The first year Billy Crystal struck out to make it in show business, he earned $2,000 and supplemented his income by working as a substitute teacher. He’s done better since.
Wherever you happen to live, chances are that the 47-year-old actor, screenwriter, director, master of ceremonies and all-around mensch has been beamed into your living room. Along with Woody Allen, whom he greatly admires, Rob Reiner, for whom he co-starred in “When Harry Met Sally…” and Robin Williams, with whom he has begun to work on a possible American remake of the French hit “Les Compères,” Crystal is one of the most talented and prolific comedians around. As of September 20, he is onscreen here opposite Debra Winger in “Forget Paris,” which he co-wrote and directed.
After a memorable season on “Saturday Night Live” (1984-85) Crystal made history portraying the first openly gay character on American television in “Soap,” the innovative situation comedy that parodied soap opera conventions. As creator, writer and producer of the six-part series “Sessions” for HBO, Crystal tackled the comic possibilities of the analyst’s couch. After he and Meg Ryan joked and paried their way through 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally…” – a solid hit that Crystal describes as “the first romantic comedy for my generation” – “City Slickers” helped cement his reputation as a baby boomer icon. Although Crystal has hosted four Oscar telecasts, three Grammy awards shows and six “Comic Relief” telethons and is the recipient of five Emmy Awards, six American Comedy Awards and seven Cable Ace Awards, he’s unpretentious, overtly curious about the people around him and genuinely, spontaneously funny.
“Forget Paris,” Crystal’s second film as director, deals with the challenge of keeping romance alive once the heightened – and idealized – passion of the honeymoon is over. Punctuating the story, which is told primarily in flashback, several couples trade anecdotes about Mickey (Crystal) and Ellen (Winger), a Los Angeles-based NBA referee and a Paris-based airline exec who meet when the casket containing Mickey’s dead father goes astray en route to burial in Normandy. “Forget Paris” has some very funny moments and some wonderful set pieces concerning sperm samples, senile in-laws and wayward pigeons, but it’s merely amusing as opposed to wildly, memorably entertaining.
A big fan of marriage and family, Crystal recently renewed his vows with Janice, his wife of 25 years, and says with obvious pride that he considers his greatest accomplishment to be having raised his two grown daughters. He spoke with the FREE VOICE at the Deauville film festival where “Forget Paris” had its French premiere.
Free Voice: I couldn’t help noticing that the credits included a copyright notice for “the lighting of the Eiffel Tower.” Is somebody worried that Big Ben or the Empire State Building is going to steal it?
Billy Crystal: You cannot imagine the amount of paperwork that goes into shooting a movie in Paris. We were scouting locations and we wanted to shoot in front of that distinctive fountain next to the Pompidou Center. They go, “No.” I go, “Why?” They go, “You have to pay each artist royalties, individually, for their sculptures.” I go, “No.” They go, “Yes.” I go, “Bye-bye.” We go to shoot the Eiffel Tower. They say, “You have to pay, or list in a credit the lighting for the Eiffel Tower.” I say, “Why?” They say “It’s copyrighted.” I say, “The way that it’s lit is copyrighted?” They say, “Yes.” I have to shoot there, so… This went on all the time. Can I shoot this building? No, no, Marcel Marceau leaned against it once. But it all worked out fine. The only real problem was Air France. We had to make up our own airline because they didn’t want to be known as the airline that loses dead bodies, and I can understand that.
FV: How familiar were you with the city before you began shooting last September?
BC: The two-week shoot was my fifth trip to Paris. I didn’t like it the first time I came – mostly due to all the clichés that seem to have riled the locals in “French Kiss.” They were rude to me, it was hard, I didn’t know my way around. But walking the streets with people who knew the city, I began to fall in love with it. And when we came to scout locations, I liked it so much I was ready to buy a place here. Besides, “Forget Paris” sounds a lot better than “Forget Detroit.”
FV: The vast majority of romantic films are about the chase.
BC: Here the end is the beginning. We start with “Happily ever after” and try to keep them there. We show that marriage can be difficult, particularly for people who aren’t ready for it. They only know each other 10 days, so they get to know each other, really, after they’re married. Which is dangerous. And also gives us a lot of opportunities for comedy and pathos. Give and take. How much are you willing to give up for your relationship, for your spouse? It’s compromise. What are they willing to change about themselves? The age of these characters is very important. They’re set in their ways.
