The Hidden Message of 'Addams Family Values'
Addams Family Values is a rare studio-produced family comedy whose creators were not only bold but also playful enough to make their big-budget revival of a decades-old property a modern and even politically savvy comedy. Released just before Thanksgiving in 1993, Addams Family Values continued producer Scott Rudin and director Barry Sonnenfeld’s shared, almost co-conspiratorial vision of cartoonist Charles Addams’ macabre, but loving nuclear family. But what set Addams Family Values apart from the 1991 Addams Family film — thanks in no small part to screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s sharp script — is its relatively cutting sense of humor.
The 1991 Addams Family necessarily plays up a lot of Addams’ cheeky dad-joke-friendly humor while Addams Family Values puts a much greater emphasis on sarcastic, bratty humor that’s best exemplified by Christina Ricci’s morbid, quippy Wednesday Addams and Joan Cusack’s gold-digging femme fatale Debbie Jellinsky, the latter of whom perfectly underscores the difference between the Addams Family’s monstrous-but-in-a-good-way thing and Debbie’s monstrous-but-in-an-America’s-Most-Wanted-way vibe.
Heat Vision breakdown
The Addams Family — led by father Gomez (the late and much-missed Raul Julia) and mother Morticia (Anjelica Huston), and expanded by the additional presence of newborn son Pubert (Kaitlyn and Kristen Hooper) — may be socially maladjusted, but they’re also genuinely affectionate in ways that screenwriter Rudnick intended as a sharp contrast to the behavior of conservative Americans who rallied behind the George H.W. Bush-era slogan of “family values.” Addams Family Values’ political commentary fittingly comes to a head during a Thanksgiving-themed set piece: Wednesday stars in a Thanksgiving play at her laughably conservative summer camp, Camp Chippewa. In this scene, Wednesday essentially razes the camp counselors’ all-smiles dissembling, and does it with a big, infectious grin of her own. The film faltered at the box office, where it earned $48.9 million globally — $140 million shy of the original. But it was a hit with critics and remains popular among fans.
In time for the 25th anniversary of Addams Family Values ’original theatrical release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to some of the film’s key collaborators about family values, heavy makeup, and dropped eyeballs.
Paul Rudnick, in the role of the film’s real-life screenwriter: The success of both Addams Family movies is due primarily to producer Scott Rudin and director Barry Sonnenfeld; they assembled such an extraordinary and elegant cast. I re-wrote the first Addams Family movie, though its plot was always freewheeling. For example: we were never quite sure if Uncle Fester should be the real thing or an imposter. [Editor’s note: In the film, a gold-digging imposter pretends to be Fester Addams in order to inherit Fester’s inheritance; this impostor, played by Christopher Lloyd, is ultimately revealed to be an amnesia-stricken Fester.] If I remember correctly, Christina Ricci explained why Fester should be the real deal, and she, as always, made perfect sense and was extremely helpful. I think she pointed out that it was simply more emotionally satisfying and necessary to have the real Fester return to his loving and odd family.
One of the great advantages of writing Addams Family Values was that it was a mainstream studio film that was never required to be wholesome. The studio never said, “You can’t toss a baby off the roof,” so I was delighted to let my imagination run free.
Anjelica Huston, in the role of Morticia Addams: I think the script for the second film was maybe a little more acerbic than the first film, somehow. A bit more sophisticated. I think the first film was very much a classic Addams Family story while the second one took some steps in various other directions. But, as I recall, Addams Family Values very much felt like a continuation of the first film. The series really required a slightly different tone in order to keep viewers' interest and to keep the characters alive.
Rudnick: The primary influence on the Addams Family Values script was, of course, the great Charles Addams. I tried in every way possible to pay tribute to his delirious genius. For example: Addams originally wanted to name the family baby Pubert, but the New Yorker rejected the name as too provocative. I was so glad we were able to restore Addams’ perfect choice. I did also want the movie’s name to be a response to the Republican Party’s constant harping on “family values,” as if only conservatives could define a loving family. In Republican terms, “family values” is always code for censorship and exclusion, and Republicans still refuse to respect or even acknowledge, for example, LGBTQ families. I like to believe that the Addams Family is far more loving and accepting than their enemies.
