Maccewill “Elizabeth” Yip rewatches the movie version of the Broadway musical version of Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning 1967 comedy classic The Producers and has words for director Susan Stroman and a focus on the film’s portrayal of campy gay characters.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the 2005 version of The Producers ever since I heard news about it during production. My very first thought was why the hell would they want to remake the 1968 movie? At this day and age, why would they do this story in particular? However, as I read further and as more news came in, I begin to change my opinion and got excited for the news. Mel Brooks would get involved! This is going to be based on the stage musical (*There was a musical version?*)! Most of the people from the original cast are going to be reprising their roles! Will Ferrell! Uma Thurman! Now I couldn’t wait!
Before I continue let me say that at this time I hadn’t known much about or watched any live stage musicals, so I was completely oblivious to The Producers, “The Musical.” But after reading about the new film and learning about the live stage source, especially after reading the rave reviews and the awards it won, all I could think of is, “Cool! Since I never got the chance to see the show live, this film would be a way for me to catch the magic of the stage since they brought back most of the original cast for the movie!”
So a friend, a fellow Mel Brooks fan, and I went to see the new film. Two-plus hours later we came out agreeing that it was a good film but not as great as we had hoped. The main thing I remembered we pointed out was the performance of Matthew Broderick. In particular, I felt that Broderick was just doing a terrible, over-the-top imitation of Gene Wilder’s hysterics from the original film. I was worried that that was how the whole movie would be like, but luckily it was only in the early scenes. We liked the songs, especially the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number and the use of the adding machine cranking sounds into the score. We liked Will Ferrell well enough, but not as much with Uma Thurman. Overall, I felt that there was something in the movie that didn’t gel properly, and it didn’t help when we compared it to the 1968 film.
Re-watching the movie now, after more experience watching musicals and working on stage productions myself, I now understand and can better voice some of the things that were nagging me. Some of it can be explained by the director, which is not actually Mel Brooks, who this time took the position of co-writer and producer. Instead, it was the person who had directed the stage production, Susan Stroman. Stroman have had a lot of credits as director/choreographer for her stage work, but The Producers is the only film in her record as director, and there are several parts where it shows. One was the blocking. Sometimes blocking on stage has to work around restrictions of space, or sometimes it has to be exaggerated to make an action or situation more understandable and to be seen clearly. However, some of these don’t translate on film. One scene that sticks out to me is the one when Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock is with one of his “financiers,” Hold Me, Touch Me, when Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom comes out, holding his jacket in front of his head, and walks towards Bialystock and the old lady before reacting to the action on the couch in front of him and running off. Why did Bloom have to walk towards the couch when there is so much space to realistically sneak away behind the couch? It’s an action that is understandable and probably more hilarious onstage, but with film, you can do close-ups, wide shots, and editing to show him trying to get away all while capturing his reaction to the frisky romp in front of him.
Another issue I see is how some scenes seems a little static and stagey. Part of it is from the blocking problems mentioned before, but mainly it’s (a) not being able to take advantage of the environment, and (b) hesitancy of experimenting with the camera. Let’s start with the first reason. If you look at the original movie where Max is trying to convince Leo to go with the scheme all around New York, you see Max takes Leo on a ride to the carousel at the park, a ride in a boat at a lake, taking a view on top of a skyscraper. In all these shots, you see the characters engaging with the actual outdoor settings of New York. However, looking at a similar sequence in the 2005 movie, we see very little engagement of the characters to the environment. The only thing close is when they go from building to street to cab in the “We Can Do It” number, and later on at the fountain, which I will come back to momentarily. Watching it, I have the feeling as if they could have just put the actors on stage and do everything while just projecting the background behind them. I can even imagine one of those fake prop cars coming by as they do the part of them jumping into the cab. For the second reason, camera movement, let’s go back to the fountain scene. In the newer film, Lane and Broderick are seen mainly in a close-ups and regular two-shots, or shots where we see the two characters. We see a little movement, but it is mainly at the same straight angle. What was great in the original movie was that there was a shot where the camera is lower and we look up at Wilder on top of the fountain as he makes this great speech, all the while the camera follows him at that angle while he strolls around the fountain. It is a wonderful, more dynamic sequence that’s harder to capture on stage.
The music numbers overall were pretty good, like the “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” and “Along Came Bialy,” but the two I felt were done particularly well in the film were “Springtime for Hitler” (of course) and “I Wanna Be a Producer.” However, those last two examples were effective because they were set on stage, real (in the play) and imagined (in Leo’s daydream), respectively. The ones I didn’t like as much were those that were meant to be located in a real setting, but suddenly feels staged and static, a good example being “That Face” with Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman. They are dancing in Max’s office, which was cluttered, until it became a clean and open space for them to dance in. Plus, the scene is shot a little boringly, adding to the staged feeling. But as I said, I liked most of the songs well enough, and I found that most of the ones I liked had interesting additions to the soundtrack (adding machines in “I Wanna Be a Producer,” walkers in “Along Came Bialy,” and pigeons in “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop”).
