Albert Brooks: Funnyman Whose Muse Is in the Mirror


LOS ANGELES — On a recent hot afternoon, Albert Brooks could be found in his office at Universal Studios, getting worked up over a snapshot.

“It means nothing!” exclaimed Brooks, when asked about the lone item tacked to a cork bulletin board on his wall — a photograph of him standing alongside Elton John, who composed the score for Brooks’ latest movie, “The Muse,” which opens Friday.

Swept by a gust of paranoia, Brooks got up from behind his mahogany desk and stuck his face just inches from the picture. After a couple of seconds, Brooks reared back, looking dismayed, as if he’d just noticed a rip in his shirt.

“I don’t even know why it’s up there!” he wailed.

Later on, it would be a reporter’s brief jotting on a notepad that would set him off. Interrupting himself mid-sentence, he barked: “What are you doing? Are you taping and writing?” Then, only half-jokingly, he implied that he felt ignored. “Are you writing a letter to someone?” he asked in that tone of hangdog injury he shifts into so frequently in the six movies that he has written, directed and starred in: “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” “Lost In America,” “Defending Your Life,” “Mother” and now “The Muse.”

So kvetchy, exaggeratedly accusing and out of context were Brooks’ outbursts that it was impossible not to wonder if they were just bits in the making. For nearly two dozen years, after all, gabbing into a tape recorder has been how Brooks and his longtime collaborator, Monica Johnson, capture the ideas, dialogue and scenarios that are later shaped into their feature film scripts.

Viewed in chronological order, perhaps Brooks’ oeuvre can be taken as time capsule chapters in the life of a funny, curly-haired, emotionally fitful man as he moves from his late 20s to his early 50s.

“Defending Your Life” is the sole exception. In this 1991 film, Brooks’ alter ego dies in a car crash and in the afterlife discovers not heaven but Judgment City, where he is put on trial to answer for his shortcomings and, in the meantime, falls in love with a saintly woman (Meryl Streep).

Written by Brooks alone, “Defending Your Life” came into being after he had cast Ms. Johnson out of their Shangri-La of neurotic shtick in a business dispute. It was at a screening of “Defending Your Life” that the two resolved their differences and threw themselves back into what they consider to be their niche — wringing laughs out of the psychological concerns of their generation.

“I’ve always been proud of the fact that as far as comedy goes, we’re maybe the only people tracking the baby boomer thing,” said Ms. Johnson. “Our movies have evolved as we have. Basically, the story we pick is about wherever we are in life.”

Brooks’ character in “The Muse,” Steven Phillips, a dejected Hollywood screenwriter, is definitively middle-aged — softer of body, lower on energy and aghast to find himself part of an age bracket that could be considered obsolete.

The film starts out credibly enough: a young Paramount executive tells Phillips that he’s being released from his contract because he has lost his creative edge. But as he tries to re-ignite his career in Hollywood, the movie enters fairy-tale territory as Phillips stumbles upon the closely held secret of A-list filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron (in cameo appearances): They employ a living, breathing, perks-obsessed Muse (Sharon Stone) who provides top-quality inspiration and boasts about being a descendant of the Greek god Zeus.
Ultimately, “The Muse” is an examination of youth worship, artistic jealousy and self-doubt. Still, when Brooks submitted the script to the brass at Paramount, where he had a deal, they chose to pass on the project for reasons that still get a rise out of him.

“Sherry Lansing gave me a complimentary call, but she didn’t seem to want to go into detail,” he said. “I heard things like ‘too inside’ and stuff like that — stuff that means nothing to me.”
“It’s not even about Hollywood!” he said. “That’s just the location!”

Brooks stared down at his newspaper-strewn desktop. “You know what? I sort of feel like it’s almost an accident when they do make my movies. I guess my concepts don’t fit standard studio movies. But that’s why I exist! I couldn’t make ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ if you put a gun to my head. I seriously wouldn’t know how to do it. I work from a different place.”

Thanks to his father, Brooks’ difference was stamped on him at birth. Unable to pass up the chance at a joke, Harry Einstein, a Greek-dialect radio comedian known as Parkyakarkus, named the youngest of his and his wife, Thelma’s, three children Albert. (Brooks’ brother Cliff is an advertising executive; his other sibling, Bob, is the mock-daredevil comic Super Dave Osborne.)

Even something so simple as morning attendance could be a challenge for the slightly built boy who had to answer “Here” when the teacher got to “Albert Einstein?”

Rob Reiner, the actor-director who makes a quick appearance as himself in “The Muse,” said of Brooks: “He was quite defensive about his name — and I’m sure that’s part of what created his humor.” By his teens, Reiner was spending “every waking minute” with Brooks. They met in a drama class, the only hour that Brooks truly looked forward to at Beverly Hills High School. That was when Brooks got hooked on the spotlight, playing parts like Bottom in the school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or, Reiner recalled, performing freestyle riffs for his friends.

