Three men wrestling with mid-life crises take an adventure vacation as cowboys on a modern-day cattle drive. It sounds too silly for words— thirty something meets Three Amigos. But City Slickers turns out to be an inventive, sophisticated comedy that lassos the heart. It is funnier than it has any right to be. And, as a story of three greenhorns struggling to bring in the herd, it is a touching homage to the western. Earlier this month, the star and executive producer of City Slickers,
Billy Crystal, was bringing in another kind of herd—journalists who had converged on New Orleans to attend backto-back media sessions for City Slickers and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And despite all the hype over Robin Hood, it was City Slickers that surprised and charmed the critics.
While Robin Hood’s star, Kevin Costner, appeared to be struggling to distance himself from a troubled production, Crystal talked about his movie with the uncontainable pride of a new father. Although he is not credited as a screenwriter, Crystal collaborated closely on City Slickers with Hollywood authors Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood). He also improvised while the cameras rolled. “This is very much my picture,” Crystal told Maclean’s in a private interview, “my concept, my thoughts, my comedy. Not only myself, but everybody else in the movie, says stuff that I think and feel.” According to Hollywood’s conventional wisdom, the summer box office is supposed to be dominated by big-budget action pictures, epics like Robin Hood.
But last summer’s top hits were two high-concept love stories, Ghost and Pretty Woman. And City Slickers may well be this summer’s sleeper hit. Made for $30 million, it grossed more than half of that in its first weekend—proof, it seems, of Crystal’s widespread popularity. An alumnus of TV’s Saturday Night Live, and the droll host who has made the Oscars tolerable, Crystal, 44, has the appeal of a comic everyman, combining Bob Hope’s affability with Woody Allen’s introspection.
City Slickers marks Crystal’s first big-screen appearance since When Harry Met Sally (1989), director Rob Reiner’s hit comedy about a late-blooming romance. Harry1 s success brought him a lot of scripts, said Crystal,
“but I couldn’t find anything I liked. I thought, ‘What am I—stupid? Why don’t I develop my own?' It was time to step into the batter’s box, time to lay it on the line.” To direct, Crystal chose Ron Underwood, a film-maker with only one feature to his credit, Tremors (1990), a strange little horror comedy about giant worms. But the crew also included an ace: Australian cinematographer Dean Sender, who
won an Oscar for his stunning images of the American Midwest in Dances with Wolves.
City Slickers presents an unusual hybrid of western action, urbane wit and moral fable. Mitch (Crystal) is disillusioned with his job selling ads at a New York City radio station— “I sell air”—and is bored by family life with his wife, Barbara (Patricia Wettig). He has also
discovered hair growing in his ears. For his 39th birthday, Mitch’s friends Phil (Daniel Stern), a meek grocer, and Ed (Bruno Kirby), a macho sporting-goods salesman, rope him into going on a cattle drive. On the range, Mitch meets his nemesis in a trail boss named Curly, a tough old Marlboro Man played by Jack Palance in a priceless, career-capping self-parody. “Did you see how leathery he was?” says Mitch. “He was like a saddlebag with eyes.” Spurred by sharp one-liners, the comedy unfolds like a goosed-up therapy session on horseback. “It was hard to act on horseback,” Crystal recalled. “You had to pace your horse to move with the cameras. I mean, it’s hard enough to talk while you’re on your feet with a camera moving.” The constant presence of 400 cattle posed another challenge. “Sometimes, we had to replenish them because they got lazy,” Crystal added. “They started to understand ‘Quiet, we’re rolling—action!’ They’d wait for the clapper board and then they’d move. It was the strangest thing. Then they started to be method cows— ‘Have your person call my person, let’s have grass.’ ”
The shoot, meanwhile, was unusually challenging for a comedy. It involved some dramatic action, including a climactic sequence of driving the herd across a river in a rainstorm. “The river scene was 12 days in freezing cold water,” said Crystal, who did nearly all his own stunts. They included a graphic scene of his delivering a calf. “It was a strange, beautiful feeling,” Crystal recalled. “It was like bathing in liver.” The actor was actually pulling a weekold calf out of a prosthetic uterus lined with chicken innards. “But it was ridiculously real,” he said. “When I yanked him out of there onto my chest, Jack [Palance] started to cry.”
Crystal calls City Slickers his “coming-of-middle-age movie.” It could have turned into “Three Men and a Baby Dogie.” And its honest emotion occasionally creeps into sentimentality. But at the core is a heartfelt thesis about male friendship. Said the actor: “It’s easy to have a couple of beers and go catch a trout or go to the ball game. But I wanted to talk about friendships that can bear the weight of pain.”
Crystal clearly wants to do more with his career than tell jokes. He said that despite his success as the Academy Awards court jester, “I don’t want to be the dh—the designated host. I don’t want to do anything for too long.” Meanwhile, he plans to star in two more movies of his own design, Mr. Saturday Night, a black comedy about an unbear-
able comedian, and National Pastime, a baseball drama in which he would play an aging shortstop. He also hopes to get together with his close friend Robin Williams and improvise a movie idea from scratch. At home on the Hollywood range, Crystal is riding high.
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