While many of Blazing Saddles ‘ vaudevillian jokes show signs of wear in the 30 years since it was released, the movie’s social commentary surrounding the West’s first black sheriff is still, for better or worse, surprisingly fresh. There simply is a dearth of comedies with similar teeth today (we had high hopes for White Chicks , but … ).
To revisit Saddles is to discover Mel Brooks at the apex of his abilities, blending a historical and social prespective with his customary slapstick shtick. Neither The Producers nor The History of the World are as relevant. In those movies, Mr. Brooks seemed content to shock for laughs alone. In Saddles , however, there is a specific social agenda at work. The N-word is used often and with abandon, as if to strip it of any significance, but to hear it spat out in a Southern twang is still cringe-worthy.
A young Richard Pryor contributed his unique brand of incendiary comedy to the script. (At one time, Mr. Pryor was even considered for the role of the sheriff, Bart, but the studio instead chose TV actor Cleavon Little-leaving many fans wondering what might have been. Gene Wilder, who stars in the film as the Waco Kid, would have to wait until 1976’s Silver Streak to form his fruitful duo with Mr. Pryor.) The two provocateurs, Messrs. Brooks and Pryor, formed an unlikely writing duo, but their odd alchemy turned the controversial Saddles into one of the funniest movies of all time.
After the main event, take in the documentary tribute Back in the Saddle and let out a big “oy vey” when screenwriter Andrew Bergman talks about the “house that farts built.” Also included in this anniversary-edition DVD is the pilot episode of Black Bart , a proposed TV series spin-off that was never picked up, and a documentary about the late and extremely great Madeline Kahn, who played singing floozy Lili Von Shtupp.
[ Blazing Saddles (1974), R, 93 min., $19.97.]
Pass the Pepto
H eartburn , a flaccid 1986 marriage melodrama written by original chick-flick maven Nora Ephron, based on her own book, appears today to be a minor hiccup in the otherwise solid career of director Mike Nichols.
Rachel Louise Samstat (Meryl Streep) is a successful food critic living in New York, when she meets Washington columnist Mark Louis Forman (Jack Nicholson) at a wedding. Both divorced, they have a short courtship, marry and move to our nation’s capital, and then he knocks her up. Events swoosh by, and suddenly Forman has cheated on his wife-preggers for the second time-with a tall, sophisticated (in an 80’s way) D.C. socialite. Egads! Rachel takes the child and leaves him. Goes back to him. Has another baby. Leaves him again.
Of course, Mr. Nicholson’s character-based on Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, once Ms. Ephron’s husband, though the screen version plays more like a thinly veiled version of the Casanova Nicholson-gets off scot-free. And Ms. Streep’s character comes off as a martyr. Mr. Nichols and Ms. Ephron try to buoy the hackneyed story with flat gags and pseudo-intellectual banter. But we don’t need a melodramatic movie with sleepwalking great performers to make the obvious point that all men are pigs, and women pay the ultimate price. That’s what the Lifetime channel is for.
The sole highlight: Kevin Spacey in his cinematic debut as a subway robber.He looked very fetching with Billy Idol–style bleached tips.
[ Heartburn (1986), R, 109 min., $14.99.]
Death Becomes Them
At the beginning of every episode of Six Feet Under , someone slips into the great unknown. A white fade-out envelops the character, signaling their ascension into that great white light. And yet the real drama hasn’t even begun. Created by American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, the HBO show centers around a Los Angeles funeral home run by two brothers: former wild child Nathan (Peter Krause) and prim homosexual David (Michael C. Hall). Above the viewing room live their artsy younger sister (Lauren Ambrose) and cloying mother (Frances Conroy). It is this family’s unique dysfunction that propels the series and makes it one of the best on TV.
Though some are carping that Six Feet Under has gotten too dreary in its fourth season, it remains a television show of unparalleled pathos. The second season was the best so far; we’d gotten over the gruesome novelty of the first season, and, ironic as it sounds, it still felt fresh exploring the full spectrum of responses to meeting one’s maker (from ironic detachment to primal-screaming grief). And the reactions of the still-living, dealing with that ever-present specter, are even more interesting. Yes indeedy, Six Feet Under consistently handles the tough questions about the great beyond without slipping into languid melodrama-and that’s a big wake-up call for us callow kiddies.
“The future is just a fucking concept that we use to avoid living today,” exclaims Nathan’s sex-addict girlfriend, played by that reedy Aussie Rachel Griffiths. It almost makes you want to drop the remote and get away from the couch … almost.
[ Six Feet Under: The Complete Second Season (2002), NR, 180 min., $99.98.]