Bobcat Goldthwait: A Life in Film
To celebrate the release of Bobcat Goldthwait’s ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ starring Robin Williams, Adam Lee Davies looks back on the former wildman’s journey from stand-up to Sundance and beyond.
He’s played characters named Zed, Mr. Floppy, Suzy’s Jealousy, Egg Stork and Uncle Creamy. He’s equally at home letting it all hang out on stage, injecting a manic energy into big-budget crowd-pleasers like ‘Scrooged’ or the ‘Police Academy’ saga. He’s even moved behind the camera to direct a string of dark, demented independent comedies. All this and he still makes time for such top-notch horseplay as setting fire to Jay Leno’s furniture on the ‘Tonight’ show, confusing the flannel-heads as an opening act for Nirvana or needling Sylvester Stallone to such a degree that the muscleman threatened to ‘rip [his] fucking heart out’. Is there anything that stand-up comedian, actor, director and freelance couch incinerator, Bobcat Goldthwait can’t do?
As a teenager, his decidedly offbeat stage act – which often consisted of him reading out a Dear John letter whilst sobbing inconsolably – brought him scads of interest from rubbernecking mainstream TV show-bookers. This, of course, led to the first of his many spots on ‘Letterman’ , a pop-video cameo for featherlite shock-rockers Twisted Sister and fame on the big screen as hopped-up-gangbanger-turned-dangerously-unstable-patrolman in the second movement of the ‘Police Academy’ cycle. The ‘Academy’ films may have gotten more risible as they went on, but Bobcat at least managed to mine a whole one minute forty seconds of unassailable lunacy from his usual three-minute showcase.
These were the salad days, with the ‘Cat coming into his own as Hollywood’s mid-to-late-'80s oddball du jour, popping up in Whoopi Goldberg’s sporadically awful larceny aria, ‘Burglar’, and the episodic music-video comedy ‘Tapeheads’ with Tim Robbins and John Cusack. But his best guest role of the period arrived with the frenzy of pathos, booze, bellowing and firearms he brought to the role of Eliot Loudermilk in the ludicrously enjoyable Christmas fable ‘Scrooged’. Running a close second was his showing as… oh, brother!... Egg Stork in the seriously unglued John Cusack/Demi Moore teen comedy ‘One Crazy Summer’ – the highpoint of which must surely be Bobcat dressed in a Godzilla costume screaming ‘Oh, the humanity!’ into a starry Nantucket sky…
The crowning moment of these Hollywood glory days is Bobcat’s only bona fide leading role, that of Fred P Chaney in the economically prescient talking buddhist racehorse allegory, ‘Hot to Trot’ (1988). It’s difficult to describe to those who haven’t seen the film just how strange, ineffable, boneheaded and crunk-ugly it is: Witness Bobcat’s ponytailed rich kid facing off against a horse with John Candy’s voice and an insider’s grasp of international high-finance. All this plus Samurai florists, an ‘eclectic’ soundtrack and Burgess Meredith as Don the Horse’s equally equine father – who, upon dying, transmigrates into the body of a fly (a… horsefly?) – adds up to what our legal department have requested we refer to as a ‘unique '80s time capsule’.
Against all sane box office forecasts, ‘Hot To Trot’ crashed and burned, so Bobcat opted to shift his inimitable vision behind the camera for a film that Martin Scorsese has called 'The ‘Citizen Kane’ of alcoholic clown movies'. ‘Shakes the Clown’ is a boozy, dyspeptic comedy about a gross collection of odious, backbiting children’s entertainers drinking, swindling and screwing their days away. Fearless and hilarious, it’s also vulgar and feculent, and so not for everyone. But Bobcat displays an undoubtedly keen directional awareness, both in conjuring up an entire functioning society from a rogue’s gallery of pissed-up clowns, and in never allowing what is patently a one-joke film to wither on the vine.
Comedically lighter, but in all other ways much, much more vicious was his film-within-a-prank-within-a-film follow-up, ‘Windy City Heat’. It’s a mean, hugely involved hoax that casts credulous aspiring actor Perry Caravello in an entirely fictional film called ‘Stone Fury’ and then subjects him to an increasingly pitiless series of practical jokes – none of which, due to his incontrovertible enthusiasm and ambition, set his alarm bells ringing. Presented as a fly-on-the-wall documentary (disguised as a ‘making-of’ extra for the DVD release), Bobcat orchestrates the carnival of cruelty like a master. Abandoning meta-textual ribaldry for straight-up comedy-drama, his next film, ‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’, was a lightly disturbing shaggy dog story about the – perhaps inevitable? – repercussions of an innocent bout of experimental teen zoophilia that found him in a more mature, considered mood. Well, as mature as a dog sex film allows, that is.
And now he’s back with a film that mixes the spleen of his early stage act, the broad comedy of the ‘Police Academy’ years, the unchecked maliciousness of ‘Shakes…’ and ‘Windy City Heat’ and the restraint and composure of ‘Sleeping Dogs’. ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ is a dark, daring comedy that follows the trajectory of its protagonists with wit and tenderness but not a hint of sentimentality – no mean feat when you consider it stars twinkly-eyed emoticon Robin Williams. It’s a truly wonderful film that was totally dismissed in the US but will hopefully find some purchase in the UK and Europe. And how does Bobcat intend to follow up this heartbreaking family drama? Why, by adapting the less-than-seminal Kinks album ‘Schoolboys in Disgrace’ into a musical feature. He might not be a dedicated follower of fashion, but he might actually be well on the way to becoming a well-respected man. But let’s hope that doesn’t mean the death of a clown.
Author: Adam Lee Davies
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