Bruce Vilanch has enjoyed what I’d call the ideal pop cultural existence: He’s written jokes for about two dozen Oscar ceremonies; he’s costarred in glamorous movies and insane Broadway spectacles (Mahogany, Hairspray); he took up Paul Lynde‘s mantle on Hollywood Squares; he’s become an icon himself thanks to his bright blond hair, red glasses, and goofy t-shirts; most fabulously, he’s relished casual and working relationships with everyone from Bette Midler to Lainie Kazan, the latter of whom costarred with him in the cute indie comedy Oy Vey, My Son Is Gay!! Though that movie was released in 2010, director Evgeny Afineevsky recently tried garnering the film greater distribution with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a Bruce Vilanch/Lainie Kazan vehicle, guys. The world deserved to receive and cradle this.
To celebrate that effort, we phoned the awesome Vilanch to talk about working on that movie, the stars who’ve impressed him over the years, and the celebrity men who lived in his “cute boy cul de sac.”
TheBacklot: You shot Oy Vey, My Son is Gay!! back in 2010. What was the set like?
Bruce Vilanch: We shot in Spokane where I’d actually been before, but only for like a night. We were at a studio where they shoot a lot of Lifetime movies. They were very happy to see us because we were the only film to shoot there where no one in the plot had cancer. There were no women in jeopardy either; no one was being chased by her deranged Iraqi vet husband. No Post Traumatic Stress. It was a comedy, and they were relieved they could laugh. It was tremendous amount of fun, though it was the dead of winter, there were blizzards, and we pretended it was spring in New York. That cast: Lainie Kazan’s a riot, and Vinny Pastore, who you remember as Big Pussy from The Sopranos, Jai Rodriguez, Carmen Electra, such an eclectic group. We had a really good time. And it’s a throwback, a ’50s style of comedy.
TB: You’ve known Lainie Kazan for years, right?
BV: She’s an old, old friend of mine. We ended up working on a couple of movies, but we just knew each other for years. This was a chance to really hang out together intensely.
TB: I assume at this point in your life you’ve gotten to work with tons of people whose work you’d admired for years and years.
BV: Sometimes! It depends. In your mind’s eye you think they’ll going to be like their characters onstage or onscreen, but sometimes they’ll be all business. About 23 years ago I did a movie with Charles Durning, and at the time he was a very serious actor who had done all of those gangster pictures. He was a real tough guy. He was playing Santa Claus in this movie, and I was his elf. I was the elf who took steroids. I didn’t know what to expect from him, but he was hilarious and easygoing — and a great actor at the same time. He was nothing like the people he portrayed. One of the leads of the picture was seven years old and from Utah, because we were shooting around there. The second day of shooting, Charles said to me, “I was expecting a seven-year-old kid! Look what I got. Faye Dunaway.” He was going through the same thing I was; he was expecting one thing from his costar and got another.
TB: Do you have a favorite onstage moment?
BV: Oh, Hairspray. Two years of Hairspray onstage. I did Broadway for a year, then toured for a year. It was amazing. First of all, eight times a week with a different audience, it pushes an OCD button you didn’t know you had. Each show is different, and you find yourself making slight variations. I didn’t know that was what it was going to be like. You hear about people doing a robot version of a performance after six months on the same show, but for me, the minute I went out onstage I felt the excitement.
TB: I’m always interested to find out how knowledgeable pop culture historians like yourself stay interested in new media. Are you still excited by new, good movies, etc.?
BV: There are classics that I do watch over and over, but when you discover something that’s new that’s really good, you go completely crazy. You can’t get enough of it. If you close yourself off to the new stuff, then it’s over. You may as well find a Greek island that appeals to you and never emerge. I was watching the Tonys and saw Kinky Boots in Chicago when they were trying it out, and it’s fantastic. It’s a great show and has the same effect that Hairspray has. The audience goes through the roof, because it’s so artfully put together. They fall in love with the characters and want them to succeed. The writers have given them material to soar with. How can you not respond to that? If you become so jaded that you can’t respond to something that’s new, get your rope and do your Prometheus impression. Tie yourself to a rock and wait for high tide.
TB: Speaking of Kinky Boots, did you know Cyndi Lauper is an Oscar away from an EGOT?
BV: I hadn’t thought of that! I guess it’s true. I didn’t know that. They give out so many Emmys and so many Grammys, it’s almost hard to keep track. Now Cyndi’ll write a song for a movie and they’ll give her an Oscar, like Adele.
TB: Does that bother you, the way celebrities can phone in for an Oscar in the Best Song Category?
BV: No, because they’ve set up the category to work that way. The category was established back when there were lots of musicals and people were writing original songs for them. That period is long over. It used to be that people wrote a song for the closing credits, and at least they change that. Now it has to be somewhere in the body of the piece. It can’t be a song that gets tacked on at the end for an Oscar. Now it has to have more of a relationship to the actual movie. They bring top writers in, they write a song for the movie, and it’s not a song that they would write, you know, out of their soul. It’s a song they’re writing on assignment for a lot of money and the chance to have an Academy Award on their mantle. Those are the songs you’re getting a lot of the time. But the system has set itself up that way, so I don’t begrudge [the songwriters]. I mean, you can pretty much carry a movie and be nominated in the supporting category for political reasons and find yourself up against someone who had one four-minute scene and walks away with the picture. That’s the nature of it. That’s what they’ve set up. It’s possible for Judi Dench to win for one scene.
TB: Tatum O’Neal beat Madeline Kahn in Best Supporting Actress, which made no sense since Tatum is the star of Paper Moon.
