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One of the most unique voices in contemporary comedy, Christopher Guest earned a following with the acutely observed characters and spontaneous improvised spirit of "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), "Waiting for Guffman" (1997), and "Best in Show" (2000). Offbeat and satirical in nature, Guest's portraits of regular people with big dreams were effectively compelling as they steered clear of the mean spirit of Guest's early days as a writer for National Lampoon. The densely packed humor of his endlessly quotable ensemble comedies was unique for its basis in hyper-real, ultra-detailed characters that Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy created specifically for his troupe of exceptional actors. And his finest work as a director resulted from giving those actors the freedom to improvise their dialogue as he, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer did in their legendary rock-n-roll comedy "This is Spinal Tap" - inarguably the most truthful film about the rock lifestyle ever made, despite being a spoof. While his fictitious band spun off into a real life touring and recording act, the line between actor and character blurred further with frequent personal appearances as Tap's addled guitarist Nigel Tufnel, followed...
One of the most unique voices in contemporary comedy, Christopher Guest earned a following with the acutely observed characters and spontaneous improvised spirit of "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), "Waiting for Guffman" (1997), and "Best in Show" (2000). Offbeat and satirical in nature, Guest's portraits of regular people with big dreams were effectively compelling as they steered clear of the mean spirit of Guest's early days as a writer for National Lampoon. The densely packed humor of his endlessly quotable ensemble comedies was unique for its basis in hyper-real, ultra-detailed characters that Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy created specifically for his troupe of exceptional actors. And his finest work as a director resulted from giving those actors the freedom to improvise their dialogue as he, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer did in their legendary rock-n-roll comedy "This is Spinal Tap" - inarguably the most truthful film about the rock lifestyle ever made, despite being a spoof. While his fictitious band spun off into a real life touring and recording act, the line between actor and character blurred further with frequent personal appearances as Tap's addled guitarist Nigel Tufnel, followed years later as 1960s folkie Alan Barrows from his folk music send-up "A Mighty Wind" (2003). Guest's impeccable eye for detail, his dry wit, and his abundant talent as a writer, director and performer made for an innovative voice in film with an exceedingly well-respected body of work.
Guest was born Feb. 5, 1948, the son of Peter Haden-Guest, a British noble who worked as a professional ballet dancer in Europe prior becoming a United Nations diplomat. His mother, Jean Hindes, served as Vice-President of Casting and Talent at CBS. Guest was raised in New York City and played everything from classical to bluegrass music, first at the High School of Music and Art, then at the Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, where he was the mandolin player in schoolmate Arlo Guthrie's band. While attending the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Guest bonded with fellow musician and classmate Michael McKean over their shared love of the blues. It was there that his acting career was also jump-started in regional theater productions. In 1969, the multi-talented 21-year-old got a break when he was cast in the Jules Feiffer comedy "Little Murders," where he met longtime collaborator Fred Willard. He appeared in a revival of the 1930s screwball comedy "Room Service" and hit Broadway in Michael Weller's college-set comedy "Moonchildren" (1972).
As his acting career gained momentum, Guest was simultaneously making a name for himself as a writer, first as a contributor to National Lampoon magazine, then the spin-off "National Lampoon's Radio Hour." In 1973 he received an Obie Award nomination for his writing and acting in "National Lampoon's Lemmings," a topical satire revue whose cast included budding comedic actors Chevy Chase and John Belushi. As part of the Lampoon crew, Guest also co-wrote the comedy albums Radio Dinner and Gold Turkey, which were recognized with Grammy Award nominations for Best Comedy Album. Guest earned an Emmy for his writing contributions to "The Lily Tomlin Special" (ABC, 1975), in which he also performed, and the same year was tapped as a writer-performer on the short-lived ABC variety series "Saturday Night with Howard Cosell" (1975). Guest met future collaborator Rob Reiner during a guest appearance on "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79), and dipped briefly into TV drama movies-of-the-week "Billion Dollar Bubble" (NBC, 1977) and "It Happened One Christmas" (ABC, 1977).
Guest landed his first feature film lead playing opposite Melanie Mayron in Claudia Weill's "Girlfriends" (1978). He delivered a strong portrayal of Watergate felon Jeb Stuart Magruder in the 1979 CBS miniseries "Blind Ambition," and that same year was cast alongside McKean and Harry Shearer on the ABC sketch comedy show "The T.V. Show" (ABC, 1979), during which time the satirical rock band Spinal Tap was born. While the TV show did not last, the trio continued to develop the idea of their band. Meanwhile Guest joined McKean - then starring on the hit sitcom "Laverne and Shirley" (ABC, 1976-1983) - in the recording studio to play guitar and provide vocal harmonies on the merchandising spin-off album, Lenny and the Squigtones. In Guest's first collaboration with Reiner, he starred as a suburban divorcé and softball buddy in Reiner's made-for-TV movie "Million Dollar Infield" (CBS, 1982). His visibility did not rise significantly until 1984 when he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), serving as the anchor for the "Weekend Update" segments, as well as directing short films, including the memorable short about a male synchronized swimming pair, played hilariously by Martin Short and Harry Shearer.
