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Twenty-five years ago, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride flopped at the box office. Though written by hit screenwriter William Goldman of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, the offbeat hybrid of adventure, romance and satire had already been shelved for years by directors Francois Truffaut, Norman Jewison, John Boorman and Robert Redford, only to then cast two unknown actors as leads and release a one-sheet barely a week before the film hit theaters.
Yet against predictions based on dismal box office numbers, the film has become the quotable cult classic that launched the careers of Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, while capturing the onscreen genius of the late Andre the Giant, Peter Cook and narrator Peter Falk. As part of the 50th New York Film Festival and cohosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the cast reunited at Lincoln Center for the film’s 25th anniversary screening Tuesday night.
The film’s witty humor that holds up across generations were a struggle to shoot — thanks to Reiner.
“The only problem with Rob is that he’s too good of an audience, so he laughs and he’ll ruin takes — you have to tell him, ‘Go home and you’ll see it tomorrow!’” Billy Crystal told The Hollywood Reporter. “He has the greatest ear for comedy of any director I’ve ever worked with.”
Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin attributed the success of Reiner’s directing approach to his history in front of the camera.
“He’s a real actor’s director. He is an actor, and he loves actors. He takes care of you,” he said on the red carpet. “Also, the confidence that he gives you where you try anything. There’s nothing you wouldn’t try that he suggested. It’s an incredibly trust.”
Chris Sarandon, currently starring in the off-Broadway production of The Exonerated and preparing to direct his own stage production, believes that the mixture of genres that initially confused viewers is what makes it charming and timeless.
“I loved the screenplay when I read it, I wanted to be a part of it. But there’s no real way to really tell if something’s gonna have extraordinary longevity like this movie has,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s luck because this movie was – and I say this with no false modesty – brilliantly cast, brilliantly written, and Rob knew the exact line to walk on so that he didn’t go into parody. It was a real wonderful confluence of all those things.”
Carol Kane of the upcoming indie comedy Clutter was “thrilled beyond thrilled” when contacted about the anniversary screening at NYFF.
“One of the luckiest things in my life is to be part of this film. It felt magical to be there. We felt very privileged, and we knew it at the time.”
Diehard Bride fans filled Alice Tully Hall’s Starr Theater for the screening – a brand new 35mm print provided by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“When we first started thinking about trying to bring all of these people back together for this special screening, it seemed, in a word, inconceivable,” said Scott Foundas, associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, when introducing the film. “As we started to reach out to everyone and ask them if they would do this, they all said, as you wish.”
During the screening, the audience applauded each time a new character came onscreen and cheered after each memorable quote and death. After a long standing ovation, the cast joined Foundas onstage for a Q&A conversation.
“The last time we saw this, it wasn’t a big-deal premiere, it was really like a screening for friends,” said Crystal. “Now, this was great. Applauding Peter [Cook], when Peter walked in tonight just moved me very much, and little Fred [Savage], who now directs television!”
Goldman stated that the novel has been his most precious work to date.
“The high point of my writing was I didn’t know what I was doing, and Wesley was in the machine, and the bad guy came in and killed him. And until that moment, I never knew what was gonna happen … and I got hysterical with tears. I’ve never had this before since,” he explained of writing the book. “After all these years of messing around with this, it’s the only thing I ever did in my life that I thought was a successful day.”
Reiner first inherited the passed-over project from other directors by happenstance, as he thought to turn his favorite childhood book into a film without prior knowledge of the project.
“You’ve all had that experience when you’re reading something and it’s what you wish you could write, it’s like somebody’s in your head and voicing your feelings for you,” said Reiner of reading a copy that Goldman sent to his father, Carl Reiner. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe how beautiful this book is…this is the move brilliant thing I’ve ever read in my life.’”
Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman sent Goldman a rough cut of The Sure Thing in order to schedule a meeting with him, leading to a nerve-racking conversation and, ultimately, the green light. “I have to tell you, that was the highest moment of my professional career…I just couldn’t believe that he agreed to allow me to make this film!”
