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    Off the Wahl: Celluloid Eccentrics

    By Jan Wahl–

    This medium loves a good madman … or madwoman! Let’s not say exactly mad, but certainly different, individualistic, non-conformist. “Eccentric” is defined as a person with unconventional views or behavior, often living against societal norms. I had a mother who had many qualities of two great movie eccentrics: Auntie Mame and Maude (from Harold and Maude.)  Some of my favorite films celebrate just this kind of person!

    A Thousand Clowns (1965) is based on Herb Gardner’s hit play about a former TV comedy writer who turns his back on the rat race and retreats to his Manhattan apartment. There he lives happily with his nephew as a post-modern idealist and very funny guy, reminding his neighbors that life is about freedom. Everything changes when social workers come into the scene, and our hero must come to grips about the world he lives in. Jason Robards is brilliant as he recreates his Broadway performance, Martin Balsam won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as his worried brother. Barry Gordon is touching as the nephew who hopes to stay with his unusual uncle.  

    The King of Comedy (1982) is an example of a dangerous eccentric, and is a brilliant drama by Martin Scorsese. Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) stars as a disturbed but passionate comic, determined to find the spotlight. His hunger for fame and success leads him to his own hero (Jerry Lewis), who ends up at the hands of Pupkin and his deranged friend (Sandra Bernhard.)  A remarkable statement on celebrity worship and our media culture, this film is both controversial and powerful. Jerry Lewis is subtle (not a word usually associated with him!) and gives a deeply personal performance.

    Harvey (1950) gives us an unforgettable and kind gentleman, Elwood P. Dowd. He is brilliantly played by James Stewart in this, Stewart’s favorite film. The whimsical comedy is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase. Dowd is attached to his best friend, a large (six foot, three and a half inch) rabbit named Harvey. He isn’t hurting anyone, in his opinion, and is extremely kind to family and friends. Elwood and Harvey become a catalyst for the new understanding of a wounded family as well as an unlikely romance. You might find your own Harvey after this beautiful film.

    Crumb (1994) is a strange documentary comedy-drama about an artist and his family. Robert Crumb is a noted underground cartoonist with popular characters like Fritz the Cat and his Keep on Truckin’ theme. Director Terry Zwigoff gets into the dark subconscious of Crumb’s mind and work, showing us a complex world of trauma and talent. The film is very well made and detailed. It’s also weird, but then again, so is its subject! 

    You Can’t Take It with You (1938) recently played on Turner Classics Network and is fresher and funnier than ever. This Kaufman-Hart play is perfectly translated to film in all its madcap glory. A New York family lives by its own rules, from ballerinas to Russian health fanatics to inventors. When the daughter meets up with an aristocratic guy, he decides to try and loosen up his uptight rich parents with her lovely, completely non-conformist family.  The story itself, about the obsession with wealth and what is really important in this life, is relevant today. Frank Capra perfectly cast this charming movie that features James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Ann Miller, and colorful character actors and actresses.

    Of course, there are many great movies in this genre: Being There, The Ruling Class, Dr. Strangelove, Gray Gardens, Willie Wonka … the list goes on. Go into Google to find these eccentric films!               

    Emmy Award-winner Jan Wahl is a renowned entertainment reporter, producer, and teacher. A member of the prestigious Directors Guild of America, she is regularly featured on KPIX television (every Monday morning starting at 6:15 am) and on KCBS AM & FM and other media outlets. To read and listen to her reviews for KCBS, go to: For more info about her remarkable life and career: Check out her entertaining and informative videos at

    Spotlight Film for SF Pride 50: Frida (2002)

    By Jan Wahl–

    Frida is an under-appreciated fabulous biopic of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo from her teen years to her death. Salma Hayek brings to life this famed artist, a bisexual live-out-loud woman whose tempestuous love for muralist Diego Rivera influenced her life.

    Yet her art was all hers, original and powerful. Director Julie Taymor surrealistically captures some of Kahlo’s paintings, causing the film to be controversial with her ardent fans. This is a film as passionate and beautiful as Kahlo, and Hayek should have won the Oscar. At least she was nominated!     

    Published on July 30, 2020