Another mixed reaction I have with the 2005 movie is the casting. Most of those returning from the original Broadway cast were good. Although I still prefer Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, I felt Nathan Lane did pretty well with the part and made it his own. Matthew Broderick on the other hand I still have problems with. He’s a good singer and works well with Lane, but it just felt like he was trying to channel Gene Wilder, but instead went over-the-top. Since this was a translation from stage to film, it felt like Lane was able to pull back appropriately, whereas Broderick is still trying to project himself to a larger audience in a Broadway theater. Proof can be seen in the documentary Recording the Producers, which shows the original cast going into a studio and recording the songs they have done on stage. You can see almost all of them by second-nature inadvertently re-enacting their reactions and movements they have done on stage, even though they are only producing audio tapes in a studio. That is what I think happened with Broderick. Also from Recording the Producers, I was able to see a bit of the original Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar) and Ulla (Cady Huffman), and of the little I’ve seen, I wished they would have used them in the film. Will Ferrell was not too bad as Liebkind, but I didn’t think Uma Thurman work at all as Ulla. Ulla needed to have a sweet but mischievous innocence, but Thurman has more of a strong, intelligent quality that doesn’t quite match. [Ed. Nicole Kidman dropped out before shooting, and I’m not sure either would have been much better.]
The last thing I wanted to touch upon was something that was on my mind for a while and a reason why I chose this movie to review. In all iterations of The Producers there are the characters of Roger DeBris, the director, and Carmen Ghia, his common-law assistant. They are flamboyantly gay stereotypes, probably more so in the musical and the 2005 movie with the music number “Keep It Gay.” When I first watched this scene, I thought it was fun and hilarious. When I re-watch it now, I still get the sense of fun and hilarity, but now it’s tinged with some awareness. I watch it thinking of how I felt being Chinese and having to watch films with Asian stereotypes and yellowface, or white people made-up to look Asian. So how can this get by, whereas everything from the musical onward had dropped the hippie character Lorenzo St. Dubois (LSD) because: (a) anachronism [the 1968 film is set in 1968, the musical and 2005 film is set in the fifties] and (b) the hippie flowerchild stereotype is now dated. In a time where openly gay Neil Patrick Harris can make jokes about gay culture and theater at the Tonys, but it is now verboten to tease about Caitlyn Jenner (remember that one of the explicit jokes in the play/movies is Roger wearing a dress), how do we know when we cross the line?
Before looking into this particular case, one of the usual justification is the need to understand the context and intent. In recent times, this explanation have occasionally been coupled with the critique of the current state of political correctness. Another way it is justified is noting how there is not only gay jokes, but jokes that poke fun of other groups. As Christopher Wallenberg said in his review of the film:
“It doesn’t hurt that the stereotypes spring from the warped mind of Mel Brooks, an equal opportunity offender if there ever was one. In The Producers, Brooks also skewers showbiz hucksters, sex-starved old ladies, various ethnic clans and, most famously, the Third Reich, with the same politically incorrect outlandishness.”
This explanation seems to be the one brought up the most in my research, especially by actors who are openly gay and playing a major role in The Producers on stage. Also popping up in my research was this little explanation from tvtropes.org of why the camp gay perception is persistent:
“The stereotype still survives because for some fraction of the gay male population, this is in fact Truth in Television. As such, this fact is greatly exaggerated by media, and this trope is made out to be more prevalent than it actually is. This can result in Unfortunate Implications, as it can lead one to believe that all gay men are (uber-)effeminate and, say, like flowers.”
After looking into it myself and evaluating the initial reason this scene was a little problematic for me, I have come up with one of my own reason. Over the years, a gay character wasn’t really openly visible on film. There have been a few that were implied, but you couldn’t explicitly show it. It is only recently in the last few years that we have out-and-out gay characters, and for many it is embraced as something to be celebrated. However, my hang-up was comparing this to the portrayal of Asian characters in American cinema, as well as what I know of the same with black characters. Throughout film history, Asian and black people have been shown on film more openly than gay people. However, with this visibility also comes the years of the presentation of the cultures’ stereotypes. Asians felt more of the sting because we had to deal with the additional insult of yellowface to this day, something that was found unacceptable in black culture as blackface many years earlier. So right now, the big movement is to portray different people as real people, to present the different cultures respectfully, or to just have a minority playing a character without the need make a point our or take note of his or her ethnicity.
Currently, there is more awareness of gay culture in film, and so now we are beginning to see the turn of portrayal out of demand for better representation, just like those from the Asian and black communities. The spectrum of sexuality is broadened now to not only separate gay and straight, but bi- and transsexual. Recently, there have been criticism of Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal of a trans model in the newest trailer for Zoolander 2, which makes me wonder what would the reaction of the 2005 The Producers be if it were released today.
I still have the mixed reactions of this film as I had when I first viewed it ten years ago. There is just so much I loved from the original version that the 2005 really hadn’t had much of a chance. I’m glad they dropped L.S.D. (pun intended), Dick Shawn’s hippie character that has become dated in this and when he played a similar character in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. Although I still view the characters as a little too stereotypical, I like how Brooks was able to rework Roger DeBris character into the Hitler role in replacement of L.S.D. Also, the 1968 film seems more grounded in reality, whereas the 2005, with some of its outlandish gags and meta jokes, seems closer in nature to Brooks’ later films like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Overall, however, I feel that I might have enjoyed this more when it was onstage than what I saw them try to translate into film and wouldn’t mind catching it if there is a revival.
-Favorite song lyric: “Oedipus won’t bomb, if he winds up with mom.”
-The 1968 film made the Springtime for Hitler show seem like a full show, whereas the 2005 film, and I’m guessing the stage musical, made it seem to have just the one song number.
-The auditioning Hitlers feels like parodies from the ones in the 1968 film.
-Bing Bong (Richard Kind) is a juror! [Ed. He was one of the Bialystock replacements during the long Broadway run. Cameos abound in this movie from NY and LA alums.]
-Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from Doctor Who and Torchwood is the main tenor in Springtime for Hitler!
-In Recording the Producers, Brooks said that, when asked what his favorite film is, he is tempted to say Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, but realistically he would re-watch Top Hat or Shall We Dance.