The Addams Family: The World's Biggest Rerun - Rolling Stone
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The Addams Family: The World’s Biggest Rerun

Why a reboot of a horror comedy is making Hollywood ghoul crazy

Addams Family Movie, Raul Julia, Angelica HustonAddams Family Movie, Raul Julia, Angelica Huston

Raul Julia, and Anjelica Huston pose for a photograph for their film 'The Adams Family' in Los Angeles, CA on February 15th, 1991.

Theo Westenberger/Liaison/Getty

Ah, the vicissitudes of movie stardom. Just a few days ago, Anjelica Huston was getting the happy news that her performance in The Grifters had garnered her another Oscar nomination. Today, she’s being lashed to a large torture wheel and menaced with burning-hot branding irons.

But the tall, svelte actress remains serene. Her calm is partly due to good acting — she’s playing Morticia Addams, the drolly sadomasochistic mom of the Addams Family, for whom torture is as pleasurable as a shiatsu massage. And partly it’s because she’s being well rewarded for her pains: For the first time in her career, she’s earning a million-dollar salary. But it’s also because, compared with what Huston and her colleagues have undergone during the making of The Addams Family, scorching pokers don’t seem so bad.

When filming began in L.A. in November 1990, Huston’s daily hair and makeup regimen took three and a half hours; even now, it still takes two and a half, and another hour to remove. Engineered by Woody Allen’s longtime makeup woman Fern Buchner, it includes a series of latex stipples glued across Huston’s face to make her eyes slantier and a full black wig that misbehaves so much it has earned the nickname Faye (after the notoriously difficult actress Dunaway). Then comes the wrenching corset, the fake fingernails that always end up sticking to her underwear, the long funereal dress that forces her to walk in tiny steps….

“Occasionally, if it’s a long day, I get headaches,” Huston says. “But apart from a lot of green smoke in certain attic situations, it’s been okay. Captain Eo was far worse — the headpiece took five hours to put on; I was suspended from my hips and developed a bad back.”

The Disney theme-park featurette Captain Eo, however, took only three weeks to film; The Addams Family was still kicking after five months, having already suffered all sorts of mishaps, some of which could have come right out of the macabre New Yorker cartoons by the late Charles Addams that were its original inspiration. Raul Julia, playing Morticia’s passionate husband, Gomez, had to miss several days after blood vessels burst in his eye; he explained that his eyeball had fallen out and he’d caught it and put it back in its socket. Christopher Lloyd, playing Uncle Fester, had his temporarily bald head nearly catch fire and almost lost an ear to Julia’s flashy saber work.

There were also more mundane filmmaking horrors: When shooting started, the script by Caroline (Edward Scissorhands) Thompson and Larry (Beetlejuice) Wilson was not ready, leading to unnecessary set construction and countless uncredited last-minute revisions by writer Paul Rudnick. The movie’s rookie director, accomplished cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Miller’s Crossing, Big, Misery), had variously fainted and cried and had even halted filming to be with his wife when she underwent an operation. Director of photography Owen Roizman (Havana) was slow to light scenes, then had to leave halfway through the movie for a previous commitment; his replacement, Gale Tattersall (The Commitments), got a sinus infection so large “he thought his brain was going to explode,” says Sonnenfeld. These delays — and the time-consuming makeup — helped send the budget ballooning to around $33 million.

What’s more, the movie’s studio, Orion, was so dangerously in debt that it was forced to sell off the distribution rights in the middle of filming, an almost unheard-of transaction. Fanning the flames of disaster, some anonymous prankster sent ill-will packages to Spy magazine, the Los Angeles Times and other publications; inside was a T-shirt imprinted with a knife stabbing the back, reading, I’ve been “Barryed” on The Addams Family, and a mock press release asking, “Will Barry Sonnenfeld Bankrupt Orion Pictures?” After the dust cleared, the movie ended up at Paramount.

So today’s torture wheel is a comparatively mild annoyance. In the scene, Gomez arrives, discovers his wife all tied up and — all hot and bothered about her bondage — cries, “Cara mia!” But after several flubbed takes, Julia’s ardor is noticeably waning.

“Let’s do it one more time,” says Sonnenfeld. With an impish grin, he adds, “For the Hebrew version.” “

How do you say ‘leather straps and red-hot pokers’ in Hebrew?” Julia asks.

“I don’t know,” Sonnenfeld says.

