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The American Film Institute let its hair down as it bestowed its Life Achievement Award on writer, performer and director Mel Brooks Thursday night at a black-tie dinner at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. The annual affair usually takes itself very seriously, but that was impossible with Brooks — whose own films have lovingly parodied the work of previous AFI honorees like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock — as the man of the hour.
Instead, the evening turned into a nonstop joke fest — with punch lines that were alternately coarse and cheeky, silly and shameless. Welcoming guests to the dinner, Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees, set the tone by saying, “Yes, I know, Mel has himself said, ‘I’ve been accused of vulgarity.’ I say that’s bullshit!” Comedians, from Brooks’ lifelong pal Carl Reiner to the next generation who grew up loving Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man albums like Billy Crystal and Larry David to relative newcomers like Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, all lined up to testify to their love of Brooks — after first aiming a few dozen zingers his way. And at the night’s end, as Martin Scorsese presented the award to Brooks — the 41st recipient of the honor — Brooks himself quipped, “This is nearly an important occasion.”
When it comes to its highest awards, Hollywood doesn’t often recognize comics. While Brooks did earn an Academy Award for his screenplay for 1968’s The Producers, he kvetched during his acceptance, “I should have gotten a nomination for Young Frankenstein.” And the proceedings acknowledged that oversight. The film clips began with a montage highlighting the work of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to The Three Stooges to Peter Sellers, and Stringer said, “Comedy has been continually short-changed at many awards ceremonies, particularly the Oscars.” Scorsese reminded the room of the long tradition of classic American film comedy, adding with tongue-in-cheek “that is a tradition of true greatness to which Mel Brooks does not belong because Mel has made his own tradition of greatness, and it is that tradition, drawing on the past, honoring it, toying with it, vamping on it, extending it to places wise men, very funny men, previously feared to go, that we are celebrating and honoring here tonight, because in Mel’s films all bets are off.”
But that’s about as serious as the tributes got.
The celebration began with a video introduction featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the original stars of Brooks’ Broadway musical version of The Producers, who in turn introduced Martin Short, who appeared on stage at the Dolby, flanked by a bevy of chorus girls in costumes inspired by Brooks’ films, for a song-and-dance version of “I Wanna Be a Producer” as well other signature Brooks tunes like “Springtime for Hitler.” Getting big laughs, Short exclaimed, “The thing about Mel is he never lets his love of Scientology affect his work,” and he introduced the first of the night’s many Jewish jokes by saying, “Mel was the product of a mixed marriage — his mother was Jewish, his father was unbelievably Jewish.”
Reiner, playing off of one of Brooks most famous catch phrases, “It’s good to be the king,” said of his friendship with Brooks, which dates way back to their time together on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, “Well, Mel, it’s better to be one of your subjects, because you have made your subjects laugh.”
One of Brooks’ troupe of on-screen repertory players, Cloris Leachman, observed, “As you may know I have an Oscar. I won it in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. I started working with Mel Brooks a year later and I haven’t won one since — not even a nomination, bupkis.” She offered up a roster of others that Brooks worked with — Dom DeLuise, Kenneth Mars, Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Dick Van Patten, and, “of course, darling Teri Garr.” Garr, who has fought a battle with multiple sclerosis, acknowledged the applause from her seat, and, later, Wilder himself appeared on videotape to say, “I love you, Mel.”
Crystal recounted how, after years of idolizing Brooks, he finally met him at a PTA meeting, and testified, “It was Mel who really made me want to be a comedian — up close, there is nobody funnier.” Although Larry David took the opposite tact, saying, he thought Brooks was so funny, “I said to myself, I can never, ever be a comedian. What’s the point? So Mel Brooks didn’t get me into comedy — he kept me away from it. I wasted years doing nothing because of him.”
“Finally, a Lifetime Achievement Award for Mel Brooks — wow, what an eloquent way to say, hey, let’s wrap it up,” teased Silverman, who in her slyly provocative manner, went on to suggest that Brooks enlisted in the Army because “he knew, even then, that fighting Nazis would entitle him to a lifetime of Holocaust jokes.”
Past AFI Life Achievement winners Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman also were on hand — they both complained that Brooks had never cast them in his films. And appearing on video, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas played straight men. Eastwood spoke of Westerns, Spielberg talked of historical epics and Lucas recounted the inspiration for Star Wars. And then introducing clips from Brooks’ spoofs, they each repeated the line, “And this is what Mel Brooks did to it.”
David Lynch, who directed The Elephant Man, which was produced by Brooks’ production company Brooksfilms, represented the more serious films that Brooks’ produced, but even he couldn’t resist a moment of pure silliness. Remembering a joke that Brooks once told him, he asked, “What’s the difference between a Quaker and a Shaker? A Quaker walks like this.” Lynch demonstrated by walking quietly across the stage. “And a Shaker walks like this,” he said, breaking into a spastic shambles.
When it finally came time for him to take the stage, Brooks confessed, “Normally, I don’t agree with the AFI choices. Tonight, I kinda do.” He added, “I thank them for this honor.”
As part of the evening, AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale also presented the AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal to producer Stuart Cornfeld, who began his career working for Brooks after first meeting Brooks’ late wife Anne Bancroft at the AFI, and he fondly recalled that Brooks was both his mentor and his tormentor.
The tribute is scheduled to air on TNT on June 15 as part of an all-night tribute to Brooks and on Turner Classic Movies on July 24.
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