Thursday, 2 December 2010

Reel Retrospective: Airplane! (1980): RIP Leslie ... Or is it Shirley?

Not content with depriving us of one icon earlier this year (Dennis Hopper), life has now cruelly conspired to take away another. On the same day that tragically saw the death of The Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kershner, Leslie Nielsen, hailed deadpan spoof icon and the saving grace of many lacklustre 90s comedies, passed away at the age of 84. In my mind immortalised as the magnificently inept Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun series (films I've cherished since a young age), his most important role came years earlier. It was to mark a radical change in direction for a square-jawed actor who had toiled for years in stoic roles in films such as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. It was a film that similarly changed the face of comedy cinema forever. Its name was Airplane! Nielsen's character was called Shirley ... Hang on ...


If ever a single line of dialogue could be said to have changed the direction of an entire career, Airplane!'s following exchange surely would be it. With most of the crew and passengers of a stricken air-liner having come down with food poisoning, the following banter between Robert Hays' conflicted war veteran Ted Striker and Leslie Nielsen's Dr Rumack entered into history:

RUMACK: 'Can you fly this plane and land it?'

STRIKER: 'Surely you can't be serious?'

RUMACK: 'I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.'

It's not the film's best gag but the knock-me-down simplicity, combined with Nielsen's shrewdly ironic distance, promptly shattered any notion that this actor's appeal resided in noble gravitas. Just as he had slyly agreed to subvert his typecast image by simply signing on to Jim Abrahams' and the Zucker Brothers' directorial debut, so too did the whole movie re-build Nielsen's entire image. For an actor who had spent decades working hard in theatre, television and film, Airplane! was to bring more overnight success than most of his other work combined.

But it wasn't just Nielsen's counter-casting that guaranteed the film's enormous fiscal success. Following their writing credit on John Landis' Kentucky Fried Movie, Abrahams and the brothers Jerry and David, using 1957's Zero Hour as a springboard, hit upon the marvellous notion of casting a whole host of authoritative leads against type, from Lloyd Bridges to Robert Stack. So, underneath the famously fast stream of gags both visual and verbal ('I take it black ... like my men'/'Do you have anything light?' - 'How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?'), there's a brilliantly sly sense of awareness. An awareness of the most ridiculous cinematic conventions that, while able to engage us in tense drama, can also be contorted to produce exactly the opposite effect.

It begins in the rib-tickling opening scene, Elmer Bernstein's deceptively straight-laced score (another trend-setter) riffing on John Williams' Jaws theme before a jet erupts of the clouds, launching us into a pitch perfect piss-take of the portentous marches heard in the likes of Airport. The performances play the same game, Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty (as old flame and stewardess Elaine) forging a hilariously solemn faux-chemistry to saccharine musical swells. The brilliantly simple notion that the portentousness of disaster movies can be flipped on its head for the purposes of busting a gut has guaranteed Airplane! a place in audience's hearts for years, underpinning the more tasteless gags with a sense of intelligence.

But it's Nielsen who embodies the whole ethos of the piece. In a terrific comedy performance, there is not only the sense of a respected actor playing on his own iconography like an expert violinist, but also of an actor who's careful to let the audience in on the joke. Throughout, his serious mask never fails, whether he's lying to the passengers about the on-going crisis and growing a Pinocchio nose, or removing eggs from a woman's mouth without batting an eyelid. It doesn't deserve to be reduced to a single gag about a woman's moniker; Nielsen's tack, just like the directors', is much more carefully honed than that.

And, without Airplane!, we likely wouldn't have seen Nielsen's career bloom as it did. Because of this film, he graduated to the short-lived Police Squad series, and then onto The Naked Gun's 1, 2 1/2 and 33 1/3. It was a turnaround in fortunes that resulted in a batch of brilliant comic roles, even in inferior fare like Spy Hard and the latter day Scary Movie entries. Because of Airplane!, Nielsen was able to be attacked by a Japanese fighting fish behind an unsuspecting Ricardo Montalban and make daft voiceover statements such as: 'Like a midget in a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes'.

Just don't call him Shirley.

RIP Leslie - you'll be very much missed.

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