We’ve Got Bruce
Saturday Aug 16, 2014
When it comes to Hollywood insiders, few come close to Bruce Vilanch. Over his thirty-year-plus career, he has worked with virtually every major talent in the entertainment industry: Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Elizabeth Taylor and (famously) the late Robin Williams. He has also been writing special material for the Oscars since 1989 – a collaboration that has had its ups-and-downs, but also given Vilanch an insider’s view on the film’s industry’s biggest party. He is also no stranger to other award shows, having written for the Emmys, Tonys and Grammys. Or Broadway, where he starred in “Hairspray” after taking it on the road.
Vilanch may be best-known for his stint on “The Hollywood Squares” on which he appeared for four seasons as well as being the show’s head writer. He has been in numerous films (including having made his film debut in “Mahogany” with Diana Ross in 1974). He has even been the subject of a documentary film – “Get Bruce” – which has one of the most star-studded casts in history. For Vilanch, they were his friends.
He’s been a tireless supporter of LGBT causes over the years, including being one of the first to take part in benefits for AIDS in the 1980s. It was from those experiences that he found himself working for the Oscars. And speaking of awards, Vilanch has won some six Emmy Awards for his writing.
That he one of the funniest celebrities in Hollywood is no secret. Part of what has made his solo dates, such as the one that comes to Club Café on Saturday, August 16 at 8pm, so endearing is his ease at making good-natured fun at not only Hollywood royalty, but himself. “I am frequently mistaken for Shelley (Winters) by people that don’t know she’s dead,” he said recently in a freewheeling conversation this week from Saugatuck, Michigan, where he was performing.
EDGE: So what are you wearing?
Bruce Vilanch What am I wearing? Hmmm. A t-shirt with an actual photo of Batman and Robin kind-of embracing. It’s a still from the old show. And they have this expression on their faces that make it seem they’re fascinated with each other. So the caption reads, ‘Batman and Robin: Let’s Hook Up.’ You look at their faces and you think, that’s what they’re really thinking. They’re in love with each other. Look at those expressions! And is there anything better to wear in the Provincetown of the Midwest?
EDGE: Speaking of Provincetown, did you hear that a ferry was nearly capsized by a wave this week?
Bruce Vilanch Really? No. But are you sure it wasn’t a convention of Shelley Winters impersonators just hoping to get capsized? If it was, I would be one of them because I am frequently mistaken for Shelley by people that don’t know she’s dead. They think she still slinks amongst us.
EDGE: Did you know her?
Bruce Vilanch Yes. She was a great actress and a hysterical person. Literally a hysterical person – when I would see her she shout, ‘my God… you’re all sweaty? What are you doing?’ Every meeting was an Academy Award winning performance. Most people didn’t realize she was a bombshell when she was a kid. Or realize how great she really was. She was one of the prime movers of the Actors’ Studio with Brando and James Dean. And a lot of her really good work was on stage… And on screen? There’s always ‘South Seas Sinner.’
Maybe I could do a one-woman show about Shelley Winters. When she wrote her book it was all about her many affairs and everyone she had an affair with was dead, because she didn’t want to write about anybody that was still alive because they would deny it. I think she could have called the book ‘Fuck Shelley and Die.’ My show will be like that. ‘Shelley Winters, Killer Pussy.’
EDGE: What are you doing in Boston?
Bruce Vilanch: What can I plug? How can I get them in? Tell some rude stories about Justin Bieber? I don’t have any of that. I do have stories about my life and times – my illustrious career in show business and all the bizarre people I met and all the backstage stories. It’s funny and dishy. Funny and dishy. (Slipping into a professional phone voice) ‘Funny and Dishy… could I direct your call?’
I don’t know what I am going to say and I’m not so sure what I say now would look good in print, so it’s a good idea not to say anything. But I’ve done 23 Academy Awards shows and everyone has trooped through that extravaganza, so there are stories about plenty of them.
EDGE: You dished James Franco when he did the Oscars – will you mention him?
Bruce Vilanch: Yes. Sure. Why not? I’ll get in trouble again. They’ll never ask him back, so why do I care?
