The Princess Bride (1987)

I’ve told the story of how I avoided this film for almost twenty years before – but by all means, please reread it, you’ll need it for the last paragraph – but briefly, I never heard anything about it that appealed to me, and one day in 2005 somebody forced me to watch it and I spent weeks alternating between watching it again and kicking myself for missing out. Preconceived notions are sometimes terrible, terrible things. Eighteen years I could’ve known this movie was a triumph.

So anyway, I’m assuming that this is one of those movies I don’t need to describe very much to our audience or explain why I chose to show it to our son. It’s because it’s Rob Reiner’s finest moment, and every kid needs to see it! We started out with a little chat about narration. We talked about an unreliable narrator a few weeks ago, and I explained that this story doesn’t have an unreliable narrator, but it does have one who interrupts. Our son sees echoes of William Goldman’s original novel in lots of the modern entertainment that he enjoys, especially Captain Underpants. If you’ve not read the Underpants books, one of his regular devices is employing a “skip” chapter, where rather than explaining a complex part of the adventure, the writer just explains that to cut a long story short, the characters did whatever they were trying to do. The cartoon’s narrator regularly points out things that will be important later on.

And today, audiences take all that for granted. We’ve been primed by everything that’s followed in the wake of that era of postmodern literature (I’m reminded in particular of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published four years before Bride), but it took another thirteen years before a studio was willing to sink several million dollars into making a movie of this that would be true to William Goldman’s winking-at-the-audience novel. And while the interruptions and commentary are really kept to the frame story of Peter Falk reading the book to his allegedly sick grandson, the movie adds a heck of a lot that the book couldn’t do that toys with audience’s expectations.

For starters, there’s my absolute favorite swordfight between Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin. That could have gone on another hour and I wouldn’t have been bored. There’s the risky humor of turning Miracle Max into a stereotype greedy Jew, which would be pretty cringeworthy today if Billy Crystal wasn’t playing him. There’s the great gag of the fellow who cleans the torture chamber rasping in a hideous gargle that our hero is in the Pit of Despair before clearing his throat and speaking normally, which seems to have come straight from Monty Python. And certainly nobody, anywhere, was expecting Peter Cook to open his mouth and yell “MAWWIAGE,” except for everybody, everywhere, who knew to sit up straight when Peter Cook shows up. So there, movies can give you things that books can’t.

If movie audiences were just about ready in 1987 for the postmodern fairy tale that they might not have been in 1973, it’s expected by pretty much everything in 2020. So our kid knew just what was going on, jumped right in, sympathizing with the grandson that he’s having to suffer through a story with kissy stuff and waiting to get to something exciting. He loved everything about this, from the now-classic lines to the rude insults, and of course the fighting. He had the biggest laugh when Patinkin’s character finally, after two decades, gets to look in the eyes of the man he’s been tracking and give his immortal line at last, only to have the guy immediately turn and flee.

But, if I may be allowed a moment to brag, I think that I got the best laugh of the morning. I can boast that I had him collapsed in laughter and begging for an encore. I told him that story linked to in the first paragraph, about how Wallace Shawn, in a parallel world, might have been given the opportunity to play Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark. I built up to it well and reminded him of the wine scene between Shawn and Cary Elwes. In what I might humbly claim to be a passable parody of Vizzini, I bellowed “You fool, Man of Steel! Do you seriously think you could possibly trick me into saying Kltpzyxm?!” I didn’t even get as far as saying that would be inconceivable before the kid was doubled over, roaring, and begging me to do it again. No autographs, please…

What We’re Not Watching: Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk

We’re not watching the fine actor Wallace Shawn as that interdimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk, who makes life miserable for the Man of Steel every ninety days, because he never actually played the role. But in some parallel universe, I’m sure that he must have. For April Fool’s Day, I’m sharing a little oddball story about preconceived notions. Bear with me, if you will.

The time was 1996, and up to that point, a look at IMDB tells me that I had seen Wallace Shawn in a couple of parts that didn’t leave any impact on me. I’d seen All That Jazz a couple of times in college – it was a favorite of my film and screenwriting professor, Charles Eidsvik – but I didn’t remember Shawn. Where I did remember him was playing the recurring role of Stuart Best in the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown. The character’s name, if you know your Beatles history, is a clue. In the backstory of Murphy, Stuart Best had been one of the original anchors of the newsmagazine FYI along with Murphy, Jim, and Frank. He was dropped very early on for reasons that became obvious when we later met the character in an “anniversary” episode: Best was insecure, needy, whiny, and hopelessly wishy-washy: one more horrible irritant in Murphy Brown’s existence. He was an annoying pest, yes, but just so pathetic.

