Director Jason Reitman (”Juno,” ”Young Adult”) has been staging live readings of quirky and beloved old movies in L.A. He’s snagged some great, game actors to reinterpret the roles — and drawn some ecstatic crowds.
Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Jason Reitman and Patton Oswalt are playing hooky. It’s a cool December evening, and the two are skipping out on the Los Angeles premiere of their own movie, Young Adult, to zoom across Los Angeles to a rival event: a live dramatic reading of the 1987 comedy The Princess Bride at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of Juno and Up in the Air, came up with the idea to stage performances of classic screenplays after a particularly exciting table read of Labor Day, a drama he’s shooting next year. In October he recruited Oswalt, Jennifer Garner, and Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul for a rendition of The Breakfast Club. In November he landed Steve Carell, Natalie Portman, and Pierce Brosnan for The Apartment. ”It’s a bit like listening to a bedtime story,” says Reitman, 34. ”When you’ve already seen the movie, there’s going to be imagery that breaks through, but half of it you’re going to make up in your head, and that brings the audience into the experience in a new way.” Each reading has sold out in a flash (sponsored by the nonprofit group Film Independent), and the plan is to hold even more performances, possibly expanding to other cities in the new year.
As Reitman and Oswalt arrive backstage at LACMA’s 600-seat theater, Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride‘s original director, is the first person to greet them. Tonight he’s playing the role of the kindly, yarn-spinning grandfather, who was first embodied by the late Peter Falk. ”What a great idea! It’s weird! Surreal — but it’s nice. I get to narrate the movie!” Reiner says, beaming. Also on hand from the 1987 cast: Fred Savage, now 35 but happily resuming his part as the young grandson; and Cary Elwes, once the heroic Prince Charming Westley, now incarnating the villainous Humperdinck — the very character who killed (well, mostly killed) Westley. ”I made the picture 25 years ago,” Elwes says. ”So maybe my eyebrows have become more arched since then.”
While members of the original film bring a sense of nostalgia, Reitman says the point is to mix it up. ”What’s nice is seeing the parts performed by different types of actors,” he says. And so tonight Paul Rudd is playing Westley; Oswalt is the arrogant kidnapper Vizzini, originated by Wallace Shawn; Kevin Pollak riffs on Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max; Goran Visnjic takes on Mandy Patinkin’s Spaniard, Inigo Montoya; and Mindy Kaling, as Princess Buttercup, picks up where Robin Wright left off. Or maybe not. ”I’m thinking of doing an Edith Bunker thing as my voice,” she cracks backstage.
As the clock ticks toward showtime, Reitman, who’s swapped his fancy black premiere suit for a flannel shirt and jeans, gathers the group in a huddle to wish them well. Helen Estabrook, Reitman’s producing partner at Right of Way Films, hands Savage a last-minute prop: a 1980s-era Bears jersey, just like the one his character wore in the movie, only now grown-up-size. Soon Reitman is introducing the performers, and the crowd roars as Savage pulls on the familiar shirt. Equally explosive cheers greet Reiner and Elwes. Fittingly, Rudd is seated right next to Elwes and glances at him for approval as he delivers his first line as Westley: ”As you wish.” During the reading, Elwes gives Rudd varying degrees of thumbs-up. ”The general nervousness I felt would exist in and of itself, but Cary Elwes sitting next to me made it especially so,” Rudd says later. ”He was so nice, and very good at allaying some of the fears. But not all of them.”
During the sword-fighting dialogue, Oswalt simulates the clang of blades with two spoons, and when he delivers his first ”Inconceivable!” he almost whispers it. The crowd eats it up. ”All I was trying to do was not read it like Wallace Shawn,” he tells EW afterward. ”I was trying to be every sarcastic computer-repair guy you’ve ever met. ‘Oh. So, uh, you restarted the computer. Uh-huh.”’
Throughout the evening, Savage finds himself recapturing some of his old boyish wonder. ”I haven’t said those words in 25 years,” he explains, grinning. ”None of these people want to do an imitation of the character the way it was done before. Hearing myself do the lines, I felt like, ‘Fred, you’re just doing an imitation!’ It sounded too familiar!” To be fair, Fred Savage does a mean Fred Savage.
As the cast returns backstage following Buttercup and Westley’s ride off into the sunset, the mood is electric. High fives are exchanged, and each of the actors carries around posters for their castmates to sign, sharing new insights into the movie they just brought back to life.
Soon Reitman, Oswalt & Co. are bidding adieu to The Princess Bride and piling back into the shuttle bus to return to the Young Adult afterparty. As Reitman steps off the bus, back in his black suit, he braces himself to meet the crowd that has just watched his other baby. He adjusts his tie. Though it’s late at night, it’s time to return to his day job.