EDGE: Have you started to work on next year’s Oscars?
Bruce Vilanch: Oh, no. Not yet. It starts around October when the producer comes in and gets active and figures out how he or she wants the show to unfold. And then the host comes onboard and it gets deeper as it goes along. Most of the show is written after the nominations come out in January because you don’t really know what you are going to talk about. It doesn’t make sense to prepare stuff about movies that get shut out; and you don’t know who is going to actually appear on the show until after the nominations come out and people sort out their feelings. Whether they want to be on the show or exercise the ritual taking of umbrage because they or their friends were not acknowledged. There use to be the honorary awards, but they made the show so long, so they moved them to separate event – the Governor’s Award – in November that I wrote this year and show excerpts on the awards.
EDGE: Do any of the celebrities as the Oscars take umbrage with the jokes you write?
Bruce Vilanch At first, yeah. A lot of times. But first you have the gauntlet of their people – their manager, their agent, their publicist, their holistic pet psychiatrist, their gardener, their Pilates instructor. Everybody has an opinion. Then they get back to you with what they want changed. By the time it gets to the show, they’ve signed off on anything, so it’s rare if somebody goes off-book on the night of the show. The spontaneous moments come from the winners, who can be depended upon to do something ridiculous because they’re over-excited. And the host commenting on what’s going on during the show. That’s where the spontaneous moments come from.
EDGE: How did Ellen’s selfie-seen-round-the-world happen at last year’s show?
Bruce Vilanch I don’t know. I wasn’t on the show last year because it was all Ellen and her staff. She has ten dedicated people that write her show every day and they did the Oscars. I did Ellen’s first time in 2007 and we did a version of the selfie that year, so I suspect whoever had the idea to do it again watched the show that year.
She did it with Spielberg. She had Spielberg take a picture of her and Clint Eastwood. It was the exact same bit. All that was missing was the dozen stars chomping to be in the shot, which they knew would be seen around the world. So you don’t get to see poor Liza, who was too short to get in on the thing. But on the other hand we got a nice full face of Lupita Nyong’o‘s brother, who oddly didn’t capitalize on that. I would think his people would have had him all over the place; but somewhere good taste prevailed. Either that or she said, ‘this is my night. Stand back.’ Maybe she let him wear all her dresses.
EDGE: Every year there seems to be different producers of the Oscars, but you remain a constant with the ceremony. What’s the key to your longevity?
Bruce Vilanch It’s like inventing the wheel every year, yet every year it looks pretty much like the year before; because it’s the nature of the beast. It’s a format to which you must adhere, that makes the show pretty much like every other show. New producers come in and say they’re going to change all that, but they can’t. As they go along they realize it’s a big, unwieldy piece, and it helps to have people around that have done it before; which is why you end up doing it for 23 years. That and various relationships you have with performers – hosts and what not – they want you to be around with them.
EDGE: You’ve also been involved with the Grabby Awards…
Bruce Vilanch Yeah. I’ve done them many time. Of course, they’re porno, and I love the porno business… and the people in it. Fascinating to me. But how I got initially – a lot of those award shows were the first AIDS fundraisers because a lot of the people involved in them was affected by the disease at the beginning. They weren’t raising money and wanted to find a way to raise money, and it was an easy way to do it. And it was an industry willing to chip in. So I ended up getting involved in it because it was a fund-raising device, and then, of course, once I got to the picnic I didn’t want to leave until I had every corn on the cob.
EDGE: What do they look for with a good host for the Oscars?
Bruce Vilanch They’re always looking for someone peaking at the box office at the moment, but what really helps with the ratings is a good year at the movies. It hasn’t been a good summer, but they’re not the kind of pictures the Academy pays attention to except for technical awards. And the year is back-loaded with the stuff they want to win awards, so people haven’t seen anything that will be talked about on the show next year. They’re have been a couple that will get included; but most of the stuff reveals itself in October. I just saw a trailer for “Into the Woods” that comes out on Christmas Day with that tornado movie.
EDGE: You mean, ‘Into the Storm?’ Wasn’t it hilarious when the storm hit that international airport in the middle of nowhere and started picking up 747s…?
