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Standing Ovation

Hart Hanson on Jackie Gleason in 'Nothing in Common'

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Hart Hanson on Jackie Gleason in 'Nothing in Common'
Photo Source: TriStar Pictures/Photofest
I have an unshakable prejudice, a certainty, which is that funny people can do anything. I don't mean design nuclear reactors or calculate space shuttle re-entry vectors, but onscreen, funny people can not only make you laugh, they can knock you to the ground, out of nowhere, like the way Frank Zappa played guitar.

Jackie Gleason's performance in Garry Marshall's 1986 movie "Nothing in Common," starring Tom Hanks, seeded this conviction in my brain—and it happened sneakily, because I thought it was Hanks who was pulling the comedy-drama switcheroo, then bam! I got Gleasoned. I'll betcha Hanks did too. No wonder Orson Welles nicknamed Gleason "The Great One." Certainly not because he was a fat, funny guy. (I mean Gleason, not Welles.)

In the film, Gleason plays shifty-bastard old-time garment salesman father Max Basner to Hanks' callow, crappy advertising-man son, David. Eva Marie Saint plays hapless wife and mom and catalyst who abdicates her untenable marriage and forces father and son together, so that laughing and sobbing can ensue.

Witness the scene in the car park where bad Max confesses to stunted son David that his life is falling apart. At the top of the scene, Max is all bluster, complaint, and overbearing criticism of his son's Jeep, conveyed in a cigarette- and whiskey-soaked bray. This is how poor David was brought up—no wonder David carries his own humanity-thwarting neuroses. Father and son can't even look at each other. Then, Max offers David a cigar, a good one, though not Cuban. (The world has gone wrong; you can't even get Cuban cigars anymore.) David turns it down almost rudely. The gulf between these guys is epic. Then this look passes over Max's face. It's defeat and humiliation and anger, and he says, "I lost my lines. They fired me." And for a moment, without a drop of sap, a flash of vulnerability appears—David sees it, but Max doesn't see that he sees it. And this is all in a three-quarter medium shot! And Gleason is wearing a hat. The camera never goes in any closer because it doesn't have to. Max sits there alone, with his unlit cigar, stewing, while his son gets out of the car, stares off into the distance, then finally returns to ask his father, "What are you going to do?"

That's when it happens, this moment that transcends even the horrible '80s music score, when Max says, "I know you hate me, but you have to help me." This is a difficult man. He's not even likable when he's on his knees begging for help. Brilliant!

Okay, wait, that's not even the best scene. Later, David takes his father to an old-fashioned nightclub, with a jazz band playing. It's the wee hours, like 4 in the morning, and Max dances to the music, puffing on his cigar. And I will go to my grave convinced that there is little in this world as gratifying and wonderful as watching Jackie Gleason dance. You want to laugh and you want to cry—and I'm pretty sure that's the toughest combo for an actor to wrest out of an audience. Max is still the king, baby! He loves life. He did it all wrong, but in this moment, with this music playing, he is not a defeated Willy Loman. He's a man with appetites who loves women, booze, cigars, and great music. How sweet it is.

Okay, wait, that's still not even the best scene—no, maybe it is, but there's another brilliant moment: Max has to get an operation for the gangrene in his foot that he has foolishly kept hidden. David has given up a big advertising account to be with his father when he wakes up, and is pushing Max out of the hospital in a wheelchair. Two of the funniest actors ever, Gleason and Hanks, are sharing a scene, and Max says to his son, "You were the last person in the world I thought would come through for me." That line lands because it's true, and it's true because Gleason says it perfectly, because he never once lets Max devolve into a lovable curmudgeon; Gleason plays a hateful, vain, untrue, faithless, self-centered, selfish curmudgeon. And that takes courage. Funny people are drenched in courage.

If I ever meet Hanks, I mean to ask him if in that moment with Gleason, he thought to himself, "I can do 'Philadelphia' and win an Oscar."

Because Tom Hanks did exactly that. Because funny people can do anything.

Hart Hanson worked as a Canadian television writer and producer for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles in 1998 to work on the network series "Cupid." He rose through the ranks on the television series "Snoops," "Judging Amy," and "Joan of Arcadia" before creating and executive producing "Bones," which is in production on its seventh season. Hanson likes living and working in California.

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