An overview of the career of comic leading man Chevy Chase
Yes, I know that headline's probably been used a thousand times, and I expect that when Chevy Chase finally shuffles off this mortal coil, that headline or some variation on it will be used another thousand times. That line summed up an attitude that personified what made "Saturday Night Live" such an amazing immediate cultural sensation, and it is entirely appropriate that it has followed Chevy Chase as a sort of signature since then.
Chevy Chase was the first "Saturday Night Live" movie star.
Even though the entire cast made an impression that first year, "Weekend Update" gave Chase a forum to be showcased as himself, not as a character,and for whatever reason, that translated into an immediate sort of stardom. He left the show after a single season, the first person to defect, and I think that set a reputation of sort in motion, one that Chase may or may not deserve based on who you talk to.
One director I'm friends with only uses the filthiest words possible when describing Chase and his experience working with him, and he's only one of many people I've spoken with who have relayed truly awful personal and professional stories about the guy. It used to disturb me, because I consider myself an original-generation Chevy Chase fan. I still remember seeing "Foul Play" first-run in the theater and walking away from that film convinced that Chase was the funniest person of all time.
Keep in mind I was eight when "Foul Play" came out, and I was primed. I already knew Chase from "SNL," and I knew Goldie Hawn from "The Sugarland Express," which I'd seen at a drive-in as part of a double-feature with "Duchess And The Dirtwater Fox," and I was excited to be taken to see what my parents obviously thought of as a "grown-up" comedy. What made Chase different from most of the comics I was familiar with is that he obviously placed just as much emphasis on being cool as he did on being funny, and those two things don't often work well together. In Chase's case, though, what made him truly hilarious was the way he tore down his own carefully constructed facade of cool, and in doing so, seemed to be even cooler. It was an impressive juggling act of tone, and right away, I think it's what made people so crazy about his work.
And back in those days, he was huge. He was rock star huge. He had three movies out in 1980, and you could argue that he managed to aim for three totally different audiences with the films. "Oh Heavenly Dog" was aimed squarely at kids, at the audience that had been carefully cultivated by the Benji brand. "Caddyshack" was aimed at adolescents of all ages. And "Seems Like Old Times" was a mainstream Neil Simon comedy that reunited him with Goldie Hawn, aimed squarely at the general adult audience. And all three of them worked for those audiences. You don't see comic leads doing that today, making choices that diverse, one on top of another like that. Today, comic actors tend to aim at a certain audience as much as possible. Working non-stop, though, was dangerous because not every script worked, and it seemed like Chase's agents were more concerned with exposure than with any sort of quality control.
1981 saw the release of both "Modern Problems" and "Under The Rainbow," and they are rancid films. "Modern Problems" reunited Chase with Ken Shapiro, who directed him pre-"Saturday Night Live" in an underground sketch comedy film called "The Groove Tube." It was a comedy about a air traffic controller who gained psychic powers from a nuclear waste spill while he's driving. Only later in the film, it seems like he's possessed. By magic cocaine. Because it is a terrible, terrible movie. I'm not sure if Chase did this film as a favor to Shapiro, or if there was ever a script that made sense, but it's an incoherent film, and at times, it's so ugly it's hard to believe it was intended as a professional release of any sort. Indeed, it was the last thing Shapiro directed, and it was an embarrassing failure that year. And "Under The Rainbow" has a potentially interesting bit of Hollywood lore at its core, but doesn't work at all. It tells the story of the filming of "The Wizard Of Oz," and specifically deals with the hotel where the Munchkin cast was put together. The legends about their bad behavior are amazing, and there is probably a way to make a great raunchy comedy out of those stories. "Under The Rainbow" is not that film. I'm not offended by "Under The Rainbow," except as a missed opportunity. The film tries hard to be rude and crude and equally offensive to anyone watching, but it's just labored and noisy instead of funny. Chevy co-stars with Carrie Fisher, and the two of them seem interested in cutting sarcasm at the expense of anything else in their performance. It's a strange mismatch, and based on those two films, Chevy was starting to look like a momentary star, a flash in the pan.
And then in 1983, he made "National Lampoon's Vacation," one of the very best things he's ever done. In that first movie, I think Clark Griswold is arguably the best character Chevy's ever been given to play. I empathize with Clark, deeply, and I love that in the first film, the Griswolds are the center of the comic storm, victims of fate and circumstance, and Chevy in particular is playing a comic Job variation that I find enormously appealing. It's a great blistering R-rated comedy, with a sharp script by John Hughes and a perfect sense of how families implode when stuck together on road trips. Set piece after set piece, character after character, "Vacation" works because it was a great piece of material on the page, and then it was executed well. As obvious as that sounds, so few of the films in Chase's filmography started from a really solid piece of writing, and that's probably the biggest mistake he or any of the "SNL" actors ever made... that willingness to start shooting something that didn't have a script that was ready yet. Compare the first "Vacation" which came out of real experience and sincere observation with "National Lampoon's European Vacation" two years later, which was a mean-spirited, ugly, garish piece of crap. It makes the fundamental mistake of recasting the Griswolds as victimizers instead of victims. Europe doesn't happen to the Griswolds; the Griswolds happen to Europe. Like the plague. Even the better-but-not-as-good-as-the-first-one "Christmas Vacation" suffers because they decided to tone it down to a PG-13 while basically just aping the best parts of the first film.