Bruce Vilanch I loved that. Suddenly it was ‘Sharknado.’ I want to do a politically-aware disaster movie and call it ‘Ralphnado.’ A group of left-wing lawyers get picked up by a tornado and become Ralphnado, crashing into corporate America.
EDGE: Wasn’t it a terrible movie?
Bruce Vilanch Yes, but I love terrible movies. I use to go with a group to the movies every week back when going to the movies was a ritual and we’d go see a piece of shit movie. That was back when going to the movies was more of a rituals, and we’d pick terrible movies, like ‘Killer Fish’ starring Karen Black or ‘The Lonely Lady’ with Pia Zadora. So we decided to go to a movie and see ‘Into the Storm’ at the Mann’s Chinese Theatre. It wasn’t on the big screen, but on a smaller one; and it was heaven. We were half the audience – there were six of us and the audience was 12; so we could talk out loud, that was if you could be heard over the tornado. There was girl that was like Sandra Bullock and I said, she was going to have to take over the van but won’t be able to go over 50 because there is a bomb on it. They should have borrowed anything from every other action movie ever made.
EDGE: Didn’t the high school principal in the film look like President Obama?
Bruce Vilanch He looked exactly like Obama. It was hysterical – is the subtext of this that Obama winds up a high school principal? Is this what we are suppose to take from this? Is this a right wing moment here?
And the girl in the Helen Hunt part – the weather expert – she was a little bit too old for it and had a little too much work done to be that woman and pretend to be the mother of that baby. It was just enough to put it into The Asylum territory.
EDGE: And the vice principal, who was the movies hero, didn’t he look like Mitt Romney?
Bruce Vilanch Now that you mention it, yes. About him. He was this single guy raising two boys single-handedly and working as a vice principal at the school, but found time to get to the gym. He was really built under the white shirt and tie, which came in handy when he had to move Volkswagon buses off of people and stuff like that. This man knows how to multi-task! At least they spared us how he ended up with the weather expert. Here they were – he’s a single dad with two kids, she’s a single mom with a baby; I thought they were going to end up together, but they didn’t, which violates a cardinal rule. But then there will always be a sequel because they’re always be a tornado somewhere.
EDGE: My question is, why do people live there?
Bruce Vilanch I get the same criticism from people about living in LA. Why do you live where you know there’s going to be a fire followed by a mud slide; which is true. We all know that, but it’s nice while it lasts. Like people say, why do you build where there are coyotes and bears? They build these subdivisions in the hills, then wonder why there are coyotes roaming the streets. They’re surprised – ‘oh, gee. Isn’t this LA?’ It was, until they built out there.
I am waiting for the movie about the wild packs of coyotes invading the suburb. It’s perfect for The Asylum, but they’re too busy doing ‘Mega-Octopussy.’ Oh, what is the one that’s they’re doing? ‘Pteracuda’ – it’s a pterodactyl barracuda combo that can fly and swim. And the only thing that can get it is ‘Sharktopus,’ which is a shark and octopus combination, which cannot fly, but can do a great slither.
EDGE: What is The Asylum?
Bruce Vilanch The studio that makes all those movies for the Sci-fi Channel. Leading up to ‘Sharknado 2,’ they ran a week of all those movies. The giant piranha one, ‘Mega Piranha.’ They’re cautionary tales about creating creatures in a lab. ‘Mega Shark’ was created to get rid of submarines – it can bite through the hull. And, of course, ‘Mega Shark’ goes wild and attacks Acapulco and chomps his way through the hotels.
EDGE: Have you been going to the movies this summer?
Bruce Vilanch Of course. In fact, my new drag name is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I couldn’t resist her – she was too perfect. They’re carrying on out here that it’s been a terrible summer because not enough people went to the movies. I went to watch Helen Mirren in ‘A Hundred Foot Journey.’ It was a wonderful movie and I had a huge meal afterward. It sent you out looking for a French place or an Indian place or a really cute Indian boyfriend that can make a hollandaise sauce.
Bruce Vilanch appears Saturday, August 16, 2014, 8pm, at Club Cafe, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. For ticket info, visit the Club Cafe website.