Desperation Unknown

Unlike the flop-sweating neurotics of his comedies, Albert Brooks the director shows none of the comedian's high anxiety

Los Angeles--

Here's something funny about Albert Brooks that you might not know: He's actually nothing like the paranoid, hypochondriacal, masochistic, obsessive-compulsive characters he plays in his movies. As writer-director of six scathingly satirical farces that suggest self-portraits for featuring himself in the lead roles, Brooks has unfairly suffered the disease of mistaken identity known as Woody Allen Syndrome--the belief that his comedy is a psychological attempt to cure what ails the comedian in real life.

But if his latest movie, The Muse, is a typically excruciating study of a Hollywood screenwriter's downward spiral, it represents another triumph for Brooks in securing studio investment and celebrity participation in a highly personal and idiosyncratic piece of work. Put it this way: Co-star Sharon Stone asked him if she could appear naked in the film. "That's a credit to her, because it wasn't written that way," says Brooks, confidently holding court before a dozen writers with ringside seats for what amounts to a half-hour standup routine. "As an actress, [Stone] said, 'I think if I'm gonna shock the hell out of Andie [MacDowell's character], I should be naked.' And I thought...well, fine [laughs]. Then she said, 'But only Stanley Kubrick can film it!'"

Losin' it: Writer-director-star Albert Brooks (at right, with Jeff Bridges) in The Muse
Losin' it: Writer-director-star Albert Brooks (at right, with Jeff Bridges) in The Muse

In that joke's self-deprecating punch line lies the running gag of the Brooks oeuvre: A professional man suddenly loses control of his work and his life, forcing him to take desperate measures and bringing him face to face with every unflattering phobia that his success had barely held at bay. (See Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and Mother.) In The Muse, Brooks's Academy Award-nominated screenwriter takes a meeting at Paramount to discuss his latest project (which he describes as a "good" action movie), only to discover that the new boss (Mark Feuerstein) is a smarmy junior exec who cancels the film ("I think you've lost your edge") and informs the writer that his office has been given to Brian De Palma. This sends our hero scurrying for a solution in the form of The Muse (Stone), the self-described daughter of Zeus, who offers to help him conjure a hit in trade for such gratuities as a top-floor suite at the Four Seasons. (Note: The fact that The Muse's distributor has paid to put up reporters in the same hotel should not be mistaken for proof of the critic's own inspirational potential.)

A screwball cross between Sunset Blvd.'s shrewish Norma Desmond and the divine subject of Cézanne's "Eternal Feminine," Stone's well-adorned Muse is seen in the film giving counsel to such A-list auteurs as James Cameron and Martin Scorsese--which in the real world testifies again to Brooks's clout. Just how did he manage to assemble such a high-powered cast? "I have a lot of information on people," he jokes. "No, in fact everybody in this movie took the job on the phone, and they all said yes right away. Scorsese was especially amazing because he does not like to fly. And Jim Cameron, who I didn't know, actually called me from the car. I said, 'So I want you to do this and this, and here's what it entails.' And there was a long pause, until finally he said, 'Just tell me it'll be funny.' And I said, 'It'll be funnier than Titanic.'"

As Brooks the director traffics in the comedy of humiliation, his trademark gift as an actor is in putting a human face on total collapse. Halfway through the new film, as the writer's wife (MacDowell) uses The Muse's entrepreneurial and cookie-baking advice to become "the next Mrs. Fields" (what's worse for an insecure man than having to cede bread-winning duties to his spouse?), Brooks contorts his fleshy face into a bewildered scowl. It's a further credit to the actor's skills that his performance for the press represents the epitome of calm. Appearing well-scrubbed and even handsome in a black polo shirt with long sleeves, his hand resting on an unopened Coke, the 51-year-old Brooks has a habit of looking intently at the slew of spinning tape recorders when he speaks, as if noting the difference between his carefully scripted comedy and this kind of talk-show improv.

How does he manage to stay sane in such a crazy business? someone asks. "I think Hollywood is like some sort of a disease, and I might have had a little bit of immunity when I was born," says Brooks, who was given the name Albert Einstein by a comedian father who died onstage--literally--when his son was only 12. Growing up in Beverly Hills alongside such fellow quick-wits as Carrie Fisher, Charles Grodin, Richard Dreyfuss, and Rob Reiner, the budding humorist changed his surname to Brooks and hit the stage as a standup comic before preparing for Real Life through a string of now-classic shorts that he directed for Saturday Night Live. "Very early on, I sort of understood what was going on in this business--that stars are just people," says Brooks, whose mom is the former actress-singer Thelma Leeds. "I never put anybody up on a pedestal. I mean, if you come from Kansas and you're 25 when you get here, it may be more difficult to understand that concept. For me, it's different: Now, when I go to Kansas, I have problems there."

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