Chevy never had particularly good luck with sequels. I love the 1985 film "Fletch," as do many people, and I was stunned at how far off-track the sequel "Fletch Lives" was in 1989, especially considering how great the books are that the films were based on. That should have been an easy franchise, but somehow they lost sight of the source material, made a wretched second film, and killed the series dead in the process. And "Caddyshack II" is one of those sequels that most fans like to pretend don't even exist. Chase looks miserable in his brief screen time at Ty Webb, fully aware that the film he's making is a shoddy, disgraceful follow-up to something special. Once the "Vacation" series eventually limped its way around to "Vegas Vacation," there was nothing left in the film to remind audiences why they enjoyed the Griswolds in the first place.
1985 was one of Chase's busiest years. In addition to "European Vacation" and "Fletch," he also made "Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird" and "Spies Like Us" that year. "Spies" is one of those films that people like and enjoy and that definitely has fans, but I would consider it a lesser effort for Chase. It's a formula picture, made at a moment where the studios really didn't know how to encourage good comedy voices in film, focusing on the onscreen stars and playing little attention to cultivating real writers or directors to develop projects. Things were built from a high-concept first, packaged, slapped together. There are laughs in some of these films, but they don't do much for me as movies. They don't feel like much more than sketches.
In 1986, Chase appeared in a movie that stands as a very special landmark in the history of "SNL" films, the only movie on which Lorne Michaels has a co-screenplay credit. He co-wrote it with Randy Newman and Steve Martin, which is a very strange trio of names to see sharing credit on anything. Onscreen, Steve Martin, Chevy, and Martin Short appeared together in a very silly riff on "The Seven Samurai," in which three silent-movie cowboys are recruited by the people of a small Mexican town to stand against El Guapo, a real bad guy who has no idea who The Three Amigos are. It is a wonderful little movie, full of some of the most quotable dialogue on the '80s, and it benefits from some of the supporting performances by Alfonso Arau, Tony Plana, and many more. Ultimately, though, it's one of the few movies with Chase where he feels like he's really part of a group, and not just Chevy Chase scoring solo points. He plays the deeply befuddled Dusty Bottoms, and there's a sweetness to the way he plays it that is not present in much of his work.
Indeed, from that point on, it was a parade of Chase playing very similar variations on "the smug jerk" in films like "Funny Farm," "Memoirs Of An Invisible Man," and the truly unbearable "Nothing But Trouble," which I'll deal with in a column dedicated to that one film. It deserves a column all its own. It is that bewildering a mistake. His supporting role in "Hero" was a smart one, and it suggested a direction that Chase might have been smart to pursue. There are actors who have found a wonderful career late in life playing completely bastards. It's worked well for Alan Alda, for example, and Chase seemed like he would benefit from moving into more serious films in supporting roles, playing to the strange caustic unlikeable nature that was starting to assert itself in everything he did.
Just as Chevy paved the way for other stars like Eddie Murphy to leave "Saturday Night Live" at the height of their heat, he also paved the way for them to move into terrible family films once it started to seem like their adult careers were over. "Cops and Robbersons," "Man Of The House," and "Snow Day" all feature depressing work by Chase, mugging and slow, nothing like the guy who clawed his way off the screen in the late '70s. Bloat and boredom took its toll onscreen, and the work slowed down. He would make occasionally appearances in things like "Zoom" or "Orange County," but he couldn't open a movie anymore, and the things he starred in went direct to video, unnoticed, unwatched. He was invisible.
Right now, Chevy does genuinely funny work every week on "Community," a show that has gotten better and better over the first year it's been on the air. The writers have created a deranged, perverted, racist idiot for him to play, and it's the most likeable he's been in years. I'd like to think that the Chevy Chase who burned down the goodwill of audiences and his co-stars and his creative collaborators finally had to change, and that the Chevy who stars on "Community" is a newly reformed Chevy, a Chevy who loves what he does again and who is open to more filmmakers trying different or risky things with him. Like I said, I've been a fan for so long that I hate hearing terrible things about him. I want to believe the best of Chevy Chase. I want to see more from him that reminds me of what made me laugh in the first place. I will always have a soft spot for him.
After all, he's Chevy Chase. And I'm not.
Have you missed earlier columns in this series?
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