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Book Report: The Princess Bride

I reread The Princess Bride just a bit before David Moles brought it up a couple of weeks ago in connection with the Stardust movie. I wasn’t aware of the connection people were making, or I don’t think I was, but it’s likely that it seeped through into my decision-making as I was looking through my shelves at bathtime.

This isn’t exactly the place to compare (1) the book of The Princess Bride, (1a) the movie of The Princess Bride, (2) the book of Stardust, (2’) the movie of Stardust, but I will say that I vastly enjoyed all four of them, and will almost certainly continue to enjoy all four of them again and again and again and again. That should tell you what sort of person Your Humble Blogger is, I’m afraid.

For whatever reason, on this I found the William Goldman bits less powerfully depressing than I usually do. Perhaps it’s because I am aware that the actual William Goldman does not actually have a son, and that the William Goldman bits are every bit as fictional as the S. Morgenstern bits, that is, every bit as fictional as the good bits. Also, I have a daughter now, and have had the experience of wanting her to like a particular book or movie, and been disappointed. With the movie of The Princess Bride, now that I think of it. And I’ve had moments when I haven’t much liked the Perfect Non-Reader, and know that those moments pass, and that the moments will likely pass with the character in the William Goldman bits.

Another thing that came to mind—at the time that the movie of The Princess Bride came out, the stars were not stars. Cary Elwes was an unknown, having been in a handful of movies, not yet having had a recurring role on the X-Files, a flourishing voice-over career, or the occasional role as a heavy or film-maker in odd independent films. Frankly, he’s still a bit of an unknown, but there it is. Robin Wright had been in a minor soap, hadn’t married Sean Penn, hadn’t played Moll Flanders or Mrs. Forrest Gump. Chris Sarandon was, and is, the first Mr. Susan Sarandon, that guy who was in that movie, and that tv show, and that play. Recognizable, always working, but not a star. Christopher Guest was an SNL alum with one successful movie. Billy Crystal was an SNL alum with one moderately successful movie. Carol Kane was recognizable, but not a star. Wallace Shawn was that guy that Woody Allen called a homunculus, or the guy who had dinner with Andre, or the playwright. His profitable career as a voice actor hadn’t begun, nor had his innumerable television guest appearances. Mel Smith and Peter Cook were known to devotees of British Comedy, but weren’t particularly familiar to American audiences. Fred Savage hadn’t started his Wonder Years. Mandy Patinkin was a Broadway star, but was probably best known for Yentl, by which I mean, he wasn’t well-known at all. He hadn’t kicked himself off two successful television shows. Peter Falk was a star, of course

The thing is that I can’t read the book without thinking of the brilliant casting job they did for the movie, and I forget that most of those actors were not the obvious choices they seem to be in retrospect. Also, when somebody watches the movie now, almost everybody is a well-known character actor, and almost all of them became well-known character actors after appearing in The Princess Bride, and in part because of their roles in The Princess Bride. That’s ... interesting, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, Andre the Giant was a huge star, in a couple of senses :-), though, like the others, he was not a movie star.

It never occurred to me to wonder before if there was an obscure joke in casting Wallace Shawn as Vezzini (sp?) and Andre the Giant as Fezzik?

Chris beat me to it: I was about to remark that André "the Giant" Roussimoff was, at the time, probably the second most famous person in the movie after Peter Falk.

In 1987 (the year of the movie), André was presented a trophy for being "undefeated in the WWF for fifteen years" (Wikipedia); he was already in his decline as a wrestler by that point (as his health rapidly deteriorated), and officially (ie, in a pre-determined-outcome match, of course!) passed the mantle of premier WWF star to Hulk Hogan later that year. Sure, WWF matches were largely pre-determined, but early in André's career he won every match because "promoters eventually ran out of plausible opponents to fight him" (Wikipedia)--he was a unique, actually undefeatable wrestler for a while.

(No, I didn't know most of that before reading his Wikipedia article. But I had actually heard of André the Giant as a kid in the '80s, for what that's worth.)

Also, before reading your post, I'd always assumed Billy Crystal was right up there with Peter Falk in pre-Princess Bride celebrity. Wow.

Are you sure about Billy Crystal?

When the movie came out, I knew who he was even though I was even less culturally literate than I am now; I thought of him as a popular star doing a cameo. I think I knew him mostly from Running Scared, which I liked quite a lot.

I believe he was best-known for his role in Soap for a long time, starting half a dozen years before he joined the SNL cast. And then he was very popular in SNL; people went around saying "You look mahvelous!" for years. And then he started hosting Comic Relief in '86, the year before Princess Bride.

...But okay, you're right that When Harry Met Sally wasn't for a couple of years after that, and that's what I think of as really catapulting him to major stardom, and I did think it was earlier in his career.

Still, I don't think he was the non-star that you're making him out to be.

...I actually never really liked the casting of the movie, except of course for Mandy Patinkin, who was fabulous as usual. (Okay, and Peter Falk, who's always fabulous.) Elwes was a bit too bland-looking and -acting for me (I wanted him to be Errol Flynn, but he just wasn't dashing enough), and I had a hard time believing in Wright as the most beautiful woman in the world, and Sarandon and Guest didn't leave much of an impression on me. Miracle Max was never my favorite character, so Crystal's performance didn't do much for me. And Wallace Shawn was too ridiculous for my mental image of Vizzini, and I found Andre the Giant entirely unconvincing as Fezzik -- he wasn't big enough, and he didn't look imposing enough.

I eventually got used to them, and I do like the movie an awful lot (especially the duel on the clifftop), and I still think it was probably the best movie that could've been made from the book. But I wanted the casting to take the characters a little more seriously; the characters in the book weren't, to me, ridiculous or hard to take seriously. (Okay, sure, some of them were ridiculous in that they took themselves too seriously. But the movie played that a little more broadly and a little bit sillier than I'd have preferred.)

I was a trifle unfair to Billy Crystal, particularly in relation to Christopher Guest. Billy Crystal was one of the stars of SNL, and Christopher Guest was not. On the other hand, Spinal Tap was a Big Deal, and Running Scared was not, even if Jed liked it. It was assumed at the time that Billy Crystal, like all the other SNL alums, would have a dud film career. That didn't so much occur, but when they were casting Bride, they didn't know that.

And yes, Andre the Giant was a wrestling star, before wrestling became as popular as it is now, or even as it was in the 90s. It was the end of the time when a fellow could be the biggest star in the WWF and not be well-known to people who didn't pay attention to wrestling; Andre didn't go on the Today show, or have national TV ads, or get lampooned on SNL, unlike Hulk Hogan and his successors.

As for you, Jed, well, different people like different things, and that makes the world interesting and fun. I can understand your preference, although I think the movie would have been worse without the broad characterizations—which aren't actually that far over the top, except in the cameos (Mel Smith, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal). But then, I like Cary Elwes.


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