“Everyone knew that Albert was head and shoulders above everybody else, a genius,” said Reiner, who went on to recount the many times since then when he has seen Brooks silence a roomful of humor-mongers not known for willingly yielding the floor. “I’m talking people like Chevy Chase, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal basically acknowledging that you couldn’t touch this guy. Whenever Albert started in, everyone pretty much backed off and just let him go.”
But it’s all part of the Legend of Albert, a story which has him making a living as a standup comic on television variety shows at age 19. By then he was already considered one of Los Angeles’ gifted eccentrics, a guy so confident of his talent that unlike many of his colleagues, he did not rely on the reaction of a nightclub crowd to gauge whether his material was broadcast-worthy.

Instead, Brooks rehearsed at home before a mirror, confident that if he could make himself howl, others would react similarly.

Maybe he longed to see what it was like to be like everyone else — or maybe he just wanted a second opinion. Either way, one day in 1969, Brooks was at Reiner’s just a couple of hours before appearing on “The Dean Martin Show”; he was road-testing his act on his best friend’s father, the comedian Carl Reiner.

“He didn’t want to lie,” Brooks said of Carl Reiner. “He said, ‘This isn’t good.”‘ Nevertheless, pressed for time, Brooks drove straight to the NBC set in Burbank and unleashed the very same bit. “The audience roared,” he recalled. “And I remember it as one of those experiences that really teaches you a lot about life. It was one of those moments where I went, ‘I know more about myself than Carl Reiner does. Wow!”‘

What he knew was that his real destiny lay not in telling jokes but in playing parts. Perhaps that was why, in 1975, Brooks shrugged off the chance to be the permanent host of “Saturday Night Live” in favor of making, and starring in, six off-beat short movies for the show.

“You talk about a film school,” Brooks said of his crash course in writing, editing, casting and being the one who yelled “Action!” (albeit mostly to himself). “That was my film school.” Within a year, Brooks was in pre-production on his feature debut, the media satire “Real Life.”
To this day, Brooks’ approach has not changed much. “He basically wears every hat,” said Sharon Stone, who did not praise Brooks so much as fire off a 21-gun salute of superlatives. “He is the most prepared, most professional individual I’ve ever worked with in any category of filmmaking.”

Ms. Stone also hopes to become the latest beneficiary of Brooks’ career-broadening casting policy, following Debbie Reynolds, for one, who played his exasperating parent in “Mother.” In “The Muse,” Ms. Stone reveals her goofy side by sending up her real-life reputation as an acquisitive diva. “If this works for me,” she said, “maybe I won’t have to hear that ‘she’s-too-old-let’s-get-Cameron-Diaz’ routine anymore.”

As for Brooks, there is a sense that he still gets a kick out of every aspect of his chosen profession. Except, of course, the parts that involve the film critics, test audiences or studio executives who cavalierly alter his vision, knowing they will not be the ones held accountable.
“Have you ever noticed how no executives’ names are ever mentioned in a bad review?” asked Brooks, while sitting slumped on his office sofa, one blue-jeaned leg crossed over the other. “That would be a hell of a thing to do! Mention all of the executives involved! It would be like printing pictures of drunk drivers!”

Brooks laughed out loud. At that moment, everything his friends said about him seemed true: That his marriage two years ago to Kimberly Shlain, 33, a Web site designer, had helped him create the kind of home life that puts work in its proper perspective.

“Life, in general, used to be very lonely,” he said. “I see people who remain single and immerse themselves in their work and I don’t know how they do it. It’s very important to be grounded somewhere.” Ten months ago, Brooks became a father, a personal joy he’d like to make even fuller. “We’d like to have another child. Soon.”

This, coming from a former recluse known for not letting even those closest to him see the inside of his house. Judging from his baby pictures, Jacob Eli Brooks is a beautiful, blue-eyed boy. But as with other late-bloomer dads, it’s his son’s reaction to him that is everything to Brooks. “We’ve got a great relationship. Right from the time he was born, I’ve been the one who can get him to stop crying immediately,” he said, with a touching hint of swagger. “I just pick him up and he stops! Instantly! It’s so cute!”

Of course, he’s not the only mature auteur pushing a stroller. Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have recently made the news with an infant daughter. Brooks, as it happens, has long been called the West Coast Woody Allen. It’s a compliment — both men are known for their modest, wry, angst-y comedies. Still, Brooks seemed weary of the title. When he was asked if he would like to come up with a better designation, his shoulders actually drooped.

“Why do I have to be called something?” Brooks complained. Then he perked up.

“How about ‘The Living Stanley Kubrick’?”