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Once dubbed by Details magazine as "the meanest man in Hollywood," writer-director-playwright Neil LaBute had indeed made some of the most caustic, cruel and wickedly funny films in contemporary cinema. LaBute's work as a playwright was no less vicious. His plays provoked anger from critics and audiences alike, and even prompted the Mormon Church - of which he had been a member - to disfellowship him for his negative characterizations of the faithful. But the most frequent, yet disavowed criticism of LaBute was to label him a misogynist. Time and again, LaBute had to defend himself against the charge, particularly with "In the Company of Men" (1997), an acid bath of a film that announced loudly his arrival on the filmmaking scene. He followed up with the independent hit "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998), which helped launch his Hollywood career. LaBute's later films - in particular "Nurse Betty" (2000), "Possession" (2002) and "Lakeview Terrace" (2008) - stemmed the critical tide and showed the breadth of his talents, though those same critics claimed that he had gone soft. But for an iconoclast like LaBute, such criticisms only reinforced his belief in his work, as he continued to defy, outrage...
Once dubbed by Details magazine as "the meanest man in Hollywood," writer-director-playwright Neil LaBute had indeed made some of the most caustic, cruel and wickedly funny films in contemporary cinema. LaBute's work as a playwright was no less vicious. His plays provoked anger from critics and audiences alike, and even prompted the Mormon Church - of which he had been a member - to disfellowship him for his negative characterizations of the faithful. But the most frequent, yet disavowed criticism of LaBute was to label him a misogynist. Time and again, LaBute had to defend himself against the charge, particularly with "In the Company of Men" (1997), an acid bath of a film that announced loudly his arrival on the filmmaking scene. He followed up with the independent hit "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998), which helped launch his Hollywood career. LaBute's later films - in particular "Nurse Betty" (2000), "Possession" (2002) and "Lakeview Terrace" (2008) - stemmed the critical tide and showed the breadth of his talents, though those same critics claimed that he had gone soft. But for an iconoclast like LaBute, such criticisms only reinforced his belief in his work, as he continued to defy, outrage and shed light on multiple facets of human nature.
Born on March 19, 1961 in Detroit, MI and raised near Spokane, WA, LaBute was reared in a home dominated by his intimidating father, a long-haul truck driver whose lengthy absences were shadowed by the imminence of his return. A quiet kid, LaBute participated in church and Bible study despite his parents' lack of spirituality. But LaBute's chief religion was watching foreign films on public television, an activity his stay-at-home mom encouraged, ultimately fueling his dramatic desires. At Central Valley High School, where he was president of his class, LaBute starred in several school productions, including "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Arsenic and Old Lace" and the high school staple, "Our Town." After graduation, he received a scholarship to attend Brigham Young University in Utah, a staunchly conservative school that somehow allowed LaBute's subversive nature to thrive. Though he eventually joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, his work openly defied church strictures that commanded of its members to avoid everything from attending R-rated movies to having impure thoughts - let alone expressing his darker side in vitriolic dialogue. LaBute was both the scourge and the darling of BYU's theater department, a rebel who caused both fear and admiration among the faculty.
LaBute went on to earn his bachelor's in 1985 and married college sweetheart, Lisa Gore, before receiving his master's from the University of Kansas and another in dramatic writing from New York University. While in New York, he staged his first play, "Filthy Talk for Troubled Times," a biting and vulgar set of monologues that inflamed an audience member enough to stand up and shout, "Kill the playwright!" Adept at quickly writing short plays, he tried to find work as a sketch writer, but one phone call to a gruff Lorne Michaels at "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) soon ended that notion. After moving to Fort Wayne, IN, LaBute began writing in earnest, though the plays he wrote were stored away while he supported himself teaching dramatic writing and working at a psychiatric hospital. It was while working at St. Francis College, however, that LaBute took his first steps towards making his first feature, "In the Company of Men" (1997). With $25,000 donated from two former students who cobbled together insurance money from a car accident, LaBute made the move to film directing.
A searing black comedy about two corporate lackeys (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) who scheme to date and dump a blind woman (Stacy Edwards) working in their office, "In the Company of Men" was shot in 11 days with a motley crew of volunteers from Fort Wayne. The film made its festival debut at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, where it provoked strong reactions, including several walkouts. On the flipside, LaBute was surprised to hear women complimenting him on making such a feminist movie - his depiction of men behaving badly revealed the unseemly side of masculinity that, if directed by a woman, might have been construed as male bashing. "In the Company of Men" won LaBute the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance, before making the rounds at Cannes, Edinburgh and Montreal, where LaBute earned several more awards. The film itself took in close to $3 million in domestic box office, more than enough to recoup production costs and the $250,000 Sony Pictures Classics ponied up for post-production. Meanwhile, it generated the same strong reactions from audiences and critics as he had received at Sundance, prompting one viewer to punch a Manhattan publicist after a screening.
