Around early November 2013, The Hollywood Reporter released the latest episode of their impressive roundtable series in which cinema’s biggest names come together to discuss their processes in creating stunning cinema. Among the big names were the creators of possibly the best films of last year, including Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), David O Russell (American Hustle), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity). Across the opposite side of the table sat Ben Stiller, a name unlikely to pop up in Oscar conversation or film commentary at all. His presence was cemented by his latest release The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie coined by many critics to be the Forrest Gump of the twenty first century. Yet even if Mitty did turn out to be such a feat, his presence would still look somewhat underwhelming amongst these masters of film.
It is with this fact in mind that I find myself trying to comprehend why someone who has been in the business for almost thirty years still appears to be someone who is not taken that seriously as a film personality. Admittedly, with productions such as Zoolander and Envy, it is as if Stiller himself is commanding that he not be taken sincerely, and that his comedies are Saturday night couch slouching flicks. However, something that seems to link many of his films together is the way that they seek to relate to the audience – he never sees himself as someone better than those in front of the screen and this provides great heart to the work he places on it.
If we look at examples such as 2001’s Zoolander and 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Stiller shows an awareness for the business that he has been a part of since the mid-eighties. In the world of Hollywood, success has shown to be the catalyst for big headed, paparazzi loathing, mansion owning actors; characters not too far from the pouting Derek Zoolander or Stiller’s drama inducing Tugg Speedman. Taking oneself too seriously can be a painful exhibit to witness (my thoughts drift back to Christian Bale’s rant on the set of Terminator Salvation) and Stiller is aware of this reality.
That is not to say that taking pride in your work is something negative, but yet it is clear throughout the history of film that there has been a barrier formed between the moviegoer and the actual “talent” seen on the screen. To stay well grounded is something that is very difficult to do; yet as an A-lister, Stiller has grasped and attained his gravitational pull. In the Hollywood Reporter episode, Stiller claims, “Being someone who has acted in movies, it’s really scary.” With this honest and salient fact being placed out into the open, both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder seem to be Stiller’s truthful and in many ways intelligent commentaries on the big business of blockbuster movie making as well as creating something that is satirically smart and funny, a combination rarely seen done well.
As Richard Ayoade sought funding for his 2011 directorial debut Submarine, it appeared that fate would play a great role in bringing Stiller’s contribution to this independent teen comedy, having both openly admitted that they do not know how the script found its way from one set of hands to the other. After reading the screenplay and loving it, it did not take much for Stiller to jump on board and meet with the director with the aim to get the production rolling. This openness to try new things, particularly in independent cinema, is a factor that allows the business to gain wider appeal and to reach a large number of people. It is also an example of Stiller’s fondness for the art of filmmaking even if there is not a noticeably high budget or well recognised cast. In many ways, this example highlights how the actor, director and writer should stand as someone of great influence in the movie business and filmmaking profession – someone who lives and breathes cinema and good quality work.
It is through his own beginnings that one could associate his generosity to small time writing or concepts. Though not always supported by grand budgets, particularly in his early work, mockumentaries such as The Hustler of Money are pieces that are genuinely funny and work well. Having grown up with parents that had somewhat solidified their place in the world of comedy – his mother and father forming the double act Stiller and Meara who regularly performed on The Ed Sullivan Show – he was aware that his name would not keep him afloat in such a strict business. Through a mixture of talent and pure dedication, Stiller appears to have been capable of creating consistently funny content for years, and even decades after his first appearance he is still making some of his best work yet.
Looking at his latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it is hard to comprehend that something of this scale and vision was created by someone whose foundations lie in sketch comedy, and though it has been met with a fair amount of criticism, one has to respect the film’s ideas and visual imagery. Something that was prominent from Mitty, and can also be seen in films such as Stiller’s feature length directorial debut Reality Bites, is a unique vision and focus on the life of the everyman. It is through this focal point that Stiller’s films, especially Mitty, are capable of transporting the viewer to another place as well as creating a mutual connection with the protagonist in search of the meaning of life – is this not what films are all about?
As much as the work of Hollywood’s greatest directors are to be admired, it is difficult to find someone like Ben Stiller in the world of movies who, though has lived a unique life of stardom, has a true connection and knowledge of the reality seen from the outside of the business.