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Where Have You Gone, Billy Crystal?

February 21, 2013

It’s the time of year when a young man’s mind turns to Billy Crystal—Oscar season, that is. I must confess that I fully expected the reliably offensive Seth MacFarlane would’ve said something so un-PC by now that he’d have to step down as the Academy Awards’ emcee, with the ex-City Slicker riding to the rescue again like he did last year after the Brett Ratner/Eddie Murphy imbroglio. But it appears MacFarlane’s on track for what promises to be an excruciating telecast, leading me to ask: Whither Billy Crystal?

If you’re jonesing for some Crystal mess, you can get a quick hit in Small Apartments, an obscure indie making a quiet debut on DVD and VOD after a token theatrical release. Crystal only appears in a few scenes as Burt Walnut, a cynical, hard-drinking arson investigator, but he’s far and away the best thing about this oddball bit of grotesquerie about a rotund, chrome-domed loser (Little Britain‘s Matt Lucas) who murders his landlord. Surrounded by caricatures played by the likes of everybody from James Caan to Dolph Lundgren, Crystal appears to be the only member of the cast attempting to portray a real person.

Small Apartments could’ve pointed Crystal in a new direction as an edgy character actor, but I suspect its abject creative and commercial failure (for which I blame its music-video vet director Jonas Akerlund, who probably couldn’t set a consistent tone if you put a gun to his head) will leave him scurrying back to safer commercial fare like the godawful Parental Guidance and Pixar’s upcoming Monsters Inc. prequel Monsters University. While it was one of my least favorite films of 2012, Guidance turned a tidy profit (mostly because it was cheap to produce) and could even spawn a sequel and wrest even more cash from distraction-starved holiday moviegoers.

When I interviewed him (and Guidance costar Bette Midler) recently for the New York Daily News, Crystal claimed he’d been too busy touring with his one-man show 700 Sundays in recent years to do many movies. I suspect ageism in Hollywood is more the culprit, and it didn’t help that Crystal wasn’t considered bankable anymore after flops like My Giant, Father’s Day and Analyze That. If anything good comes out of Guidance‘s success, I hope it’ll lead to casting directors thinking of him again and perhaps offering him more challenging roles than the wisecracking grandpa. His impressive work in Small Apartments proves the old adage, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” From Soap to Princess Bride, Billy’s always been a big one.

But Crystal isn’t blameless in all this. He needs to spend less time worrying about whether he still looks mahvelous, get off his tuchus and work more often. Aside from an uncredited cameo in Tooth Fairy, he hadn’t made a live-action movie in 10 years before Guidance. Come on, Billy, we deserve more than—to paraphrase the title of one of your more forgettable movies—memories of you.

Do you want Billy Crystal to get back to work? Post a comment!

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