John Belushi remains, in my opinion, one of the five greatest talents to ever move through the “Saturday Night Live” machine, and I would argue that it is only because he was one of the first-generation cast members that the show ever became the self-perpetuating legend that it is today.
There is a reason that first run of episodes from 1975 – 1979 gets romanticized by longtime fans of the show and comedy nerds in general. There have certainly been many funny people on the show over the years, and there have been great moments with various eras of cast and writers, but it was the first cast that created the template that everyone else has followed since. If you weren’t there at the time, you have to try and imagine what the cultural landscape was like at the time the show went on the air The conflict between young and old, hip and square, the institutional and the subversive, was playing out on the national stage in any number of ways, and while “Saturday Night Live” didn’t create counterculture humor, it was the moment where it made the most aggressive leap to the mainstream, and the ripples from that moment are still felt today.
Sure, there were earlier examples like “Laugh-In” or “The Smother Brothers Hour,” shows that helped pave the way for what “Saturday Night Live” managed to do, but those were prime-time shows under even tighter network control, and anytime the shows pushed the boundaries, there was blowback. “SNL” was, by design, dangerous the moment it went on the air. Calling its cast the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” and making it a destination Saturday late-night event were part of the way they sold the audience the idea that they were seeing something beyond what TV normally allowed. Anything could happen. The cast felt like people who might lunge right out of the set at you. If anyone embodied that rowdy, edgy attitude, it was John Belushi. The Beloosh. One half of the Bully Boys. Behind the camera, Michael O’Donoghue got a reputation as the wildest of all the wild cards, but it was Belushi who the public knew and fell in love with right away.
And why not? With his lumpy good looks, his insane energy, and an eyebrow that suggested depths of decadence simply by being arched, Belushi radiated charisma. His was a totally different magentism than the WASPy charms of Chevy Chase, not as immediately approachable. And while Chevy exploded right away, leaving the show after only, one season, America’s love affair with Belushi was a slow burn that only really exploded when he made the jump to the big screen in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” where his work as uber-slob “Bluto” Blutarsky made him an icon. Even today, the poster of him wearing a t-shirt with “College” written on it is a dorm room mainstay. It was the total lack of impulse control that made him such a charmer in that film.
What audiences saw and what collaborators often experienced with John seem to have been different things, though, which is what that “Bully Boys” nickname was about. John knew how to work the system, and he and Danny Aykroyd were a power block on the show, determined to get their way, determined to get their material on the air, helping to shape the identity of the show through sheer force of personality. Some of the other cast members like Jane Curtin who weren’t able to simply push sketches across Lorne’s desk felt like Belushi and Aykroyd steamrolled them. And I have no doubt John saw the show as a weekly competition that he was determined to win. It’s obvious from his onscreen work. He’s hungry every single time he’s on that stage, and he seems like he’s always turned up as loud as he goes. More than that, his energy seems to push the other guys on the show further. Dan Aykroyd was never more threatening than when he was paired with John, and I love watching the two of them together. They push each other to very strange places in their improv and in their performance. They have a rapport that takes them in really odd directions, but in synch. I wouldn’t call Akyroyd a “badass,” but when he was with John, that’s exactly the image he projected.
I’m sorry Akyroyd didn’t play D-Day in “Animal House.” It would have been a perfect fit for him, and “Animal House” would have been a great film for the two of them to share. As it was, Bruce McGill gave a tremendous performance, and the actors Landis surrounded Belushi with (as opposed to just sketch comics) forced him to adjust the way he approached Bluto. The film has a lovely nostalgic quality to it, and guys like Tom Hulce and John Vernon and Tim Matheson and Donald Sutherland and Karen Allen… that’s not a slapstick broad comedy cast. Belushi as so much inner life that he just pulls the eye, even in scenes with all of those people. It’s impressive.
