Saturday, October 6, 2012


The American Film Institute announced Friday that Mel Brooks would be their 41st recipient of their Life Achievement Award. The venerable institution praised Brooks as “America’s long-running king of comedy.” And Board of Trustees president Howard Stringer said, “He's a master of an art form that rarely gets the respect it deserves” and that’s why he’s being singled out. So, does Brooks deserve the honor, even the title “king of comedy”?
In this movie blogger’s opinion, no.

There is no question that Brooks has made some invaluable contributions to the art form. He wrote and directed the Oscar-winning THE PRODUCERS, a daring comedy about a desperate Broadway producer putting on a musical about Hitler, which still seems outrageous and radical. And he directed such legendary comedies as BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, two of the all-time best. But after that, his film credits are very uneven.

Sure, he’s produced some terrific works other than those comedies, like THE ELEPHANT MAN and MY FAVORITE YEAR, but not many true classics. I’d argue that Brooks is mostly being honored for the whole of his career, which includes amazing success in a broad range of mediums. He’s conquered TV, radio, records and Broadway. And the AFI press release confirmed that those credits are part of his heralding. ( But that’s wrong.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in THE PRODUCERS (1968)

Brooks should only be winning for his contributions to film. After all, the AFI isn’t called the American Broadway Institute, so his Broadway musical adaptation of THE PRODUCERS should not be a consideration. Nor should his Grammy-winning work with Carl Reiner on their 2000 YEAR OLD MAN skits. And what he did as a writer on the legendary Sid Caesar variety program YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in the 1950’s should be of no consideration whatsoever. Nor should any TV producing credits.

To my mind, there is no other AFI winner who has had as many mediocre films on his resume as Brooks does. The likes of SPACEBALLS, DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, MEN IN TIGHTS and LIFE STINKS were pretty bad films. And those were his last four directorial efforts. Yes, Brooks indeed helped pave the way for parody cinema, and you can see his influence in everything from the AIRPLANE and SCARY MOVIE spoofs to the Wayans brothers films, but is that something to be lauded? Even if he did it well with his Hitchcock riff HIGH ANXIETY or SILENT MOVIE, is that really groundbreaking film comedy? 
Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

It’s especially egregious when you compare it to those comedians whom the AFI has overlooked. They could have honored Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx or Blake Edwards in their day, but they didn’t. They died before the AFI got around to naming them, which is a terrible shame. Apparently, Woody Allen has been offered the award many times but has refused it. (He’s not much for these sorts of things.) I guess Mel Brooks is the next best thing if you have failed to honor such truly exceptional film comics.

The AFI also has yet to honor such legends as Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Peter O’Toole, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Caine, or composer John Williams. They’ve all had five to six decade film careers and are still doing exemplary work. The Redford oversight is particularly galling as he’s been a leading man for all those decades, has directed and produced Oscar-winning films, and is the father of the modern independent film movement based on his Sundance Film Festival. And yet the AFI has yet to call. (I wrote about these oversights here:
Cleavon Little in BLAZING SADDLES (1974)

The fact is the AFI Life Achievement honor is a political one, voted on by that board of trustees and awarded to create talk value, as well as raise money for all the great works that the AFI contributes to, such as film restoration and their young filmmaker programs. That’s one of the reasons Brooks is being honored. He’s been a highly visible presence in Hollywood for decades, he’s philanthropic, and he’s much beloved by the entertainment community. But his onscreen resume should be front and center.  

And while I don’t believe Brooks is a terrible choice, the truth is he’s just an okay one. When it comes to films that are supposed to have stood the test of time, which is one of the AFI criteria for the honor, his record is spotty. Brooks famously quipped, “It’s good to be the king” in his uneven comedy THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE, but in this film critic’s opinion, his cinematic resume isn’t quite good enough. Certainly not enough to warrant the AFI’s highest honor.

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