You are invited to the birthday party of one of the greatest contemporary american actors. During 90 minutes, at his Los Angeles home in company of his friends and of his charming spouse Ann Hearn, you will listen to him telling, with his formidable talent, some stories about his career and his life. You are invited to Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party.
« You know, the thing I love so much about Los Angeles is you're only an hour away of the ocean, or mountains, or desert, snow, earthquake, flood, fire... I mean it's like Hell but with good restaurants. » (Stephen Tobolowsky)
BEING STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY
Everybody loves Stephen Tobolowsky, everybody has one DVD (if not more) of the movies where he's in, everybody have seen him at least once on TV. Talk to someone about the roles of Stephen Tobolowsky and his face will be lighten by the most gracious smile. The public adores Stephen Tobolowky... but ignores his name.
Stephen Tobolowsky is not a « star », tabloids will never sell copies on his name and he will never promote a movie he has done by selling his private life. If Stephen Tobolowsky is also a movie and stage director, he's above all the quintessential « character actor ». He's even the most flamboyant of this category: leader of the KKK in Missisipi Burning, the obnoxious insurance salesman of Groundhog Day, the amnesiac husband of Memento, the villain of Garfield, the assistant district attorney in the CSI: Miami tv show and so much more.
Robert Brinkmann, renowned cinematographer (the famous U2: Rattle and Hum rockumentary, The Cable Guy...) and pioneer of the production of musical videos for artists such as Whitney Houston or Céline Dion, knows Stephen Tobolowsky since 1987. Amazed by the extraordinary anecdotes the actor loves to tell when he's in company, Brinkmann decides to make a movie out of this and talks of the project to his friend. Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party will have to wait almost 15 years to see the light of the day.
IN THE KITCHEN WITH STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY
« I think whenever you're cooking for 20 or more people you really only have two options : pizza or barbecue. Always go with the barbecue. » (The cook)
A hand cracks a match like the one of Bruce Geller in the main title of the Mission : Impossible tv series, but it's to light a candle. Off screen, the voice of Robert Brinkmann invites us to the birthday party of Stephen Tobolowsky while we're hearing the Prelude #1 in C Major by Bach, performed by the actor himself (like all the pieces of music we hear in the movie).
« This town, Los Angeles, is based on people saying no to you. They say no to actors, to writers, directors, evryone... They even said no to Steven Spielberg when he wanted to do E.T. » (The actor)
While some magnificent sausages are boiling within beer for the barbecue, Tobolowsky tells how, when he was a young actor, he had an audition by phone to be the clown for a well-known fast-food chain, and then how he received a retroactive lesson of humility from an old man crossing the street.
The tone employed is a magic natural mixing of humor and sensibility and all the secret of the movie is there: this is not a movie about Stephen Tobolowsky, this is not a remake of In Bed with Madonna or Being John Malkovich but a movie on the universal art of storytelling, with for medium Stephen Tobolowsky, heir of Mark Twain or Woody Allen (« The reason I hate golf is that I realize it is the one game that really accentuates the difference between expectations and reality »).
In his back-yard, Stephen Tobolowsky remembers an odd flight between Boston and Los Angeles, near living lobsters attached on a seat with the belt, but he goes on with the announcement by Ann Hearn (his wife, then his girlfriend) of her pregnancy while the actor was shooting Great Balls of Fire (« We were staying at the Radison Hotel, whose claim to fame was that it was next door to the Peabody Hotel, which was an actually good hotel »). He concludes the story with a moving corollary taking place 14 years later.
« When you blow out a match, where does the flame go ? » (The philosopher)
IN THE LIVING ROOM WITH STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY
To watch Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is an unforgettable cinematographic experience, if not a human experience. It's an unexpected opportunity to share some precious moments with a remarkable man, a talented, intelligent and sympathetic artist and one of the most subtle connoisseur of the Hollywoodland universe.
« Eh buddy, it hurts. » (The old man crossing the street)
In his living rooom, Stephen Tobolowsky explains without the single self-concession how he was once nominated as one of the « 100 coolest people in Los Angeles » by Buzz Magazine (« Could you tell me something you've done that's cool - No, I cannot, that is completely uncool ») - nomination for which he faxed a list of « Cool things » to this magazine:
- Thrown with his wife out of a restaurant in Washington and, two years later, of another in Helsinki because president Ronald Reagan was going to dine in these restaurants (« This was denial of food, across the world, across the spin of time, by one man. At that point, the most powerful man in the world »).
- In a grocery store, has been asked for an autograph but was mistaken as an employee within a 20 minute time period.
- Was held hostage at gunpoint in Dallas (« I don't know why I picked you today »). Inspired by Chad Everett in Medical Center to calm down the man threatening him with phony stories about his relationship with his father. Running out of arguments he invites him to diner and gives him his true address!
Beaten with sticks by monks in Thailand because he gave a 5 dollar bill to one of them (« You were beaten by sticks ? This is a great, great honor »).
Director Robert Brinkmann offers us the first action movie made of words of all the History of Cinema, with the ultimate character actor playing all the protagonists - including Manymore, the hippie dog, during a most special Christmas eve in Topanga where one guests says, to the consternation of our hero: « Well, Christmas is coming early this year for all of us. I've just put LSD in everyone's coffee ». And Stephen Tobolowsky has a conversation with Manymore, the dog who talks with wisdom (« If the dog talks to you, always listen... »)
MY DINNER WITH STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY
« Bob, what kind of women like guys with all those tattoos ?
- Eclectic women. » (Stephen Tobolowsky and Bob Darnell)
Robert Brinkmann succeeds in showing the intimate and pleasant atmosphere of this birthday party and in capturing with the camera the personality and the authenticity of the Master of ceremony, so that the spectator has the feeling to be one of the guests at Stephen Tobolowsky's home. To watch this movie produces the same happiness than hearing the man talking to you about the horses of Island, of Jules Verne, or of the late Jerry Orbach (Law and Order) at a café in Paris, or than a discussion about Peter Sellers and Sam Lloyd in the hall of his hotel.
After an epic confrontation with « vegetarian piranhas » (Rob Cohen dixit) during the shooting of Bird on a Wire, and a definition of Courage, comes the climax of the movie, when Stephen Tobolowsky talks about his friendship with Bob Darnell - a talented and generous actor who left our world too soon.
« What happens to a flame when you blow it out ? [...] You never blow the flame out. It's still burning, somewhere else. » (Bob's friend)
And while our host performs Debussy's Clair de lune, we see photos from the life of one of the most brilliant and the most interesting actors of the US cinema. The birthday party is over but Stephen Tobolowsky will be back soon, maybe as a cop, or a psychiatrist, or a senator - who knows... That's when american cinema has the face of Stephen Tobolowsky that it is the most agréable to watch.