It’s rough being a Belushi fan, though. It’s like being an Andy Kaufman fan. You know how great the performer was, and there’s definite evidence of their gifts in some of the work they did, but it’s not enough. Their careers are just too short, their work not nearly satisfying enough. Yes, there’s “Animal House,” but how many times can you watch that? He’s good in “Goin’ South,” but the film itself is uneven, and Belushi’s only onscreen for a few minutes here and there. It’s a Jack Nicholson film, and Belushi just pops up in a few scenes. Same is true of “Old Boyfriends,” a dramatic comedy piece about a woman retracing her romantic steps written by Paul and Leonard Schrader. Yes… “Taxi Driver” Paul Schrader. He and his brother were fairly in-demand studio screenwriters at the time, and “Old Boyfriends” was a hot directing assignment for Joan Tewkesbury, Altman’s screenwriter on “Nashville” and “Thieves Like Us,” but as a finished film, it just doesn’t quite gel. You look at the cast, though… Talia Shire, Richard Jordan, Keith Carradine, John Houseman, Gerrit Graham, PJ Soles… and that’s how Belushi was thought of. He was a “real” actor from the start, and “real” directors were eager to work with him, even if more often than not, the pursuit of Belushi did not end in a finished film.
We just discussed “Used Cars” here last week, and we touched briefly on the production of “1941” in that article. The script for that film was by the white-hot team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and when Steven Spielberg decided to follow up “Close Encounters” with “1941,” expectations were huge. And the casting of John Belushi as Capt. Wild Bill Kelso (this time with an encounter with Dan Aykroyd built into the script) seemed like a logical choice on the heels of the success of “Animal House.” Both Belushi and Aykroyd left the show to do this film and to start to focus on movies in general, and it’s some of the worst material in the film. It really is just “Bluto in WWII,” shamelessly unfocused and unfunny scenes, long and noisy, and it’s a great example of how dangerous it is to assume that just because you hire someone who is very, very funny, the scenes will automatically work. You have to have great material, something interesting on the page, some character that’s worth their time and talents, and if you don’t, you get this sort of frantic nonsense. There’s a “Dance, monkey, dance!” quality to it, something that would haunt John in his final days, that makes it unpleasant.
One of the real tragedies of the entire story behind the making of “The Blues Brothers” is that it seemed to have ended the working relationship of John Landis and John Belushi because of Belushi’s bad on-set behavior. That’s a shame, and I’d like to believe that if Belushi had lived, he eventually would have realized that no one ever did better by him than Landis. Landis made him a movie star with “Animal House,” but the work he got out of John in “The Blues Brothers” is downright miraculous. This is the movie I turn to when I need to be reminded of just what a stellar film presence Belushi was. This is a movie that I find endlessly entertaining. The music, the stunts, the music, the car chases, the comedy, the guest stars, and the MUSIC… it’s just about perfect. I don’t understand complaints that the film is too long, because I would happily watch the first film’s characters and set pieces for hours on end. “Orange whip? Orange whip? Three Orange Whips.” If you laugh when you read that, you share a secret language with other “Blues Brothers” fans. This is a huge piece of entertainment, proof that Landis should have been making one new musical a year. And in a perfect world, Belushi could have been the first great musical star since the studio days of the ’50s. He could belt a song out with real rock’n’roll conviction, with enough soul to sell even the best of the songs, and he threw himself around the stage with such joyous reckless abandon that watching him dance was like going to a daredevil show. The excess of “The Blues Brothers” is amazing to behold knowing that it was all done practical, and there are days when I prefer this to “American Werewolf” as a Landis film. Just certain days, though.
“Continental Divide” is a film that evidently worked much better on the page than on the screen, and at that moment, Lawrence Kasdan could do no wrong as a screenwriter. See a trend here? Belushi was getting offered the biggest movies in town, hot scripts by hot writers with hot directors. He was accepted in a way that even Chevy Chase wasn’t from the first cast, and the fact that the final films didn’t really come together wasn’t something Belushi could control. Michael Apted was coming off of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” for god’s sake. Blair Brown was an acclaimed and highly-regarded actress who hadn’t quite popped as a movie star despite a few opportunities, and pairing her with Belushi in what was supposed to be a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn style piece about sparring partners who figure out their fighting is foreplay seemed like a nice shot for both of them. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a very good movie, either. It’s got moments, but it never finds a consistent rhythm or pace. I have a feeling we would have seen a lot of these from Belushi if he’d lived, these “almost” movies, as he chased films that really did something special.