Christina Ricci, in the role of Wednesday Addams: I didn't see the film as a political commentary, but I was only 12 years old at the time. So, you know, I might not have caught that. (Laughs.)
Christopher Lloyd, in the role of Fester Addams: I suppose it's a takeoff of standard family values. But I didn't think much beyond that.
Carel Struycken, in the role of Lurch: I didn’t really see it as a political commentary.
Carol Kane, in the role of Granny Addams: Call me shallow, but I didn't think of it that way. I remember I was very excited to do something with the Addams Family characters. But I didn't think of it as political, except for Wednesday's rebellion during the Thanksgiving scene, and the whole nature of Camp Chippewa, how they exclude certain people. In some ways, I think the film's more politically relevant now because of what's happening with, as Whoopi Goldberg calls him, "The guy in the White House."
Huston: It was definitely a political commentary. "Family Values" was a phrase that was used by the Republicans to describe what should be normal, or what should be right in America. Which is, of course, preposterous. "Family values." You know, deeply entrenched in Christianity. (Laughs.)
Lloyd: I remember loving Paul's screenplay when I first saw it. It would go through some rewrites after that, but I remember being very excited by the script.
Ricci: I had a larger part, so I was pretty excited when I read Paul's screenplay. There wasn't a lot of discussion. I was aware that my part was bigger because people liked the character from the first film. But nobody ever spoke to me about why they expanded my role. Which is just one difference between the experience of a child actor and that of an adult actor.
Identifying with Monsters
Huston: Raul and I were naturally drawn to each other. I had just married a Mexican national; my husband was a very fine sculptor named Robert Graham. He and Raul got along very well; they loved to smoke cigars, and spoke in Spanish together. Raul and I also knew where we were coming from with these characters, having both been big fans of the Charles Addams cartoons. We knew the kind of devotion that we wanted to bring to the characters of Gomez and Morticia. They're an old married couple, but they're newly in love. Every morning they wake up and look at each other, and can't believe how fortunate they are. They live counter to reality in that they're completely entranced by each other at all times. They can do no wrong: they're devoted to their children and they take tremendous joy in living their peculiar lives.
Lloyd: When I first got the role of Fester, I was so excited. I was an avid fan of Charles Addams' cartoons when I was an adolescent. Fester was a favorite of mine. I loved his mischievous personality. Decades later, I got a call to be in the film, to be Uncle Fester. I was blown away: what are the odds!
Struycken: I came to the United States and moved to Hollywood in 1974 or early 1975. And as long as I've been in Hollywood, I've been confused for Lurch. I'd be shopping at a supermarket, or walking around in a bookstore, and people would come up to me and ask if I was the original Lurch [actor Ted Cassidy]. Each time I would say, "No, no, that's not me."
Sometimes, people would get really upset by that answer. They'd say "No, it's you, it's you!" (Laughs.)
I didn't have a casting call, it was more of an interview with Scott Rudin and Barry Sonnenfeld. When I met with them, they asked me what I thought of the role. I told them my story about being confused for Lurch. "From now on, I'll just be able to say 'Yes,' and that'll be that."
They said, "Well, just so you know: that's what you're going to be for the rest of your life."
I said, "Sure, yeah, OK. That's what I am already."
Struycken: Compared to David Lynch [who directed Struycken in Twin Peaks], Barry was more like what you'd expect a director to be. That was his directorial debut, and he was incredibly detail-oriented, which was necessary on The Addams Family, because there were so many parts to it, and everything was so intricate. Like the lighting on that film: I've never seen more complex lighting. So he needed to be detail-oriented, but I also think that was his style. And David Lynch is...David Lynch, you know! (Laughs.) He had a totally different way of approaching what a movie is. With David Lynch, his direction was more, like (at least, for me), he was giving us an impression of what he was after.
Kane: Visuals are Barry's forte. Just look at the beginning of the film, with Christopher howling at the moon. I think that was something he was more involved in. He knew what he wanted from his cast, and I'm sure that he'd let us know if he thought he wasn't getting it.
Rudnick: I spent a lot of time working on the script during preproduction, with Scott and Barry, and I often visited the set. It was a great education to watch Barry at work, because of his background as a cinematographer and his fantastic comic skill set. Very few directors know how to handle visual comedy, and to give their movie a distinctive look and rhythm, and Barry’s a master at both. It was especially thrilling to watch the musical sequences being filmed.
