Bruce Vilanch Wigs Out
By Jorjet Harper
Two-time Emmy Award winner Bruce Vilanch plays Fezziwig in the new film Scrooge & Marley, a contemporary retelling of the classic Dicken’s tale, “A Christmas Carol”, screening Sunday, December 16 at Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
“I play a different kind of Fezziwig,” says Vilanch. “He’s a guy who owns a disco in the seventies and he’s Auntie Mame — Rosalind Russell. He’s a pretty fabulous character.”
In Dickens’ original “Christmas Carol”, Fezziwig is young Scrooge and Marley’s boss. He’s a generous, ethical businessman who treats his employees like family, cares about their welfare, and throws lively holiday parties for all. He is forced to sell his business to avaricious corporate interests who care nothing about worker morale. Scrooge and Marley, grown more callous over time, side with the heartless new owners.
Though Scrooge & Marley is a modern, gay-themed retelling of “A Christmas Carol", Vilanch’s character follows the traditional Dickensian arc. “He’s a jolly old soul who gets caught up in his vices and gets caught up in their chicanery. Eventually, he’s something they [the spirits] show Scrooge, to show him what a bad guy he has been through the years. Fezziwig’s kind of a poster child for excess, but at the same time, he’s brought down by the hand of somebody who is genuinely sinister. And he’s not. I like him.”
Dickens’ Fezziwig symbolized the end of an era he knew well, the Industrial Revolution. Dickens’ saw it as a time when small businessmen and local industries like Fezziwig’s were disappearing, swept away by more ruthlessly profiteering business practices and cutthroat corporations. The Fezziwig in Scrooge & Marley also symbolizes the end of an era: the pre-AIDS gay culture.
“Fezziwig is the end of that party that was going on in the gay community in the seventies, that was ended by the AIDS epidemic,” explains Vilanch. “Suddenly everything got very serious and everything that we were told would happen because of what we were doing suddenly happened—and not because of what we were doing. It was totally coincidental. It was the end of some kind of a party that had been going on since Stonewall. There was a great deal of joy about liberation and getting a movement going and all that, and that came crashing down when people began dying. And ironically enough, that movement, because of the epidemic, became a real genuine political movement, which is as forceful today as it can be.”
Vilanch was living in Chicago in 1970, working at the Chicago Tribune, when he met Bette Midler. Midler hired him to write jokes for her, marking the start of a successful collaboration that has lasted through the years. After moving to L.A., Vilanch began writing material for other famous comics as well, including Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, and Lily Tomlin, and for television shows like ABC’s original Donny and Marie Show and The Brady Bunch. Vilanch heard about the Scrooge & Marley project from his friend, the film’s co-director and co-writer, Richard Knight.
“I had done his radio show when I was in Chicago doing Hairspray, and we’ve been friendly ever since. He talked about making this strange gay take on A Christmas Carol. When you consider the film’s been done every other way—I mean, I’m waiting for the al-Qaeda version—I thought, how could I not be a part of it? It’s so original, so unusual.”
Vilanch also considered a gay version of “A Christmas Carol” in its wider cultural context. “I think that the reason to do a gay version of anything is to show that we’re all basically the same under the skin. Humanity is the same. We just have wildly different cultural perspectives and ways of expressing ourselves,” he observes.
“And gay culture is just so much fun. It’s festive and everything is in quotes and over-the-top exaggerated, because it’s a culture that had to live under the thumb of a straight culture for years. Its take on things comes from being oppressed and that’s always funny,” says Vilanch.
“I mean, I’m Jewish, too: we were oppressed for five thousand years. That’s why so many funny people are Jews. When you’re at the bottom, you kind of have to look up and laugh, because you don’t see the sun a lot… but eventually, you do.”
Scrooge & Marley screens Sunday, Dec. 16 @ 3:15 pm at Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, San Francisco). Tickets $10; available at www.castrotheatre.com. The Scrooge & Marley DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack will be available this holiday. Visit www.scroogeandmarleymovie.com for more information.
Images by Hal Baim