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Brilliant and Forgotten: A Look Back at Christopher Guest’s Directorial Debut ‘The Big Picture’

What’s your favorite Christopher Guest movie?

Popular answers usually include Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, or the ever-popular Waiting for Guffman.

Each one of those films, besides being hilarious and employing his usual loyal troupe of talented actors, all have one thing in common: most people have heard of them.

The Big Picture, Guest’s first film, while notably different in style than his most popular films, very much deserves to be revered in the same way.

Although Guest had worked frequently as an actor for several decades, most notably as Nigel Tuffnel in Rob Reiner’s classic This is Spinal Tap, The Big Picture was his directorial feature debut. Co-written with his friend and Spinal Tap co-star Michael McKean, The Big Picture follows the Hollywood misadventures of Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) as he maneuvers his way from film school to fame after making a deal to direct his own feature. It’s an age-old tale of someone who is seduced by the trappings of fame only to realize people only really want you if you’re on top. Once Nick loses his deal, he must humble himself back to his real friends who he left behind in his search for celebrity.

The Big Picture is a simple film full of hilarity and heart.

It’s a touching character study about anyone who was dangled the brass ring only to realize what was truly valuable they already have. Bacon is terrific as Nick, who goes from a sweet, wide-eyed lover of filmmaking to a Hollywood jerk who is more than willing to step over his own friends (and vision) in order to keep his place in the pecking order. Bacon plays Nick with such charm and vulnerability it’s impossible not to root for him. Bacon, who never gets enough credit for his skills at physical comedy, is never afraid to take a pie in the face to sell the joke. I think this is one of Bacon’s best performances.

Nick goes on a sort of Odyssean journey through Hollywood starting with mogul Allen Habel, played with an ever-steady coldness by J.T. Walsh.

Habel first discovers Nick at film school and enchants him to move across the country for promised fortune and fame. The late J.T. Walsh played this type of part a lot and for good reason – he was great at it. Walsh’s still, cold grin is so eerie and off-putting he uncomfortably steals every scene he’s in.

Once it gets out around town Chapman is the hot new talent, he is descended upon by a Hollywood siren in the form of the hilariously sexy Teri Hatcher in her first movie role. Hatcher, as Gretchen, is a seductress willing to get Chapman to crash his relationship into the rocks to be with her. Of course, she’s really only interested in getting the role in his film, but Chapman is far too naive and lovestruck to know better.

By the time he sends his delightful girlfriend packing for this fantasy girl he’s too late to realize that he threw away the best thing that ever happened to him. It’s easy to see why Hatcher has had an enduring career since this film and why her eight-year stint on Desperate Housewives was so successful. She has incredible comic skills which most people never see coming.

After the inevitable crash of Chapman’s deal his new “friends” fall away faster than his fame. He goes on a downward spiral of menial day jobs to stay afloat with each one more humiliating than the last. After accepting a no-money offer to direct an indie band’s music video he suddenly gets hot once again.

But this time Nick’s fame will be on his own terms.

Another actor in The Big Picture that deserves more credit is Emily Longstreth as Susan, Nick’s supportive and loving girlfriend. Susan, who moves to LA with Nick, endures Nick’s “…maybe I need to think about things. . .” speech when he wants to dump her to pursue Hatcher’s Gretchen, only to later come crawling back once he realized he blew the best thing in his life. Susan is seen through Nick’s cinematic fantasy eye after their breakup, casting her as a femme fatale in a film noir version of their relationship. Longstreth does a fine job playing the different versions of Nick’s Susan in his mind.

She is so lovely and perfect you can’t help but yell “WHY?” at the screen as Nick screws it all up. Longstreth, who essentially stopped acting in 1994, may have taken a tragic turn in real life. Reports on her whereabouts are all over the map and none from seemingly credible sources, but whatever demons she may have had in real life, this film will always remain a true testament to her talent.

One of my favorite parts of this film is Nick’s relationship with McKean’s Emmet. Emmet gets stepped over for a DP job when Nick is on the rise, but never holds it against him even when Nick tearfully admits he never fought for him to get the job at all. It’s a cold and very real moment between two friends and it’s never left me.

Michael McKean at this point was still widely known for his comic turns as David St. Hubbins, the lead singer of Spinal Tap opposite Guest’s Tuffnel, and to Laverne and Shirley fans as “Lenny” the tall sidekick of David Lander’s “Squiggy.” Here, McKean turns in a poignant performance as the best friend we all wish we had. He not only doesn’t hold a grudge against Nick, he’s still there for him at his lowest point.

Speaking of friends, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lydia, the quirky old classmate from Nick’s film school days, delivers a killer comic tour de force in a small but fun role. Lydia, the “weird one” from film school, hasn’t quite found her groove in Hollywood. She finds Nick at his lowest point and can’t help but cheer him up simply by being herself. She introduces him to the band looking to make a music video and helps set him back on his path to redemption. For anyone who has ever been to art or film school of any kind there is a Lydia in every class and we are all better for it.

Another really cool aspect of The Big Picture is it’s adorned with cameos throughout the film. Everyone from John Cleese, Elliott Gould, to Roddy McDowell appear in the movie, sometimes in Nick’s visions and other times as actors in his classmate’s student film projects. But there is one uncredited cameo that positively STEALS the entire film: Nick’s agent Neil Sussman played by the comic institution that is Martin Short.

Short, who would later lament in his autobiography that he wished he’d taken the credit for this part, is so funny as Sussman it’s almost hard to pay attention to anything else. Extra credit goes to Bacon in these scenes as it’s everything he can do to keep the scene grounded at all. Short’s Sussman is so over-the-top yet completely believable as the agent who tells Nick, “…and if anybody ever fucks with you, I’ll squeeze their balls until they’re dead!” I mean, how could you not sign with this guy?

While The Big Picture isn’t the “mockumentary” style Guest has become known for, it ended up becoming even more meta in retrospect. Two weeks after principal photography began, David Puttnam was ousted from Columbia Pictures leaving the new regime to ponder what exactly to do with a film they didn’t really find funny. The reason they didn’t see the humor is they felt it was directly lampooning the Hollywood machine (them), which it surely was. After its completion, the executives, not appreciating the brutal satire, gave The Big Picture a quiet theatrical release despite having largely positive reviews. It later found a new life on home video and cable and to this day holds nearly a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, art imitating life imitating art, sort of works for this film.

And just like in the movie I think The Big Picture gets the last laugh. I highly recommend this feel-good comedy.

Interesting meta fact: Charles Bronson’s cat was accidentally killed by the crew of The Big Picture while filming a party scene that was being shot at Wink Martindale’s house. To recap: a movie about the movie business uses a game show host’s house to shoot a movie party scene and kills the cat of a legendary movie star tough guy. Seek out this movie!

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and television writer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the cult sci-fi JFK conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

 

 

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