Lloyd: I don't remember any conversations where they told me that they wanted to emphasize this or that aspect of the character. It was pretty straightforward; they seemed to be pretty pleased with what I did.
Ricci: Barry's direction was very clear to me. I was a very sarcastic person, so I definitely got what they were trying to accomplish. As a result, there wasn't a ton of notes on my delivery. It wasn't really a technically complicated film to make; the most complicated parts had to do with camera movement and timing.
Huston: Barry and I were very much on the same page in terms of our ideas about Morticia. Barry worked very, very closely with Scott Rudin. Sometimes, I wouldn't know where the film's ideas were coming from, whether they were coming from Barry, or from Scott, or from both. But they worked seamlessly together; they were a very positive and reinforcing unit, so there was no discomfort at all with essentially having two directors on the set. I don't remember Barry telling me specifically how to be, but there were things that happened — particularly in photography — where I realized to what lengths Scott and Barry were taking care of me and what was going on camera. Like in the scene where Morticia's giving birth: in reality, we did that shot of me giving birth with me standing up. I was standing against the wall instead of lying on my back. There were decisions like that where I would have never guessed that that could be a way you'd shoot that scene. But they always did it to my advantage and were very conscious about that.
There's also a scene where I had to read Hansel & Gretel to a room full of children. The kids were all supposed to scream and they cut the scene because it seemed too perfect to them, too rehearsed. I'd never gotten that criticism before! (Laughs.) They were very precise in what they wanted.
Rudnick: I was still at the beginning of my career when I worked on the Addams Family movies, so I was wildly grateful for the opportunity. Even then I knew how rare it was, to work with material I adored, and with a cast and production team of that caliber. I was very lucky, although sometimes I’d get extremely nervous. It’s one thing to sit on my couch and write a scene between Gomez and Morticia set in a decaying French restaurant, but watching that scene come to life, on a gorgeous set with Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston was both thrilling and unnerving.
Kane: It was a little awkward for me, since I wasn't in the previous Addams Family film. But I already knew several of the main cast members. Anjelica and I had known each other since we were 19 years old. And I'd known Raul from working together in the theater in New York. And Christopher, of course, from Taxi. I also knew Scott Rudin for a while, and had always admired him.
Ricci: At the time, I felt very lucky to have gotten that part. It was only my second big part in a movie, after the first Addams Family film. So the role of Wednesday Addams had a lot of influence on me. So for the sequel, I was still very young and it was still a part that I very much identified with. When the second film along, I was almost relieved to be able to spend some more time with that group of people and in those films' world.
Lloyd: I remember at one point, all of the cast were on set, dressed up in their costumes, all seated in a circle. This was some months after the production had begun. I remember thinking, "This is a family. It's a strange kind of family, worthy of the one that Charles Addams created. But we're that family." It just seemed very genuine.
In Their Skin
Kane: The makeup process was very hard for me, I must admit. I had to do everything short of pray to talk them out of using prosthetics on me. They did their very best to make me very old, but you know, they wanted more than old: they wanted hundreds of years old! (Laughs) After The Princess Bride, I became horrifically over-sensitive to any kind of glue on my face. But prosthetics, I mean, you gotta have them for this role. Anyway, the wig and the prosthetics were magnificent; the role wouldn't have worked without them, that's for damn sure. Even if they weren't easy to work with.
I think mine took about four hours per day. And the wig weighed five pounds! Then, when you were done shooting, you had to sit for an hour to take your makeup off, even if all you'd want to do is rip it off your face! But if you did that, you'd wind up ripping off your own face. So the un-making-up process also took a painfully long time. Still, it was all worth it in the end, I think.
Huston: We had this incredible cast to work with and all of us felt very comfortable fitting into our respective roles. Though the makeup process was extremely extensive. I think I took about three hours and I think Carol’s took about five hours. So by the time you'd get on set, you were just exhausted from the makeup process. That was also a hard process because I was corseted, I had fake nails, I had tabs behind my temples that tied behind my head to make my eyes slant-y, fake eyelashes, a wig. The process was endless. The consequence being: I couldn't move at all. So it could be very frustrating whenever you had to wait around for characters Thing or It or for anything else that held up photography.
