Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Handbook for the Recently Deceased

Beetlejuice was one of the top ten box office hits of 1988, and was one of those films of which I was aware, but never got around to seeing (until this week). The film was directed by a young Tim Burton, who had just come off the surprise success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and was suddenly Hollywood's hot property. Burton was deep into the lengthy development process of Batman, about which Warner Bros. remained skittish, so in the meantime, he directed this hybrid of comedy, horror, and romance.

The script went through several incarnations, as these things always do, and Burton's first choice for the title character was (are you sitting down?) Sammy Davis, Jr. Producer David Geffen brought Michael Keaton to the director's attention, and Beetlejuice had its star.

Until I watched the film this week, Keaton was the only actor in the thing I would have been able to name, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the cast peopled with lots of talented folks. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are hugely attractive as the romantic leads (wasn't Baldwin a cutie before he gained all the weight?), and Jeffery Jones and Catherine O'Hara counterbalance them as the neurotic New Yorkers who invade their space. Wynona Ryder, before she got itchy fingers, was a big success as a goth teen-ager, and Sylvia Sidney, ancient, withered, and engulfed in cigarette smoke, was a hoot as a case-worker for dead people:

Burton purposely wanted Beetlejuice to look like a low budget horror flick, so he spent a scant one million on the special effects. He came up with some terrific sight gags, and the whole movie is a visual gem. This week's Dance Party comes from the centerpiece of the film, a dinner party during which the new inhabitants of the haunted house become temporarily possessed. But before we get to that, allow me to slip this in:

Glenn Shadix


Glenn was another of those character actors who spent his career in support, working a lot, but rarely being recognized. He was born and raised in Alabama, which explains why he was forced into electroconvulsive-therapy as a teenager, to "repair" his homosexuality. He spent a few years in New York before heading to Hollywood, where he had some success on film and television. He spent some time in HBO's Carnivale, and played Jerry's landlord on Seinfeld. Here he is with Will Smith, from the sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air:

His big break, however, is one of the stories actors love to tell and hate to believe. Against the advice of his agent (who was sure it would sink his career), Glenn was appearing on stage as (get this) Gertrude Stein, when Tim Burton landed in the audience. They became friends, and Burton placed Shadix in Beetlejuice, his first feature film. The two worked together several more times, including The Nightmare Before Christmas and the remake of Planet of the Apes. Glenn's work in the former launched his career in voice-over, and he has several animated series to his credit. In 2007, Shadix returned to Alabama, where he semi-retired, buying an old house (which later burned down) and dabbling in the social issues of the region:

Glenn was preparing a return to the stage, in a production of The History Boys, when he died this week, at the age of 58. It was his death which brought Beetlejuice to mind, which in turn inspired this week's Dance Party choice. Here, our hostess Catherine O'Hara serves an appetizer with a twist (only Tim Burton could make shrimp cocktail look so ugly), while Glenn and his co-stars, along with the cameo work of Dick Cavett and Susan Kellerman, involuntarily dig that Calypso beat:

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