The landmark comedy "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) was released the same year. The documentary-style chronicle of a British hard rock band that is past their prime but trying to prolong the adolescent joyride with an unwarranted album and tour instantly earned a cult following for its painfully acute observations of the rock world. But as half of the film's audience found blissfully blank guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), visionary lead man David St. Hubbins (McKean) and leather-clad bass player Derek Smalls (Shearer) endlessly quotable, the other half of the audience were completely unaware that what they had witnessed was a satire. While Reiner and Guest had developed the band's storyline, the actors improvised their scenes, making for an utterly believable, spontaneous, real-life feel that had not been successfully achieved on the big screen before. The bold new approach to comedy was a modest box office draw (and its accompanying soundtrack a moderate underground success) whose popularity grew exponentially over time. The success opened new doors for writer and star Guest, who married Hollywood scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of classic Hollywood couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the same year.
When Guest's one-year commitment to "SNL" was up in 1985, he left the show but continued to work with his co-stars on projects like HBO specials "Billy Crystal: Don't Get Me Started" (1986). Reiner tapped Guest to play the six-fingered villain Count Rugen in his charmingly offbeat fairytale "The Princess Bride" (1987) while director Robert Altman cast Guest in one of the filmmaker's rare misfires, "Beyond Therapy" (1987). After appearing in "I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood" (HBO, 1989), Guest wrote and directed "The Big Picture" (1989), a wry look at the Hollywood movie business and the relationship between creatives and the executive machine, as seen through the eyes of an aspiring filmmaker (Kevin Bacon) and his slightly more successful but jaded screenwriter friend (McKean). Excellent performances, realistic characters, and a smartly written script made the indie a well-reviewed favorite and one of filmdom's best send-ups of Tinseltown. Guest and McKean teamed up as directors the following year, with Reiner joining them as executive producer, on the TV series "Morton and Hayes" (CBS, 1990-91). The half-hour, black and white comedy about an Abbott and Costello-styled stage act was short-lived, and Guest returned to the stage to meet the demands of the growing legions of Spinal Tap fans with a live tour, the release of collection of music videos, and a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ).
After Guest appeared in a dramatic supporting role as a doctor in Reiner's Academy Award-nominated military courtroom drama "A Few Good Men" (1992), the actor went back behind the camera to direct a television remake of the campy classic "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman" (HBO, 1993), starring Daryl Hannah. Guest's next theatrical release was 1997's "Waiting for Guffman" (1997), starring Guest as a former (and unsuccessful) off-off-Broadway actor helming a community theater musical production in his small Missouri hometown. Adhering to the "Spinal Tap" production template, Guest and Eugene Levy wrote the characters and storyline while the actual scenes were improvised by a tour-de-force ensemble cast of seasoned improvisers, including Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara as local travel agents who have never left the state, Levy as an awkward dentist who harbors dreams of being a comedian, and Parker Posey as an aimless Dairy Queen employee. The documentary-style film, as endlessly quotable as "Spinal Tap" and just as packed with unusual characters, was another favorite with critics and Guest's growing fan base, as well as earned Best Screenplay and Best Male Lead nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards. It also cemented Guest's reputation as a strong comedic director and launched his side career as a commercial director.
Guest followed a more traditional Hollywood production format for his third feature, "Almost Heroes" (1998), which starred Chris Farley and Matthew Perry as a bumbling pair of rivals to Lewis and Clark trekking across early 19th-century America. Unfortunately the film's release was overshadowed by Farley's premature death months before its release; consequently, it made barely a dent at the box office or a lasting impression as part of Guest's overall body of work. But critics were raving again upon the release of "Best in Show" (2000), another ensemble film that painted a rich picture of a specific community - this time the competitive dog show world. Guest's growing troupe of loyal actors turned out more stellar performances as all manner of dog owners - from aspiring amateurs Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara to uptight yuppies Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, to a side-splitting Fred Willard as an uninitiated and inappropriate event commentator. The consistently funny film earned more critical accolades than any of Guest's previous offerings, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, a Writer's Guild nomination for Guest and Levy's script, and a Best Director nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2001, Guest and Spinal Tap launched another tour, giving audiences a sneak preview of his next film by opening shows with a set by their alter-ego acoustic band, The Folksmen. Like the 1984 film when audiences mistook "This is Spinal Tap" for an earnest music documentary, many Spinal Tap concertgoers were fooled into booing the cornball Folksmen only to discover their mistake two years later with the release of "A Mighty Wind" (2003). Co-written by Levy and Guest, "Wind" followed a collection of 1960s folk musicians as they prepare for a reunion concert on public television. This time, Levy and O'Hara nearly stole the show as former bohemian singing sweethearts Mitch and Mickey, long since separated and living anonymous suburban lives, while Guest, Shearer and McKean embodied the slew of Celtic sweater-wearing string bands Guest had seen plenty of during his time in 1960s-era Greenwich Village. While the film's reference points were more obscure than usual, "A Mighty Wind" was well received, with Guest and Levy earning a nomination for Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards and Guest, McKean, and Shearer earning a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture for the theme song, "A Mighty Wind."