Kane: I'll tell you one of the hardest things about the makeup for me: at the time, I had two pug dogs named George and Lola. George was probably 10 years old and Lola was eight. They would go up to my face, to lick me. But they wound up licking rubber. Which was very disorienting, for them and for me!
But for those four-hour makeup jobs: I got some advice from my old, old, old friend Danny DeVito, who had recently played The Penguin [in Batman Returns]. During his four-hour makeup jobs, he would come in every morning with a TV set, that he put across from the makeup mirror. And he came in with cassette tapes that he would watch, reflected backwards on the mirror. That saved my life.
Lloyd: There was a lot of discussion about my makeup, especially how to give myself the shape of the character. Fester's kind of a sight gag. I had guessed that I would need to wear prosthetics to give myself a round face. And shave my head, and all that. So they laid out all my makeup, prosthetics and costumes. They wanted to do a scene with me in that makeup. It was a scene with Raul Julia. I didn't want to do that scene in the makeup. I hadn't gotten my character together yet; it wasn't working for me just yet. But it happened anyway.
Then I got a call a couple of days later from Scott, saying "Please come in, we'd like to talk to you." I dreaded it. When I arrived, there was a man in the production office who could have walked on stage as Uncle Fester without doing anything to change his appearance. He was bald, he was squat, he wore a kind of cloak, he had a round face.
I thought, "So that's what's happening: I'm being replaced."
Then Scott and I sat down. We played back the test scene that we shot with Raul. They concluded that the prosthetics I wore for this test got in the way of my facial expressions. I agreed, so they changed it. And that guy, who so resembled my concept of Fester Addams, he became my stand-in.
Struycken: I was lucky, because at first, they wanted to do a special effects job on me. That was gonna be pretty cumbersome. Then Anjelica's personal makeup person said "Ah! Look at his face, you don't need all that. Let me give this a try." And she moved up to me with a few makeup brushes, she did a few things, and that was it. She was done in no time. Initially, they wanted to use all these prosthetics. But then Anjelica's makeup lady gave it a try and said, "Well, here he is!"
The only thing that I added was I kept worrying "I think I need to look older, I think I need to look older." That was my main worry.
I don't consider myself a great actor, you know? But I remember a remark from a great German actor. When I was younger, I wanted to do stuff behind the camera. So I was the assistant editor, and the assistant this, and the assistant that on some European movies. During that time, I heard a makeup lady say to a famous German actor: "I think we should make you look a little bit older."
And the actor said, "I don't need makeup to do that." (Laughs.) I'm definitely not in that actor's league, but with parts where you have dialogue, you have to work a little harder at getting into your role. Because you have less to work with, so you have to be very aware of that.
Huston: I have a clause in my contract that says I can have a key light [to light my face]. That was a result of many experiences early on in my career, before Prizzi's Honor. Before that film, I didn't have the power to ask for a key light in my contract. I often found myself so badly lit, that I just put this clause in my contract in order to avoid repeating the same conversation with every director of photography. After that, I would have a key light any time they did close-ups of me. I think Barry and Scott turned that into a running joke: the key light became even smaller, almost envelope-like. Working with that key light feels so good. Actors love to be lit. I have to say, I'm much more distracted if I don't have a key light, or if I can't find my light.
Morticia's movements were also really dependent on whether or not the character's hair split when I moved my head. I realized, after a week or two of working on the first film, that every time I turned my head, my hair would end up on my shoulders. And then Barry would call "Cut!" Finally, out of frustration, I pulled myself together and asked him why that happened. It was because every time I moved, my hair split at the shoulder. So I came up with the idea of turning from the waist. That's what it took to complete a take! Still, that in turn informed the rest of the character's movements, like why I often held my hands in a prayer position, or bent them from the elbow, or just generally didn't make any moves that were broader than that.
Wednesday Addams, Role Model
Rudnick: I loved writing Wednesday Addams for two reasons. First, because she’s a child who never acts whiny or petulant or spoiled. She’s fiendishly smart and never worries about other people liking her. I’ve found that children in the audience always love Wednesday because she refuses to behave herself or knuckle under to the adults around her. She’s something rare: a child with power.
The other reason I loved writing Wednesday is Christina Ricci. Her masterful delivery and self-possession is uncanny. It’s rare to find these comic gifts in any actor, let alone someone so young. There’s a very specific Charles Addams tone and style, and Christina had both.