His last movie is a film that I think very highly of, not so much for what it was as for what it almost was. There’s a real ambition to “Neighbors,” and it was based on a great dark comic novel by Thomas Berger, who also wrote “Little Big Man.” John Avildsen was the director of “Rocky,” “Save The Tiger,” and his blistering debut picture “Joe,” and he must have been a really appealing collaborator on paper to Belushi. The script for the film was by Larry Gelbart, one of the great ’70s comedy writers. “Oh God!” and “Tootsie” and “MASH” on television are pretty impressive as a resume. My favorite part of “Neighbors” is the way Akyroyd and Belushi refused to play the easy roles, the ones that they were hired to play. In the film, Earl (Belushi) is a buttoned-down boring suburban man with a boring wife (Kathryn Walker) and a boring life until Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) move in next door. In one long weekend, they turn Earl’s entire life upside down, and it’s pretty dark stuff in the book. It’s funny, but it’s wicked funny. Like you can’t believe what you’re reading. On film, the easy casting would have been to make Belushi play Vic as another variation on Bluto, and to have Akyroyd playing the sort of role that he nailed in “Trading Places.” But Belushi brings a real repressed danger to the part of Earl, and Aykroyd is a disturbing mutant as Vic, gigantic and sexually menacing and just plain creepy. Cathy Moriarty’s scenes with Belushi are great, with her as a tormentor who ties Earl in knots on purpose as part of whatever freaky game Vic and Ramona are playing. The film’s got no visual panache at all, and it’s cut badly, but there are things about it that really work, and there’s a lot of the script that actually gets at the dark energy of the book. It’s deeply flawed, but “Neighbors” is a film that I think indicates exactly where Belushi and Akyroyd might have gone as screen icons if they’d had more time to work together.
I try not to think of Belushi at the end. When I drive by the Chateau Marmont or when I go there for an interview or a meeting, I can’t help but have at least a flash, a moment, where I remember that’s the place. There’s where John died. He never even saw 40. I think of him at the end, and I think of a moment from “Saturday Night Live” where he had pushed to get Fear booked as the music guests, only to have the show basically spiral out of control and off the air during their performance. The sweaty, manic John you glimpse during that performance, slamdancing on stage, out of his skull… that’s what I imagine much of those final days were like. It’s unsettling.
I’d rather think of Belushi and everything he could have done. I don’t need another biopic of the guy, and although I’m sure Todd Phillips has the best intentions, and he’s a serious comedy nerd who I’m sure understands the appeal of Belushi and the enduring power of the good work he left behind, I can’t help but think that all biopics are essentially the same. No matter how skillful, I don’t know if we need “Wired 2.0.” Having “Saturday Night Live” and John’s widow Judy both cooperate with Phillips will allow them to show certain things, but it still doesn’t really mean I need to see that film. Maybe Phillips has something great up his sleeve. I just know that it’s not the slide into destruction that makes Belushi matter to me… it’s those moments where he rose above, like standing in the back of that church, James Brown and the choir blasting at full tilt, a beam of divine warmth setting him aglow. That’s what makes him matter. That’s what endures. Much of what is most compelling about Belushi is his potential, permanently unrealized, and the frustration that exists as a fan, thinking of what we could have someday seen.
In fact, next week, why don’t we look at the unmade movie that Belushi most desperately wanted to make? I’m talking about a script he wrote with Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello called “Noble Rot.” And it’s a fascinating look at the way a movie star looked at himself, the way the industry looked at him, and what the audience wanted, and the way those three things are almost never the same.
Have you missed earlier columns in this series?
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