FV: A number of the films being shown here in Deauville are gay-themed, including “Jeffrey” and “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.” I can recall when Jody, your character on “Soap,” made waves. It doesn’t seem like playing that part hurt your career, and yet it’s only very recently that straight actors have begun to feel comfortable with gay roles. Did you feel like a pioneer?
BC: Absolutely. We did subject matter about loving a man, about having a child – I had a daughter and fought for her custody. They actually gave me the baby and America wrote, calls were like 10 to 1 that Jody should have the baby rather than its birth mother. We did all these adult themes, with a live audience. I’m very proud of that show.
FV: Which working filmmakers do you most admire?
BC: Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are the best American filmmakers, and nobody writes as well as Woody. Woody, for me, is very much like Picasso. He’s constantly working. He’s constantly productive – I don’t know how he does it. While he’s making one movie, he’s writing a new movie and editing yet another one. I love Picasso. I don’t love every Picasso piece, but I love what he does. The good ones are incredible. They can make you cry. In the history of the whole world, only one guy saw the world this way, you know? That gets me. How many gizillions of people, and one guy says, “Nah, she should have three eyes and four breasts.” One guy! One guy could write “Annie Hall.”
FV: When Mickey Mantle died, you were quoted as saying that now you knew for sure that your childhood was over. Could you elaborate?
BC: I had a great relationship with Mickey Mantle, a great American baseball legend. I saw my first game in 1956. He hit a monstrously long home run that day…We were actually sitting in Louis Armstrong’s seats. My dad was in the music business and we got these seats from Satchmo. Louis set up a whole thing where we went down to the Yankees clubhouse before the game – I’m 8 years old – and somebody took my program inside and the guys signed it and there was Mickey Mantle’s signature, on the program. Flash forward to ’77. I’m doing “Soap” and I’m kinda known and I’m on Dinah Shore’s talk show. Mickey was a guest. He came out and signed the same program – 21 years apart. He was my all-time hero. I kept in touch with him. I spent a lot of time with him. I could not believe that I knew him. And then he died. The sports announcer Bob Costes asked me to help him write the eulogy. I sat in that big church in Dallas with all of the sports world and was able to say good-bye to him. It was very hard for me.
FV: On one of the Oscar telecasts you hosted I was taken by a line that went something like, “When you’re a little boy growing up on Long Island here’s something you never think you’ll get to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, Sophia Loren.” And there’s a very sweet reference to her in the sperm sample segment of “Forget Paris.”
BC: Sophia Loren was crucial to my boyhood. I was married to Sophia Loren. I had sex with Sophia Loren in more places than Sophia Loren has had sex. She didn’t know about it. So now, I’m hosting the Oscars. I go to the ball afterwards. Sophia Loren is at the next table. I’ve never met her before but, I mean, I’d spent many hours in her company. I look over and she does something that I prayed she would do when I was 15. She goes like this (he crooks his finger in a “come hither” gesture). She said to me, “Kiss me twice.” So I kiss her on each cheek. I almost passed out. “You are a charmer. You are the Jewish Cary Grant.” Next year, I’m in the wings. The show was on. Tap on my shoulder. I turn around: Sophia Loren. I say, “Miss Loren!” She says (Italian accent) “Call me Sophia. Kiss me twice. There’s someone here who would like to meet you. He adores you. Federico!” And it’s Fellini. And he says to me “You drive this show like it’s a race car. Vroom, vroom. You take-a de turns. You go fast. You are a race car driver!” So, I got to meet Sophia Loren and Fellini. It was the night he got his honorary Oscar.
A few hours after our interview Crystal gives a press conference in Deauville. When a French journalist asks if Crystal’s film is typical of Jewish humor, he replies, “I am a circumcised human being,” (pause) “but that only happened last week. I closed the door a little too fast as I left, and…” (he winces). As bilingual translator extraordinaire Waguih Takla does his job, Crystal interrupts to say, “It sounds so much better in French. Circumcision is a terrible thing. I was 6 days old. The guy goes ‘Whack!’ My uncle Louie goes, ‘Let’s eat!’ But [in French] ‘circoncision’ sounds great. It sounds like something you’d order in a fine restaurant. Waiter! Another ‘circoncision.'”
Face to face, before hundreds of people or – in the case of the Academy Awards – a cool billion, Crystal proves his earlier remark: “There’s really nothing I’d rather do than perform.” Fellini was so right. Vroom, vroom.