So in 1996, I was very, very active in the old Usenet, for those of you with long memories. I used the pseudonym Colonel X and got into lots of fun and/or dumb arguments about television, particularly Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which had recently begun its fourth and final season around the time of this story. Over the course of three seasons, the show was getting exponentially worse and more irritating as time went on, with its very good cast struggling with terrible scripts, unbelievable “threats,” and new producers/showrunners who didn’t know Superman’s mythology and honestly didn’t care. There’s a reason why everybody knows who General Zod is, and nobody, except the unfortunate audience of this show, ever heard of his TV counterpart, Lord Nor.

Anyway, for season four, the show had a new writer on staff, a fresh face named Tim Minear, who TV fandom may know from his later, acclaimed work on Angel, Firefly, Wonderfalls, and American Horror Story. Minear was willing to risk the pit of whining that was alt.tv.lois-n-clark and assure us that season four wasn’t going to stink like season three did. Once they got past the Lord Nor story, at least. He engaged with fans and was a great public voice for the ailing show. And season four was indeed a big improvement. Everybody was happy with Minear.

The writer told us they were working on a Mr. Mxyzptlk story for the first time, and even solicited casting suggestions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to get permission from that oh-so-critical “whining fanbaby” audience, but just sounding like somebody on the show cared what the audience thought, and knew what the heck they were doing, was amazing. People had lots of suggestions, but as soon as somebody offered up Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk, discussion ended. That was, in the eyes of that mob, the single greatest idea ever.

And I didn’t see it.

I only knew Shawn as a desperate and insecure pest. Mr. Mxyzptlk needed to be an incredibly confident, breathtakingly arrogant pest. It didn’t occur to me, because I was even more of an idiot then than now, that Shawn might have been perfectly capable of playing that prankster from the fifth dimension that way. I just couldn’t look past Stuart Best on Murphy Brown.

At any rate, we’d never know, because they cast Howie Mandel as Mr. Mxyzptlk instead. Mandel did a fine job despite a revamp of the character to fit in the lines of Lois & Clark‘s world. He was more like Q from Star Trek than the nails-on-chalkboard imp, but it was a good episode, as I recall, with Mandel reining in his trademark excesses and finding some unusual menace in the part. He was good, but a few people bemoaned what could have been.

Of course, what everybody on that newsgroup was thinking about was Shawn’s iconic character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, which I hadn’t seen. Naturally, this is on the agenda for us to watch together, when our son’s a little older, but he actually caught a chunk of it on TV last month while visiting family in Memphis. In 1987, I was as far from being interested in the kind of fairytale airy-fairy fantasy that Bride appeared to be as you could possibly get. I didn’t even like Labyrinth very much around that age. I’ve still never seen Willow, but we’ll look at that together as well one day. Basically, that line of bright, glowy eighties fantasy movie just did not appeal to me in the slightest and I ignored it.

Over the years, people told me I needed to see The Princess Bride, and I successfully rolled my eyes for almost two decades. In 2005, though, in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks, I fell in love with someone I shouldn’t’a fallen in love with, and she made me watch the wretched thing, and it turned out to be the most expectation-defying movie I think I’ve ever watched. That film is darn near completely terrific.

And within about six seconds of Vizzini driving everybody nuts with his supreme overconfidence, a little fifth-dimensional magic happened and I saw a little purple hat materialize over Wallace Shawn’s head. Holy anna. I got it. What a missed opportunity! Wallace Shawn would have been completely amazing as Mr. Mxyzptlk. I don’t know whether the actor said no, or whether his agent laughed ABC and Warner Brothers out of the room, or whether Mandel was always in the producers’ minds and Tim Minear was just humoring us, but of all the what-ifs in Hollywood history, this just simply has to be up there.

Honesty compels me to add that shortly after the Mandel take on Mr. Mxyzptlk, the team behind the cartoon that’s laboriously called Superman: The Animated Series went all the way back to that oddball character’s original comic book look from the 1940s, and cast Gilbert Gottfried for the part. That whole cartoon series is completely great, and those two episodes with Gottfried as Mxyzptlk are high points. The villain has since shown up on Smallville and Supergirl. I haven’t seen those, and don’t care to, because, in another preconceived notion, I believe that Gilbert Gottfried owns the role and the voice of Mxyzptlk.

But boy, if Wallace Shawn had played that part, I might not be saying that.

Photo credit: the image of Mandel was taken from the Lois & Clark Wiki.