Friendships star, as Hollywood sells same-gender bonding rites BUDDY MOVIES

May 10, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here's a question being asked more and more in Hollywood: Buddy, can you spare $40 million to make a movie about . . . buddies?

And the answer, more and more, is yes.

The buddy movie, in which a duo of adventurous rogues quip their way through explosions, disasters and conspiracies, has blossomed into the most popular American film genre of the '90s. Spatting like kittens in a sack, our heroes or heroines are far more interested in each other, in the nature of their relationship and its pleasures and pitfalls, than in the various forces trying to erase them.

This is worth mentioning not merely because next week the ne plus ultra du cinema des amis, "Lethal Weapon 3," opens, but also because most movies are buddy movies; or, put another way, the buddy theme, the dream of idealized friendship as steady as the North Star, has worked its way into genres as disparate as feminist parable, macho cop movie, western and even sci-fi. Just last week, without anybody remarking upon it, the two big openers, "K2" and "Leaving Normal," were also buddy movies. The most hotly debated movie of last year, "Thelma & Louise," was a buddy movie; in a funny way, "The Silence of the Lambs" was, too -- the buddies being an apprentice FBI agent and a hyper-intellectual psychotic killer. What a barrel of laughs they were!

Buddy movies have their origins in the lower realms of show biz tradition, in the vaudeville teams of the last century and early in this one. Somehow, it dawned upon early performers that two bubs reacting against each other and out of well-established personalities could be a lot funnier that a single comic telling jokes to the audience and putting bananas in his pants.

This minor tradition on the burlesque circuit found its first cinematic expression -- and perhaps its purest expression -- in the works of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Perhaps other comedy teams had been joined before 1926, when Hal Roach decided to link the two, but if so, they haven't entered the vernacular of film legend. Laurel and Hardy really invented the form of the buddy movie as it's practiced today: Two carefully defined personalities united in a minuet of extraordinary timing, each move choreographed for maximum comic destruction. James Agee, writing about Charlie Chaplin (whom he admired almost as much as I do Laurel and Hardy), claimed that the core of Chaplin's genius was his ability to find a through-line that penetrated the laugh rubric: the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh and finally the boffo. The very best of the silent comics could trip the light fantastic on this stairway to heaven, delicately torturing you with subtly escalating comic nuance until you were helplessly in the vise of oxygen debt and thoracic cavity cramp.

Silent to sound

Laurel and Hardy's refinement of the Chaplin through-line might have been called tit-for-tat-for-total destruction. It, like most great comedy, realized that humor is really stylized aggression, projected into the realm of the ridiculous or the absurd. Typically, they'd spat, but instead of expressing their aggression directly, each would turn to a different hemisphere of the immediately available environment and begin, slowly and with stately grace, to deconstruct it. Their madness soon passed the bounds of logic; and as it spiraled toward the surreal, it became more and more hilarious.

But the true astonishment of Laurel and Hardy was that, unlike any other silent comic stars, they were able to make the transformation to sound without missing a step. If anything, their work became sharper because with dialogue they could punch up the personalities -- the prissy, vaguely pompous and authoritarian Hardy, and the vague and wispy but surprisingly stubborn Laurel -- that formed the basis of the act. And, of course, through all the surrogate aggression, what one felt was their true affection for each other and the faith that their love would ultimately conquer all.

Hey, Abbott!

Laurel and Hardy gave way in the '40s to two more traditional vaudevillians, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy, these two had worked together for years before finally getting into films (they buddied-up in 1931 and made their first movie in 1940).

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