BV: Exactly. It’s possible for someone nine-years-old to beat someone who had been in the business for 50 years. Tatum O’Neal also beat Sylvia Sidney that year.
TB: I’m glad to see you’re pretty encyclopedic about Oscar trivia still.
BV: [Laughs.] I’ve written 23 of the shows, so some of it does rub off.
TB: Do you have Oscars ceremony? One where you got to nail the perfect joke, etc.?
BV: I wish I could say that, but it’s never one line that makes the show. The Billy Crystal/Jack Palance year lives in memory because we threw away so much of the script and added new stuff as we went along. We rewrote it as we went along. That was pretty successful. There was the year that Quincy Jones produced, Whoopi hosted, and everything seemed to work. A lot of the time, the things you remember about the show are the spontaneous moments, the emotional moments, the stuff that can’t be scripted. That’s what people take away from the show. I thought the Hugh Jackman show was terrific. What I loved was Bill Condon’s idea of bringing out five previous winners in the four acting categories and each one singled out one of the nominees. It was a great idea, but it went by the wayside as it would have to because you run out of Oscar-winners. You run out of people who are willing to actually do that! Even though there are like 84 winning actresses — or less, really, because there are so many multiples — but a lot are dead or disinterested. Which will be the name of my memoirs, Dead or Disinterested.
TB: Right, there aren’t many Eva Marie Saint-types left.
BV: Exactly right. Best Supporting Actor was impossible to cast. There just aren’t that many who are left who would make sense, who the audience would look upon with reverence.
TB: You mentioned Charles Durning earlier, but have you met many legends who were much funnier than you expected?
BV: That’s a great question. Bette Davis? She was funny, but I kind of expected that. I suppose Peter O’Toole because he’s so famous for doing classic roles and big serious things, but later in his career he started doing some really brilliant comic stuff like My Favorite Year where he made fun of himself and that tradition of hammy classical actors. But that was a role, and I didn’t know that offstage he still had that card to play. Offstage, he is an extremely droll storyteller. I expected that he would just be beautiful and stoic. Actually, Laurence Olivier was like that too. I met him late in his life, but though he got kind of quiet, he’d tell stories that were brutally funny and do subtle impressions of other people. That was really unexpected.
TB: Is it possible for you to be starstruck anymore?
BV: Oh, sure. All the big ones of the golden age are gone, pretty much, there are very few left. But I’m starstruck when I meet certain legends. I get can get dazzled when I meet somebody like Lady Gaga, who has created this thing for herself. She’s so smart and so talented. I think it’s more being in the presence of someone like her, you see the wheels turn. That’s pretty fabulous. Anybody who pulls themselves together in what my mother calls “get-ups” — when she walks into a room, it’s hard not to pay attention. I guess anytime you meet somebody you know is genuinely talented and not just artifice, there’s a quality of being starstruck.
TB: My dream is for Lady Gaga to play Laura Nyro in a biopic. She’s be perfect.
BV: Wow. That would be great because Laura Nyro was it for me. I play her music almost every day, and I only met her once for a minute. I was with Bette Midler, we were on tour, and Laura Nyro happened to be playing in town. We couldn’t see her because for some reason are shows were on the same night. So they arranged for a dinner the next night, and that was that. She was everything that I’d heard she was. She was crazy and mercurial, and there were mood swings, and then she was gentle and tender, and then she was manic and nuts. It was all in the course of one dinner. I realized that I was probably better off just listening to the music.
TB: Is there anybody whose jokes make you think, ”Damn, I wish I’d written that”?
BV: Sometimes you hear someone else and think, “They sound so coherent!” I hear myself and think, “You sound like you were grasping for air.” But Cary Grant never sat and looked at his movies — while everyone else said, ‘Cary Grant!’ — he would look at himself and think, my tie’s crooked, a spot of makeup is off or something. I’m always comparing myself to people who for some reason seem more collected when they talk. I used to be the press, so I understand the dynamic.
TB: Selfish question: You were in Mahogany with Diana Ross and Anthony Perkins. Any stories to tell us about the mysterious Tony P.?
BV: Well, I don’t have many Anthony Perkins stories to share because they’re so dark and sexual. [Laughs.] That was a strange movie because it was Diana Ross’ second movie and Berry Gordy fired the director, who was only Tony Richardson. You can imagine the set. We shot everything, then we had to reshoot everything because the picture had to get to Rome, which was prettier than Chicago. Things got rewritten and re-done. This one scene I had, we wrote ourselves. We kept looking down at a piece of paper in front of us, and that’s why we keep looking down — to make sure we knew the lines. The plot had changed. He was a part of that whole thing. He didn’t have too much to shoot in Chicago. I knew him later on when I moved to California because we were neighbors.
TB: Tell me you’ve had some amazing neighbors in L.A.
BV: Over the years, yeah. A bizarre collection. I had tons of people — Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland. That’s a couple no one ever talks about anymore. They almost got married. It was almost Runaway Bride! I was in a cute boy cul de sac once with Scott Wolf, Ian Ziering, Christian Slater, and uh, Paul Reiser. They were all my cute boy neighbors. I would think, “Would one of you mow the lawn with your shirt off? It would liven things up.” But no. No, they all had help. They all had third-worlders who did that. Now Ian Ziering’s a guest stripper or guest host at Chippendale’s in Vegas for a limited engagement, running the show. He’s close to 50, so he’s bulked up. He’s musclebound up there with those guys. He’s in unbelievably fabulous shape. Though he has a small daughter he carries around, so that’s maybe how he stays in shape. He’s a cool guy and a sweetheart.