Waiting for Guffman (1996), written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy and directed by Guest (known to some as Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest, and husband of actor Jamie Lee Curtis), should be required viewing for anyone who has any interest whatever in theatre, and it will have even richer resonance for those who have any knowledge of community theatre. A mock documentary about a small Missouri town celebrating its sesquicentennial, Guffman’s satire is universal and incisive and it takes no prisoners. It is scrupulously observed and close to home for anyone who has ever participated in the experience of amateur theatrical productions whether as actor, director, crew, audience member, or reviewer. As the good people of Blaine, Missouri, get ready for their big show, the primary emphasis is given to the ridiculous—but there’s also something quite sublime about the film’s balance between dead-on caricature and well-informed sympathies. Even as it skewers the consuming lack of objectivity that some avocational theatre folk can be heir to, Waiting for Guffman is warmed by an appreciation for the diversity of motivations, talents, needs, and egos that find a common pursuit in—as one Blaine thespian puts it—“showing off.”
The cast includes Levy, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey, all of whom are expert in wielding broadsword but intelligent satire. Guest, who co-wrote Rob Reiner’s 1984 This Is Spinal Tap, the cult classic mockumentary of a rock band, has directed most of Guffman’s cast in his other films which include Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. And Guest must be credited with evoking from them here some of the most effectively restrained and focused work of their careers. His and Levy’s script is just fine, but it is Guest’s direction that really sustains the delicate calibration of slyness and generosity—and his own performance sets the tone. He plays Corky St. Clair, local impresario, director of the show, legend in his own mind. (“….my production on the stage of Backdraft was what really got them excited. This whole idea of ‘in your face’ theatre really affected them. The conceptualization, the whole abstraction, the obtuseness of this production to me was what was interesting. I wanted the audience to feel the heat from the fire, the fear, because people don’t like fire, poked, poked in their noses, you know when you get a cinder from a barbeque right on the end of your nose and you kind of make that face, you know, that’s not a good thing, and I wanted them to have a sense memory of that…”) Guest does a masterful job of making us laugh at Corky’s foibles even as we root for his passion; the role and Guest’s handling of it walk a fine line between a cunning roast of stereotype and the rare joys, the heart, and the cultural significance of community theatre.
Balaban, too, brings simultaneous comedy and pathos to his role as the high-school music teacher who runs afoul of Corky’s ascendancy. The always surprising Posey turns in one of the funniest, and most unexpectedly moving, performances—as Libby Mae Brown, who makes Blizzards at the Dairy Queen and dreams of someday getting out of Blaine. “My aunt brought out her atlas that I look at a lot. This big blue book and opened up to New York and it’s an island, is really what it is. It’s this island full of people of different colors and different ideas and I can’t—it sounds like a lot of fun to me. You know, we don’t see much of that in Blaine. I’d like to maybe meet some guys, some Italian guys, you know… watch TV and stuff.” Willard and O’Hara get a wide spectrum of local color out of Blaine’s husband-wife travel agents, Ron and Sheila Albertson. Though the competition is fierce they are the most self-delusional among their fellow troupers, and they are always eager to engage in rarefied discussions about the high calling of their art (Sheila: “He’s teaching me to change my instincts—or at least ignore them…”) and to share their opinions (Ron: “If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show.”) Levy is gently amusing as the dentist with stars in his eyes. “People say, You must have been the class clown. And I say, No, I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.” The cast is rounded-out by similarly adroit actors in the smaller roles, including Guest regulars Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake.
In some moments the film’s farce is outrageously over-the-top, in others the characterizations are imbued with an almost naturalistic psychological subtlety. Somehow—amazingly—it works.
The Guffman of the title might be a distant relation to the long-anticipated central character who never shows up in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—he is a renowned New York critic who is supposed to arrive on opening night to check out this piece of hinterland local theatre. The great thing about Waiting for Guffman is that in the end it doesn’t matter whether he shows or not. These people are doing what they want to do and what, in a very existential sense, they must. Their motivation and their product will ultimately be judged not by Guffman, but by their fellow Blainians—and by the natural audience for this film: those who know and love theatre. If there is anything to be relied on in the relation of art to life, the harshest critics of these characters and their enterprise will also be those who enjoy the most empathetic and heartfelt laugh. Waiting for Guffman is magnificent satire, both hilarious and touching.
– Hadley Hury
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