The last thing 'Distinguished' director wanted to do was make a 'message' movie

December 08, 1992|By Orange County Register

If you want to scare the bejabbers out of a big Hollywood director, mention the words "satire" and "message" while discussing his latest work.

For Jonathan Lynn, the British-born director who surprised the movie world this year with the hit "My Cousin Vinny," those two words dropped casually into a recent conversation were cause for a panic attack.

It was just a few days before the opening of Mr. Lynn's latest directorial effort, the Eddie Murphy comedy "The Distinguished Gentleman," and he was in no mood for bad-luck charms like the "s" and "m" words.

"Please, this is not a satire and I don't know what possible message it delivers," he said firmly. "I never look for messages. I leave messages for Western Union."

Obviously, directors are no less superstitious than the rest of us. But there is a long-held belief in Hollywood that satire and message movies scare off audiences. The late humorist George S. Kaufman once said: "Satire is what closes Saturday night."

Mr. Lynn said: "When people hear the word 'satire' they think of something that's boring. In the case of political satire, they think of something that attacks the system with the hope of changing it.

"We didn't make this movie to attack Congress, and we did not set out to change the American political system. The purpose of this movie was simply to make people laugh."

Mr. Murphy plays a con man who decides that the biggest scam of all is to run for Congress. After winning a congressional seat, he discovers that the scam has only started.

BHe can't count the money fast enough as it rolls in from lobbyists and special-interest groups.

This is Mr. Murphy's first film for Disney, after a long association with Paramount, and it is the first movie in a long time in which he is just an actor. In his more recent films, such as "Harlem Nights" and "Boomerang," he took on many of the responsibilities of a producer. Movie stars who make billions at the box office tend to do that after a while. It's called "creative control."

"I didn't have any sense that Eddie wanted to be anything but an actor in this picture," Mr. Lynn said. "I think he was relieved not to be a producer. He never showed the slightest sign of wanting to run the show."

But that doesn't mean Mr. Lynn wasn't a little nervous about working with an actor known to have a superstar ego.

"Of course I was worried," he said. "I read the newspapers, too. But then again, I'm always worried when I start a new project like this. Don't believe any director who says he isn't anxious about starting an expensive film with a superstar in it."

Mr. Lynn said he met Mr. Murphy at the actor's New Jersey mansion and the men circled each other a bit cautiously at first.

"He had just seen 'My Cousin Vinny,' which I assumed he liked, and he wanted to talk about the script for 'The Distinguished Gentleman.'

"He wanted to know where I thought changes should be made and how I felt about improvising. I told him I loved improvising," Mr. Lynn recalled, "as long as it made the scene better, and we did a lot of improvising in this movie.

"We talked very carefully for about a half-hour, and suddenly he stopped the conversation and said, 'Let's do it.' That was it. We had no problems on the set, and he was a total delight. Whatever went on in the past with Eddie didn't go on here."

Mr. Lynn, 49, is not one of those Steven Spielberg-like directors who started making movies in his neighborhood at age 8 and then went on to a prestigious film school and studied under George Lucas.

In fact, he did attend a prestigious school -- Cambridge University -- but it was to study law. He got interested in acting while at the school.

Although he made his mark skewering British politics and social customs in two British TV series, numerous theatrical productions and three best-selling books, he has been lauded recently for his keen eye in finding the silliness in American politics and social customs.

But as he points out, politics are easy to make fun of, regardless of which side of the ocean you're on.

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