Huston: I think they only decided to downplay Morticia and Gomez in the sequel in favor of Pugsley and Wednesday because Christina was so good. I don't think it was a decision that was described to either Raul or me. I don't think Raul mentioned anything to me, anyway. We barely had time to read our scripts before we started filming. Of course, it was never a question of whether or not we'd do the sequel. Still, I do remember that everyone was very excited about Christina.
Kane: Looking back on the film, I'm so struck by Christina. I mean, I was always struck by her. But rewatching the film now, I'm struck by some of the choices she made, and when she was so young, too. She's so extraordinary and brave!
Struycken: Christina Ricci was just unbelievably good at what she was doing, and at such a young age. At one point in the movie, her character is pressured to smile. And she came up with this amazing non-smile. That was definitely something to emulate.
Ricci: Being 12, I wasn't really aware of what the Thanksgiving play scene would look like (though I may have known how amazing it was going to end up being). It was so incredibly theatrical. It was such an amazing set piece to be a part of. Stunt performers came out at one point, fires start and burn around me while I'm delivering this speech. So it was definitely one of the more dramatic scenes to shoot.
Rudnick: I had no idea that the movie would be released at Thanksgiving and, strangely, no one’s ever asked me why kids at a summer camp are celebrating Thanksgiving. I wrote the pageant because it presented so many ripe satiric possibilities, and was a way of weaving the Addams Family into American history. I wrote the song “Eat Me” with Marc Shaiman, who’s a legend for his work in theater and film. Marc and I are both Broadway addicts, so it was a treat to have the campers dress up as turkeys and sing. I’ve always been grateful that from early on, audience members always seemed to treasure this scene, especially if they’ve lived through the hell of summer camp. This scene also represents Wednesday Addams' ultimate revenge, on Republicans, blondes, mean girls and bullies.
Two Couples: Sunrise, Sunset
Ricci: [David Krumholtz, the actor who plays Joel Glicker] and I were both very awkward teens, so we were both very embarrassed about our characters’ romance. We sort of just wanted to get it right and get through it as quickly as possible. But David also loved sarcasm and had such a great personality, so we had a very good time working together.
Rudnick: Joel Glicker, Wednesday Addams’ love interest, was a reflection of Barry, Scott Rudin and myself, because we’re all nice Jewish boys. We loved having Joel wear a yarmulke during the wedding scene, as “Sunrise, Sunset,” from Fiddler on the Roof, is being played. Joel is a gesture to anyone who’s ever had to get all dressed up for his bar mitzvah. He’s also someone who truly appreciates the glory of Wednesday Addams, which makes him almost worthy of her.
Rudnick: I also loved the relationship between Gomez and Fester, which was so supportive, whether they were discussing their childhood, sex or homicide.
Kane: It's absolutely unimaginable to me that anybody but Raul and Anjelica could play Morticia and Gomez. They tapped into exactly the right tone for those characters. We were lucky to have him and Anjelica to ground the film. They set a very high bar.
Huston: Some time midway through the shoot: I came on set one morning and someone said, "Raul's eye fell out last night."
I said, "What are you talking about?"
They said that he was in a bar, I think Sunset Tower. And he was with a rock-and-roll star, sitting at the bar. And his eye fell out.
I said, "You've got to be kidding."
Raul showed up on set. Of course, he never missed a day. And one eye was severely bloodshot.
I said, "Raul! What happened?"
And he described his eye falling out.
I said, "My God! Can you still see with it?" Cause it literally fell onto his chest.
He said, "Yes." He was still kind of seeing out of it.
I said, "My god, what did you do?"
He said, "Well, I took ahold of it and put it back in."
That afternoon, I called up every joke store in L.A. and bought every pair of those joke glasses on springs, where the eyeballs fall out. So the next morning, when Raul walked onto the set, the entire crew was wearing these glasses. He laughed like hell. It was serious, but it was also really bizarre.
I also remember when we shot in the Sequoia National Forest, which is close to a little ranch that I had then owned for about five or seven years, something like that. Raul stayed with me while we filmed up there. My housekeeper made him a really beautiful Mexican meal with chicken mole, margaritas and everything. That night, I went to bed. And he stayed up and sang to the frogs in my pond. That was a really magical moment, hearing Raul singing opera to the frogs.
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