Julia persists: “How about Yiddish?”

Sonnenfeld, 38, plays up the low-level moan that colors all his speech and says, “Leather straps and red-hot pokers? Oy vey iz mir!” His actors collapse in much-needed guffaws.

“Barry has such a great sense of humor, it’s the key to everything,” says his mother, Irene, a retired New York City teacher who visited her only child’s first movie and got to meet its end-title composer, M.C. Hammer (although she was “not into Mr. Hammer’s kind of music”).

And if The Addams Family is this year’s big holiday movie — as all Hollywood expects — it won’t be only thanks to its familiar characters, top-notch cast and eye-catching special effects, but also to the director’s warmly goofy sensibility, his deadpan self-effacement in the eye of the storm. “Barry,” says his mother, “can turn a near tragedy into a comedy by making everybody laugh.”

Some movies spring from artists’ dreams, others from great works of literature, others from coffee-fueled late-night desperation. But not until now has one been hatched by an eleven-year-old in the back of a van.

The van in question was leaving a Twentieth Century-Fox test screening several years ago, and inside were Fox’s top brass at the time — Barry Diller, Leonard Goldberg, Scott Rudin and Tom Sherak — as well as Sherak’s son William, age eleven. William started snapping his fingers and singing, “They’re creepy, and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky….” The grown men chimed in with “The Addams Family!” and looked at one another with dollar signs in their eyes. (And this was before the Batman movie made $251 million.)

The song was Vic Mizzy’s theme from the Addams Family TV series, which had lasted only from 1964 to 1966 (as had its poor relation, The Munsters). But thanks to perpetual syndication, the executives realized, an entire movie-going generation had been primed for more odd-is-ordinary antics of Gomez and Morticia, their children, Pugsley and Wednesday (played in the movie by Jimmy Workman and Mermaids‘ Christina Ricci), their toweringly glum butler, Lurch (Twin Peaks giant Carel Struycken), Granny (Living Theater cofounder Judith Malina), hairy Cousin It and disembodied hand Thing.

Why a movie? First, a film budget would allow richer sets, camera moves and special effects: For instance, Thing is now out of its box and can wander freely. “The TV show was very jokey and unsophisticated,” says Rudin. “Charles Addams’s stuff is really, really dry and mean. You couldn’t do that on a half-hour show in 1965.” Since then, however, the black comedy of The War of the Roses, Married…With Children and The Simpsons has so penetrated the American consciousness that the once-outrageous Addamses look almost quaint. “If you put Morticia on Melrose Avenue today,” says Huston, “people wouldn’t turn a hair.”

Addams died in 1988; Rudin, who became an independent producer (Regarding Henry, Little Man Tate), convinced the estate that he would make a “first-class movie,” he says, “Dick Tracy, not Dragnet.” He then approached the top hip-gruesome directors, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, but they passed, so he decided to try someone new. “Barry Diller taught me you should hire at either the very top or the very bottom,” Rudin says. “Tim Burton or a guy you believe could become Tim Burton.”

And having supervised the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona and Penny Marshall’s Big at Fox, Rudin knew of Sonnenfeld’s colorful, lively camera work. Sonnenfeld had studied at NYU film school and shot documentaries before getting his break in 1982, when the Coens couldn’t afford anyone more experienced to shoot Blood Simple. (He was so nervous that he threw up eighteen times on the set; the Coens, duly impressed, recorded the sounds and used them for a character’s barfing.)

The Addams Family still could have headed toward crass exploitation — with cameos by Zsa Zsa Gabor types — and probably would have, had Cher, Orion’s choice, agreed to play Morticia. Instead, Rudin and Sonnenfeld went for the elegant Huston. “Getting Anjelica defined the level of the movie.” Rudin says. “It said, ‘Oh, they’re doing the classy, stylish Addams Family, not the low-rent one.’ “

“I didn’t read it and think, ‘Ah, yes, this is an Oscar-winning performance,’ ” says Huston, “but then I don’t think that’s the only criteria for making movies. It was a nice little morality tale, mercifully devoid of brutality.”

But also, at first, devoid of laughs. “Nothing about the original script was endemic to the Addams Family’s nonconformity and black humor,” says Sonnenfeld. “The comedy was broad, but not funny — like Thing with a mirror, looking up the villain’s dress and seeing garter belts.”