In 2005, Guest had a supporting role in Stephen Frears' bawdy 1930s-set theater comedy "Mrs. Henderson Presents," and the following year rolled out his next satire, "For Your Consideration" (2006). This time Guest and Levy sought to explore the effect of ego stroking in Hollywood - particularly, the effect of Award season rumors on the cast of an earnest independent film. Most of Guest's ensemble players returned, with Guest playing the film's director, Shearer as the film's veteran but unsung independent film actor, and Willard as a rambling entertainment show host, though Catherine O'Hara earned the lion's share of the positive reviews. And the positive reviews were significantly down from Guest's earlier run, with the filmmaker surprisingly missing the mark and adding little new perspective to the wealth of film-within-a-films. Guest's next appearance was onstage in 2009's "Unwigged and Unplugged" tour, which found Guest, McKean and Shearer performing acoustic versions of songs made famous by their fictitious bands. Spinal Tap released a new studio album, Back from the Dead, around the same time that Guest had a supporting role as Ivan the Terrible in the blockbuster comedy "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (2009).
By Susan Clarke
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CAST: (feature film)
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"I have no concept of how some people create a product they think a lot of people will see." --Christopher Guest in Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1997
Guest on Corky St Claire, his lovably flamboyant character in "Waiting For Guffman" (from Venice, February 1997): "I don't think it was a caricature, but a representation. I think those are different. I make it a point in characters that I do to inhabit these people with a certain viewpoint. I have to like them, and I think, if that happens, then the audience will like them. In the case of Corky St Claire, his sexuality is not the point of the movie, The point of the movie is that this is who this guy is. People in the town like him. They accept who he is and he is a likable, even loveable character whom they can relate to."
From Time Out New York, September 7-14, 2000: Jem Aswad notes: "Your satirical films have been about rock & roll, the film industry, small-town theater and now -- dog shows?"
Guest replied:"I guess [the common thread] is a fanaticism that crossed different boundaries in hobbies or professions. I have two dogs and my wife and I used to take them to this dog park near our home. I noticed the behavior of the people more than the dogs, and it evolved from that."
"I don't make movies that make fun of anything. I think if you like the people, that's the important thing. Because if you don't like these people, if they were just to be a one-dimensional parody, then you have no investment emotionally in the end when you're waiting to hear who wins." --Guest on "Best in Show", quoted in The New York Times, September 24, 2000.
Christopher Guest on his filmmaking process to Daily News, September 24, 2000: "I've put a tremendous amount of trust in these actors to deliver this kind of movie. The actors know what the intention of the scene is, but there are no lines written down, and the first time you hear it and see it on the screen, that's it--that's the first time it was said. I've tried to make all these analogies to what we're doing, mostly with music. Like in jazz--there are no music stands. Where's the music coming from? They're making it up. And in these films, this is jamming. This is actor jamming."
"Where the clueless subjects of [Robert] Altman's 'Health' and 'Ready to Wear' wander foggily through the director's free-floaring dyspepsia (the last one standing wins the booby prize), Guest's misfits and dreamers enjoy his full hospitality. His humor isn't based on humiliation. When one of the dogs misbehaves and has to be disqualified, it's comic without being cruel. He doesn't dole out punishment by playing nasty tricks on his characters." -- Vanity Fair's James Wolcott on Guest, from an October 2000 profile.
Guest on deciding which actors to work with: "These are people who, when you meet them, you immediately know are on your wavelength or whatever you want to call it. Not to say that it's all based on intuition. But if you are in the world of comedy, you can tell immediately if they are sharing a sensibility. And then they're basically in the club. For what I do, it's a small club. I'm not saying it can't expand. It's just that there's not 20,000 people walking around who share that sensibility. It's very specific. You meet them and you immediately recognize something in them. You know instantaneously. Eugene Levy makes me laugh. Why? Here we are again: I don't know." --to Salon.com's Jessica Hundley, October 6, 2000.
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