At that point, 19-year-old Wright had only read one other script before in her life and remained in denial about playing Buttercup in a Medieval adventure with rats, eels and a fire swamp.
“[I] went to England, had never read the book, thinking all of that stage direction – BS. Not gonna do it, I’m just gonna speak the lines,” Wright told the audience. “I get on the plane and I’m reading the book, and it’s 10 times more stuff in the book that I’m gonna have to do. Oh my god, I’ve never acted before, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I have to have an accent, and I have to pretend like I’m pretty, and I gotta fight eels and go into sand? It was insane – the reality check of ‘Oh no, this is actually the movie we’re shooting.’”
Reiner also went to Germany to scout Elwes to star as farm boy and love interest, Westley. Elwes won the lead with a Bill Cosby impression.
“Here’s this beautiful-looking kid, he’s like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and he’s doing shtick, and I thought, Oh boy, he’s our guy.”
The cast continued to reminisce about singing three-part harmonies in William the Conqueror’s castle, celebrating Thanksgiving in England while filming, and giving stage direction to actors in giant rat costumes. And though Crystal and Kane were only on set for a few days, a large part of their time was mostly spent in the makeup chair.
“I wanted to look like a combination of my grandmother and Casey Stengel,” Crystal told Peter Montagna, the makeup designer of Saturday Night Live. The cast recalled how the comedian did a bit “like if Dopey had aged” before putting his wig on in the dressing room, still stayed in character while ordering lunch, and improvised a few lines from the short but lively scene.
Though Crystal has played many roles under Reiner’s direction, it’s that of Miracle Max that’s quoted most often – and as recently as his flight from Los Angeles to New York for this screening. “As he gave me my boarding pass, he said, ‘Have fun storming the castle!’ Occasionally, there’s someone who’s a little bit hipper and smarter, and I’ll get, ‘Oooh, that’s a perky sandwich.’”
“We ruined so many takes with this guy, it was crazy,” said Elwes of Crystal. “Half the crew had to leave the set!”
Equally memorable to Elwes’ revival scene with Crystal is his fencing sequence with Patinkin. The two trained with British sword master Bob Anderson – but Patinkin admitted to training for two months in New York with Yale Olympic coach Henry Harutunian as well – and practiced their moves during lunch and dinnertimes between scenes.
“My most thrilling moment was when we were going up the steps and switched the left hand – something wasn’t working for the camera and the choreography, and at the last minute, Cary and I had to change some of the choreography within 20 minutes,” Patinkin said. “At that moment, we really realized we had learned a skill.”
The fight scene was scheduled for the last 10 days of the shoot, so the two actors could improve as much as possible before filming. With the exception of an Olympic gymnast who stood in for the flips on the high bar, no stuntmen were required – and sword-related injuries occurred either.
“The only injury I received on the entire movie was I bruised a rib holding in my laughter,” Patinkin added.
During the panel, the cast mentioned Christopher Guest who was filming in London, and laughed about Cook’s hilarious one-liner, “Mawage.”
“I just met a couple recently who hired an actor, had him ordained online, and he married them with this scene,” Swanson said.
Patinkin and Wallace Shawn – who faced his fear of heights in this film – also paid tribute to Andre the Giant.
“It was one glorious experience for all of us to be with this gentle man,” said Patinkin. “He was just a beautiful man.”
Just before wrapping up the Q&A session, Kane expressed that she felt like she had just watched “a perfect movie” and thanked Goldman and Reiner. The cast echoed her sentiments for the timeless film.
“I’ve sat with my grandchildren and watched the movie, and felt this amazing feeling of, ‘I’m in something that’s really important,’” explained Crystal. “It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, it’s about all the right things that movies are. And I’m sitting there with my two girls in mid-thirties, and their little ones who are 9 and 6, and what better life is that then, for a life of a movie?”
Afterwards, the cast crossed 65th Street and enjoyed bites and beverages at the Lincoln Center Theater foyer, hosted by Film Society’s New Wave young patron group. After party attendees were gifted with commemorative books, Blu-ray copies of the film and T-shirts.
The 25th-anniversary edition of The Princess Bride is now out on Blu-ray.
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