So Rudin brought in playwright and novelist Paul Rudnick to polish the dialogue. “Rewriting it was an interesting technical exercise,” Rudnick says. “You don’t want to Fiddle with the characters. And there aren’t many one-liners — it’s all situations, the Addams Family way of dealing with life. Gleeful innuendo about cannibalism and skeletons, but you never see any blood. They’re more romantic and sexual than the Munsters, and much preferable to the Brady Bunch. It appeals to everyone’s secret desires for dealing with one’s enemies and raising one’s children: You can eat them or electrocute them.”

Where’s it?” Asks Sonnenfeld’s eleven-year-old stepdaughter, Amy. “It is off today, but It will be here tomorrow,” says her stepdaddy, the director, loosening today’s loud tie, which depicts a bathing beauty. He’s between takes of “The Mamushka,” an ambitious song-and-dance number written for the film by Broadway veterans Adolph Green and Betty Comden (The Will Rogers Follies) and the movie’s scorer, Marc Shaiman. It’s a daring move for comedy to grind to a halt for a seventy-five-person musical number — if could be either “Springtime for Hitler” or Three Amigos. “Scott’s promised me a float in the Gay Pride parade for doing this number,” says Sonnenfeld. “But every day, as we get even more Judy Garland, there’s another float owed me.”

A half-hour goes by, and the crew is still setting up lights. “See how long it takes to do one shot?” Sonnenfeld asks. “Aren’t you amazed they’re not still making Birth of a Nation?”

He pulls out a digital thermometer and pops it in his mouth. “I think I’m getting sick,” he says, to no one in particular. The thermometer beeps, Sonnenfeld removes it and reads it through his glasses. “Yup, 98.9. You can’t tell me that’s not a temperature!”

“Sweetie,” his wife, Susan Ringo, tells him, “you’re willing it up.”

Later, Sonnenfeld explains how directing differs from cinematography. “When I was a DP, I was sure of things,” he says. “I’m not always sure now. It’s all these mistakes, answering, hundreds of questions incorrectly. Like, a few months ago, the prop person asks me, ‘How many copies of this book prop will you need?’ I say, ‘Five.’ ‘Will you see the front and back covers?’ ‘Only the front.’ ‘When she turns the pages, how many will you see?’ ‘Uh, maybe six or seven.’ ‘Consecutive or random?’ ‘Uh, consecutive.’ Then you get on the set and it’s ‘Wait, can’t we show the back cover? Can we unglue those pages?’ And that’s a forty-minute delay.”

The book prop he’s talking about is in the Addamses’ library and serves a major function in the movie’s climax; its title is Hurricane Irene: Nightmare From Above. The resemblance to Sonnenfeld’s mother’s name is purely intentional.

Only now can the truth be told: “Actually,” says Sonnenfeld, “this film is autobiographical. Fester has an overprotective mother, and there’s a great scene where he finally tells her off. Now, I love my mother, she’s a great gal. But…”

In other words, what helped to nearly bankrupt Orion and strain cast and crew for half a year is actually a $33 million comeuppance for an oppressive childhood suffered decades ago in upper Manhattan. To illustrate, Sonnenfeld says, “April 22nd, 1970,” as gravely as if he were citing Pearl Harbor. “Earth Day. I’m a senior in high school, and I’m with my girlfriend and 19,600 people packing Madison Square Garden. The band is tuning up, and over the loudspeaker comes the lowing announcement: ‘Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother.’ As I stand up to go to the phone, a chant starts in my section and soon grows: ‘Baaa-rry. Baaa-rry. Baaa-rry.’ I go to the phone. ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ ‘Nothing’s wrong, it’s two in the morning, you said you’d be home!’ ‘Mom, how did you…?’ ‘I told them there was an emergency!’ ” She later encouraged him to go to NYU film school so that he wouldn’t be far from home. They really are a scre-am, the Sonnenfeld family.

Within days of having assembled his first edit, Sonnenfeld starts to get calls from executives at other studios:

“Congratulations! Your movie, it’s great! I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard all about it.”

“Everyone’s decided it’s a big hit,” Sonnenfeld says bemusedly. “It’s very rough, the whole pressure thing. They’re already asking, ‘Does your next script-look like it can gross as much as The Addams Family?’ I’ve already turned down the Beverly Hillbillies movie.”

The Beverly Hillbillies? “Listen,” says Sonnenfeld, “if Addams Family makes money, you can only imagine what’s going to be made.” 


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