight Express in college, and I remember thinking, ‘You know? I think they’re being a little extreme with the Turkish guards here.’ Up until then, I liked everything that came. The worst response from me was that I would see it only once.”
He didn’t know how he would do it, but he figured he was going to be in show business some day, so he took the only path available, joining the local community theater group, the Pickwick Players, in the seventh grade. He spent his high school years at prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where he wrote and acted in several plays, and as an English major at Princeton, he joined the Triangle Club, the esteemed musical comedy troupe whose alumni include F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Stewart.
Up to this point, McGrath had followed the standard aspiring actor’s route. But just before he graduated from Princeton, he made an unusual career decision: He would do nothing. No job searches. Nada. “I remember very consciously thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to do anything about this,'” he says. “And the miracle of it is: It worked! I’ve tried it again and it never worked again, but the day before I graduated [fellow Midlander] Liz Tirrell, who was a talent scout at Saturday Night Live, called and said, ‘Hey, they’re hiring new writers on Saturday Night; would you like to send in some material?’ And I thought, ‘My God, it’s paying off! I can’t believe it!'”
In 1980 McGrath signed on with SNL, where his style surfaced; he says he was “going for cheap, low, and funny.” One skit he wrote that he particularly likes, he says, “was about a guard at the Louvre who was having an affair with the Mona Lisa, but they were going to break up because he found somebody in sculpture: Venus de Milo.”
But it turned out there was a catch to getting a writing job at SNL in 1980: Lorne Michaels had just left the show and taken all the old writers with him. The show’s sixth season was a transition period that is widely regarded as its worst year, and for McGrath it meant long hours of work in an environment plagued with paranoia. “Jean Doumanian [who would later produce six Woody Allen films] was producing, and the writers were being fired all the time, left and right,” he says. “My co-worker Patty Marx and I came in one Monday and somebody else had been fired. Patty said, ‘This is like writing on a television show in an Agatha Christie novel; first there are eighteen writers, then there are seventeen writers, then there are sixteen writers.'” Eventually, a year after McGrath was hired, the firing squad came after him. “It was a great lesson for me because I didn’t really like the job. I wasn’t really good at it, but I wouldn’t have had the nerve to quit.
“I remember seeing the show many, many years later,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Maybe we weren’t so terrible. Maybe we weren’t so awful.’ Comedy Central started rerunning them, and I saw who was hosting one program and I thought, ‘I’ve got a sketch on that show.’ I kind of remembered it was a witty, little droll piece about something, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll watch.’ So I sat down to watch and the show is stupefyingly bad. It’s like a gas is being sprayed at you. But I thought, ‘Hold on, your sketch is coming up.’ I thought, ‘It’s going to be a little jewel in the rough; it’s going to be delightful.'” Long pause. “I could not turn the TV off fast enough. I thought, ‘How could I get this off every home in the nation right now?'”
Needing to find other writing jobs after leaving SNL, he began to write in a variety of media. He wrote two screenplays that were sold but never produced: Loose Women, co-written with SNL cast member Terry Sweeney, and Just Married. He and Patty Marx wrote a play called Dominoes—about a small town in Maine that fakes a communist infiltration in order to get federal funding to fight it—that was never performed, as well as a brilliantly funny book, Blockbuster, that satirized the making of the worst movie of all time. At one point in the book, the nephew of the movie’s director describes one of his uncle’s first films, which was called Stripping the Bed: “It was about three minutes long. My mom starred in it. She stripped the bed. It only took her about two minutes, so a lot of the movie was of the bed itself. Of its type, it’s good. Very realistic.” Says Marx: “Normally I wouldn’t try to come up with work for myself to do, but when Doug was involved, I would feel eager to come up with a project to work on because it was fun.”
