He teases back: "Then it's a good offensive defense, since the first thing we see after seeing only the film for months on end are critics." He coughs, I back away. "See?" he says, "It works. No, seriously, you don't want what I've got."
"Your talent? I wouldn't mind," I say, using such flattery to congratulate him on "Analyze This," the best movie he's ever made. Possibly the funniest movie ever made about psychoanalysis.
What is the hardest part of comedy? In short, what was the most difficult thing you did to get this movie made?
"Getting Bob aboard. The hardest thing was to get De Niro, because he wasn't sure it was a great idea - y'know? To mess with his image? His tough guy thing that, after all, is His Thing. And understandably, he didn't want to trash it. And I agree with that. What we wanted to do, though, was simply make him real - like he always is - but sensitive. As a guy like a mafia kingpin would be, if he really, truly had doubts.
"The key was in making it truthful. Nobody is more truthful in his acting than Bob. He lives in those characters and convinces us of their reality, but in comedy, the characters are sometimes big symbols. They stand for something instead of being that something - like the send-up. But I wanted this to be a little like Garbo Talks!" He uses his hands to outline the big lettering on the movie poster. "De Niro Cries! Only De Niro could make you laugh about that."
Behind every great actor's a great script, of course. Crystal is convinced that the screenplay is one of the best he's ever read. "We had this screenplay, but it really took off after Peter Tolan took over. We thought it was funny enough to have a reading. De Niro agreed to come to the reading, but he hadn't committed yet. So he showed up, and about 30 people were there, and they really enjoyed it."
Now Crystal imitates De Niro, as he describes the actor's reaction. "Not too dark, not too light, I like it." As tired as Crystal's face is after all the months on the movie, his eyes light up now like a kid on Christmas morning, as he explains how thrilled he was to get Robert De Niro. "Nobody is more truthful when he's acting than De Niro. Because he played Vitti straight, we see this guy as really having this problem of being unable to assume the job he's been groomed for - mob boss. And it's funny, of course, but it also reminds us of how serious that problem could be - when everybody around him packs a weapon. He needs more than psychiatry!
"The tone is crucial, especially when you're working with something like psychiatry. It's an easy target, so it had to be played real. The more real it got, the funnier it got." Still, they insist that they didn't want to trivialize the violence.
Hear what Harold Ramis told Crystal: "The thing I wanted to say in this film was that, in order to break the cycle of violence, you have to deal with these issues in young men." Fortunately, he didn't get around to "saying" that; he just directed a very, very funny movie by letting Crystal and DeNiro do their particular things.
Crystal and DeNiro also developed a restaurant relationship that's a bit too rich for our blood, but it's nice to know how the other half lives: Crystal's daughter was having her 21st birthday party, and Billy wanted to do it at Nobu in Tribeca, the restaurant owned by De Niro. So he called up and said he wanted to bring about ten people for this birthday dinner, would that be all right? Sure, says DeNiro, sure. So they have the dinner, it's time for the check, and the waiter says, that's OK, it's on the house. "No," says Crystal, "Yes," says the waiter, and you know how that goes: Yes, no, yes, no, etc.
So a few months later, Crystal runs into DeNiro and says, "Hey, how about that birthday party, I couldn't believe that you picked up the check on that. It was like $12,000 dollars, or something."
"I couldn't believe you let me," replies DeNiro. But he was just teasing, Crystal assures us. But Crystal is now constantly trying to find a way to take De Niro out - to repay the favor, but also because "he's just the greatest guy in the world to be around...a lotta fun. And trustworthy."
It's a great model for friendship - an actor coming to comedy, and a comedian coming to acting, and never hitting a false note.
But now Crystal is on his way to spring training. He's got a reputation as a guy who takes spring training seriously, and right now he's hot on the Arizona Diamond Backs. Maybe he could save the Yankees - by buying them, but that will take a few more blockbusters like Analyze This.
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