His next film, "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998), one-upped the vitriol and shallowness of character in telling the story of six ruthless thirty-somethings who engage each other in sexual power games. Jerry and Terri (Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener) are married, even though Jerry begins an affair with Mary (Amy Brenneman), who is unsatisfied in her marriage to Barry (a plump Aaron Eckhart). The affair sets off a chain of consequences affecting all involved, including Terri, who falls for another woman, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski). Meanwhile, Cary (a superb Jason Patric) engages in meaningless and sometimes violent relations with numerous women. The usual outrage from audiences and critics followed, particularly regarding Patric's character recounting his best sexual experience - the gang rape of a fellow high school student. Though "Your Friends & Neighbors" made the festival circuit rounds, the film netted few awards. It did, however, double the box office take of "In the Company of Men," while being widely considered to be a comeback vehicle for Patric. While no violent reactions from audience members were reported during any screening, LaBute was nonetheless happy once again for the strong emotional response he received.
LaBute ran afoul of the Mormon church after staging his acclaimed "Bash: Latter-Day Plays" (1999), a set of three one-act plays written in the mold of old Greek confessionals that depicted Mormon characters talking about everything from infanticide to the brutal murder of a homosexual man. The play prompted the church to disfellowship LaBute, a punishment that was short of excommunication and forced him to forego receiving the sacrament. The only way for LaBute to get back into their good graces was to stop writing about things they disapproved of - an impossibility that led to LaBute's split from the church a few years later. His next film, "Nurse Betty" (2000), was not typical LaBute territory - if only because he did not write it - that nonetheless did tread into the dark alleys of celebrity obsession and murder. Starring Renee Zellweger as a delusional waitress who travels cross-country with a pair of gangsters (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) to meet Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), a soap opera character she thinks is real, "Nurse Betty" earned a sizable box office sum while generating critical accusations that the director had gone soft.
LaBute next directed "Possession" (2002), a sweeping semi-period romance about two modern-day academics (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) who retrace the love affair of two Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) while discovering their own romantic feelings. Both earnest and bittersweet, the film seemed to confirm calls that the writer-director had lost his edge. Adapted from A.S. Byatt's novel, LaBute's "Possession" showed a side of the director that fans had never before seen and perhaps never wanted to again. He returned to form with "The Mercy Seat" (2002), a stage drama focusing on a man who tries to use the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as an excuse to disappear from his family and run away with his boss and mistress. Staged just a year after the actual horrific events, "The Mercy Seat" emerged at a time when most plays were commemorating the people who were killed - not the killers. LaBute, on the other hand, took a shovel to the head of decorum and bashed it senseless, creating a stunning and frequently funny look at abject selfishness in the face of national tragedy. "The Mercy Seat" opened to mixed reviews and was considered to be a lesser LaBute work.
His next film, "The Shape of Things" (2003), a caustic male-female relationship comedy that was adapted from his 2001 play, followed a nebbish college student (Paul Rudd) who is reshaped into a good-looking, confident guy by an art major (Rachel Weisz). His best friend (Frederick Weller), however, does not like the new changes, while his fiancée (Gretchen Mol) discovers feelings for his friend she never knew she had. "The Shape of Things" did not outrage so much as disappoint - few people cared enough to see it in theaters, while critics were less than enthusiastic. After publishing a collection of 20 short stories called Seconds of Pleasure, which depicted men and women in various romantic entanglements, LaBute returned to the stage with "Fat Pig" (2004), a harsh and humiliating look at love, honesty and sacrifice in relationships. First staged at New York's Lucille Lortel Theatre, "Fat Pig" followed the affair of an overweight librarian and a technology company employee too embarrassed by his new love's girth to show her off to friends and family.
Back in features, LaBute caused more than a few to scratch their heads over "The Wicker Man" (2006), a remake of the 1973 British horror film about a police officer (Nicolas Cage), who travels to a remote island to find a missing girl, only to discover the inhabitants engaged in strange and secretive rituals. Both predictable and hollow, LaBute's "Wicker Man" was noted for Cage's wild over-acting in several unintentionally funny scenes, including one where he runs around punching women while wearing a bear suit. Taking a rare turn into thriller territory, he directed "Lakeview Terrace" (2008), which starred Samuel L. Jackson as a racist LAPD officer who terrorizes an interracial couple (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson) after they move in next door. Despite mixed critical reviews, the film marked LaBute's best performance at the box office to date. He next helmed another remake of a British film, this time the black comedy "Death at a Funeral" (2010), which focused on a day in the life of an African-American family (Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Regina Hall, Tracy Morgan, Zoe Saldana), who has come together to bury their patriarch, only to be blackmailed by a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) claiming to be his gay lover. Full of tasteless jokes that divided critics, the raunchy comedy performed decent enough at the box office.
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"Everyone in a relationship has hurt someone or been hurt, usually both. Men are trying to pass off the movie as a fantasy, while women are pretty sure it's a documentary. The truth is somewhere in between." --Neil LaBute on "In the Company of Men", quoted in Details, August 1997.
"I'm not sure anything's too sacred to write about. Maybe that is a dangerous way to feel. I think writers are dangerous people. In fact, there's an inherent danger to sitting here with you right now."--Neil LaButePremiere
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