Still, none of his efforts gave him the career boost he needed. It wasn’t until the early nineties that one of his scripts was made into a movie: the disastrous 1993 adaptation of Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday, which starred Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. But all was not lost. Jane Martin, who was then McGrath’s girlfriend and is now his wife, had been working as Woody Allen’s assistant. She introduced McGrath to Allen, and after several dinners, Allen decided they should collaborate on a film script. Why? “Experience in the business doesn’t mean anything, because I have enough experience in the business,” says Allen. “But what you really want is someone you enjoy spending a lot of time with, pitching ideas with, and someone whose ideas you respect and who, when they shoot down your ideas, you respect their criticism on it. And Doug has all those qualities.”
“One day he asked me to come by his house,” McGrath says. “It was right around Christmas, and I thought maybe he wanted me to help him out with a present for Jane or something. And I went—he was on the telephone and he waved me in and I sat down but I was very nervous; I had never been to his house by myself. So I was reading a book—upside down, blurred—and then he came and said”—he goes into Woody Allen mode, slapping his hands together and rubbing them—”‘Okay, do you want anything to drink?’
‘Okay, so here’s how I like to work . . .'”
They proceeded to write Bullets Over Broadway, about a young playwright (John Cusack) whose writing talent is upstaged by that of a gangster (Chazz Palminteri). Nominated for seven Academy awards—Dianne Wiest won best supporting actress for her portrayal of a theater diva—it had an inspired plot bolstered with great dialogue. Even the actress’ agent got witty lines: “It’s a little idea she’s wanted to do for years,” the agent says about the diva’s next project. “She plays Jesus’ mother. It’s a whole Oedipal thing. He loves her, wants to do in the father—well, you can see the complications.”
“I just remember thinking that when Bullets comes out, I may have an opportunity to work,” McGrath says, “but I may have to exploit this because people are thinking, ‘Who did Woody collaborate with?’ And I thought, ‘I have to be in a position to take advantage. Don’t blow this.'” Since he had always liked Jane Austen’s novel Emma and knew that it would make a good movie, he told himself, “This is the time, write it on spec, have it ready. And you’re going to have to say you want to direct it.” So in 1994, at the age of 36, he wrote a screen adaptation of the novel and pitched it—with himself as director—to Miramax.
He had never directed a feature film before, but Donna Gigliotti remembers how comfortable he was in his new role. “We were on a distant location from London in a very beautiful house,” she says. “It started out as a really lovely sunny day, and suddenly the sky got dark and it was pouring rain. We were all huddled under umbrellas waiting for the rain to pass, because in England it usually does. But there’s not much you can do when you’re sitting under umbrellas waiting for rain to pass. Other directors would have been biting their fingernails worrying about making the day, but Doug, who may have been worrying about all those things, certainly never showed it and started this conversation. I was standing next to him and Doug said, ‘O-kay! Where is the place where you have had the best roast chicken in the world?’ By the time everybody was done telling where their favorite chicken was, the sun had come out.”
Emma made Gwyneth Paltrow a star and won McGrath praise from the critics and a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for the best adapted screenplay. Wrote the New York Times‘s Janet Maslin: “With anachronistic snap bordering on irreverence, Douglas McGrath’s agile first feature manages to be nearly as savvy as Clueless.”
Since then he has had a few small roles in Allen’s movies Small Time Crooks,
In Company Man, which was also directed by Askin, McGrath plays a prep school teacher named Allen Quimp who is recruited by the CIA to help overthrow Fidel Castro. The role—which has been described as one part Inspector Clouseau, one part Mr. Bean—may mean that McGrath’s days of walking the streets incognito (and being ignored at the Oscars) are over. Not that he’s craving recognition. “When I was young I thought fame was the goal,” he says. “But as I got older I’ve been able to analyze what it is that drew me to this work in the first place. And having known a lot of famous people through my work, I’m sure they’d agree that the worst part of succeeding in the business, in a way, is the fame. People just stare at you. It’s a great pleasure for me to go out—right now I’m in an outfit that, if I were to describe it to you, you’d start crying, it’s so unattractive.”
McGrath has already begun working on a new project, a script currently titled The Gambler that is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his unimpressed stenographer. “What you’re really going for,” he says, “is the opportunity to do the work you want to do with the people you want to do it with.” And that should be no problem.