Produced and directed by Andrew J. Kuehn; director of photography, Jose Luis Mignone; edited by Maureen Nolan; music by Michael Feinstein; released by Miramax Films.

With: Bruce Vilanch, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Raquel Welch, Carol Burnett, Billy Crystal and George Schlatter.

Running time: 93 minutes.

"Get Bruce" is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).
Some of the jokes are off-color.

By STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times (1999)

Sometimes the oddest events can catalyze a show business career. As Bruce Vilanch, the writer of hilarious special material for Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and dozens of other Hollywood stars, recalls, for him it was "The Vamp," a glitzy flop Broadway show starring Carol Channing.

Vilanch, who didn't emerge from behind the show business scenes until he began appearing regularly on "Hollywood Squares," is the endearing, very funny and utterly unpretentious subject of Andy Kuehn's likable documentary, "Get Bruce!" If anyone can be said to have reinvented awards-show patter since the days of Bob Hope, it is Vilanch, who over the last decade has regularly stamped his gently campy, carefully naughty signature on the Academy Awards.

But the Oscars are only the tip of the iceberg. Vilanch has also written for the Emmys, for President Clinton's 50th-birthday party and for numerous Hollywood galas. As scenes of him collaborating with Crystal, Williams and others reveal, he is a masterly technician whose special gift is coming up with material so custom-fitted to an individual personality that you barely sense the writer's invisible hand.

Chubby, with an unruly mop of blond hair and a preference for oversize, pink plastic-rim glasses and wittily inscribed T-shirts from his extensive collection, Vilanch effuses the good-natured canniness of an all-knowing cherub. He observes, without a trace of malice, that one of the prerequisites of becoming a major Hollywood star is a powerful, driving self-absorption.

Adopted at the age of 4, Vilanch grew up in suburban New Jersey and recalls discovering early in life that he was gay. He developed his humor partly to deflect peer-group persecution.

We meet his mother, a longtime show business devotee to whom he feels related by blood, even though he isn't. While working as a celebrity interviewer for The Chicago Tribune, he wrote a profile of Ms. Midler that so impressed her that she called to compliment him, and the two began collaborating. He introduced her to the raunchy humor of Sophie Tucker. Eventually moving to the West Coast, Vilanch had his first Hollywood job writing for "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour," in which he had the formidable task of making guests like Donny and Marie Osmond sound semi-hip.

Vilanch's collaborations have occasionally ruffled feathers. The most notorious case was a Friar's Club roast of Whoopi Goldberg at which Ted Danson, her boyfriend at the time, appeared in blackface. Ms. Goldberg defends Vilanch in the film and says he was only doing what she wanted. Of Ms. Goldberg, he observes: "You know there's going to be that moment when she goes off the graph, that's the whole idea. If you didn't want that to happen, you'd hire Kathie Lee Gifford." We also meet an ABC television censor who frets about the necessity of having to monitor Ms. Goldberg.

Among the high points of Vilanch's career were the inspired musical-comedy medleys he created with Crystal to introduce the best picture nominations, from which "Get Bruce!" shows excerpts.

Of course, Vilanch's services don't come cheap. When Barbra Streisand called, he says, she made him an offer that was less than what Jim Bailey had made for him to work on a show in which he impersonated her. Even so. Ms. Streisand wouldn't budge. It's the one moment of "Get Bruce!" in which Vilanch allows himself to bite back.

BY ROGER EBERT, Chicago-Sun Times

"Get Bruce" is exactly the kind of documentary we all want to have made about ourselves, in which it is revealed that we are funny, smart, beloved, the trusted confidant of famous people, the power behind the scenes at great events and the apple of our mother's eye. That all of these things are true of Bruce Vilanch only adds to the piquancy. I have known him for 30 years. If there is a dark side to his nature, I believe it shows itself mostly when he can't decide which T-shirt to wear.

Vilanch writes "specialized material" for Hollywood stars. When Whoopi emcees, when Billy does the Oscars, when Bette Midler opens a new show at Radio City Music Hall, much of what they say (and most of the funniest stuff) has passed through Bruce's laptop computer. He has written the recent Oscarcasts and can be found backstage at almost every big Hollywood awards show or charity benefit, suggesting "improvised" one-liners as the host dashes onstage between acts. His greatest triumph was arguably the night Jack Palance did the one-armed pushups, and Billy Crystal milked it for the whole evening.

It is not that Billy, Robin, Whoopi, Bette and the others are idiots who need Vilanch to put words in their mouths. Quite the opposite, as this film shows in some fascinating footage of them at work. Vilanch is a foil, a collaborator, a dueling partner, a lateral thinker able to help them move in the direction they want to go. Only when some clients are insecure or truly at sea does he become a ventriloquist.

I knew him a long time ago, in Chicago, when he worked for the Tribune, the film says, although I recall, perhaps imperfectly, that it was Chicago Today. He was very funny then. He looked about the same: large, always wearing a well-stretched T-shirt, his face a cartoon made of a mass of hair, a Santa beard and glasses. He wrote wonderful celebrity profiles, and that's how he met Bette Midler at Mister Kelly's and went from rag to riches.

I may not have actually been present when they met, but I was there at Kelly's one night at about the same time. Mort Sahl was on the stage. I was in the booth next to the runway to the dressing rooms. I heard a voice. "Why do I have to open for this guy?" It was Bette Midler. Another voice. "Why do I have to be your piano player?" Her piano player was Barry Manilow.

The world was young then and Bruce flirted briefly with the possibility that he could build a performing career of his own. He actually opened at Kelly's as a stand-up comic. This was in the days before comedy clubs, and it took nerve to stand up in front of a room of friends and critics (the friends were more frightening) and try to be funny. I do not recall that he was a hit. I can see from "Get Bruce," however, that he's good in front of an audience these days, no doubt because he has a lot more confidence and because his persona is familiar to his audiences.

"There isn't a show in town that can be held without him," says one of the subjects of "Get Bruce." He recalls, usually with the perpetrators, how specific material was generated. Not just the triumphs (Palance's pushups) but the disasters like Ted Danson's appearance in blackface at the Friars' Club roast for Whoopi Goldberg. Vilanch wrote a lot of Danson's material, which went over so badly, it occupied the entire front page of the New York Daily News the next day, but Goldberg defends him: "It was my idea. All my idea."

I remember when he left for the coast. There was a farewell party at mutual friend Larry Dieckhaus' and we all sat on the floor around a coffee table, eating pizza and weeping with laughter.

At first it was slow going in L.A. He got a job on "The Brady Bunch Hour," and then interviewed with Donny and Marie. What he said to Donny during their unsuccessful meeting cannot be quoted here, but will be much quoted elsewhere. He also recalls some of the people he did not write for; he is well paid, we learn, and Barbra Streisand's offer was so low he told her, "Jim Bailey offered me more to write the drag version of this act."

Some of the film's best sequences have Vilanch bouncing lines back and forth with Crystal and Williams. He works differently with each client. With some he's a counselor, a source of calm reassurance. With others he's a competitor, a one-upper. Lots of funny lines are generated, and he remembers a few that went too far and were wisely left out of the script.

Where does he get his humor? Maybe from his mother back on Long Island, whose every statement is hilarious--apparently unintentionally, although we sense she knows exactly what she's doing. Bruce was adopted, she confides, but "he's more like me than any child who was ever naturally born." High praise. Deserved.

Copyright © Chicago-Sun-Times Inc.
Copyright © The Sun-Times Company
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.