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Dave (1993)

Ivan Reitman has always been a commercially successful director, with box office hits like National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), and Ghost Busters (1984) among his credits. Yet, looking back at his career, Reitman once commented on the difficulty of being taken seriously in the world of comedy, saying, "Comedians are not given enough respect for the work they do, particularly when it is award time. There is the sense what they do is just natural to them, to be funny, so the performance doesn't merit the kind of attention a dramatic performance gets." So, to Reitman's surprise, his 1993 comedy, Dave, was not only a box office hit, it garnered critical acclaim as well.

It's true that comedies rarely win awards on Oscar night since the Academy voters tend to favor drama over laughter. The first comedy to get recognition at the annual event was Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), which swept all five major categories. Given Reitman's choice of script- a tale reminiscent of Capra's classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)- it's fitting that the screenplay for the film would go on to win an Oscar. The story of a dead ringer for the president who is hired to replace him during an emergency situation, Dave definitely harkens back to the populist social comedies of the late thirties with its mixture of down home politics, romance and mistaken identity.

Gary Ross, who won an Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay for Dave, was born into the business of screenwriting. His father was blacklisted screenwriter Arthur Ross, who penned scripts for films like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Great Race (1965). Ross dabbled in acting before deciding to focus on a career behind the camera (he plays "2nd Policeman" in Dave). With Anne Spielberg (Steven Spielberg's sister), he scored a big hit with his work on the script for Big (1988), earning his first Oscar nomination for the Tom Hanks vehicle. Five years later, he would pen the script for Dave, a film that would reflect his personal passion for the world of politics. Ross once interned for a congressman and even wrote speeches and one-liners for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton.

In a tale not unfamiliar to moviegoers, Ross created a new twist on the story of an ordinary man suddenly propelled into an extraordinary and powerful position. Citing the election of Newt Gingrich as an inspiration, Ross explained that he approached the story by imagining what would happen if the staff that supports the President got power-hungry and "what would happen if one of these guys did not want to let it go, if the horse they rode suddenly collapsed but they didn't want to collapse with it."

The light political satire of Ross' script demanded an actor who could match the tone of the story. Kevin Kline, who had demonstrated his comic talents in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), and The Big Chill (1983), was tapped to play Dave Kovic, the mild-mannered job counselor who impersonates a rather acrimonious President Bill Mitchell. Kline's presidential portrayal of President Mitchell drew comparisons to the then recently unseated president George Bush, Sr. In an interview at the time of the movie's release, Kline observed that the script's premise was about "a president without a political agenda.....he actually starts taking himself, and the job, seriously. That gives the movie a kind of poignancy."

Ivan Reitman welcomed the chance to tackle the story, and, with Ross' connections, convinced Washington insiders like "Tip" O'Neill, Senator Tom Harkin, and NPR reporter Nina Totenberg to play cameos in the film. Other famous bit players include director Oliver Stone, performance artist Anna Deavere Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John McLaughlin of TV's The McLaughlin Group. The real White House was not as forthcoming with favors. The production was denied permission to take photographs or measurements of the White House for use in constructing a set. Undeterred, the director told his production designer to take a camera and go on a White House tour, disguised as a tourist. After utilizing the reproduction of the Oval Office at the Ronald Reagan Library, the final dimensions of the set were complete.

Audiences and critics responded warmly to the Capra-esque story and praised the comic ensemble of Kline, Frank Langella (who gained 25 pounds to play the corrupt and power-driven Chief of Staff), Charles Grodin as a hapless accountant, and Sigourney Weaver, who portrayed President Mitchell's embittered spouse. The Los Angeles Times wrote that "Dave is the best kind of comedy, one whose jokes can't be given away. Though replete with amusing situations and clever lines, its strongest suit is the delicately pitched comic performances of its actors, most especially star Kevin Kline." And Time said the film "goes more for charm and chuckles than for the political jugular. This is cleverly updated Capricorn with a common-man hero whose genuine concern for the people makes the legitimate incumbent look bad."

The film not only afforded Ross the honor of winning an Oscar, he was also recognized by the Writers Guild of America, which called his script a story that "best embodies the spirit of the Constitution's call for civil rights and liberties." Gary Ross' success enabled him the chance to realize his dream of directing; five years later he would write and direct Pleasantville (1998). Interestingly enough, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner would find herself working on another political satire in 1998 - Warren Beatty's Bulworth.

Producer: Ivan Reitman, Lauren Shuler-Donner
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: Gary Ross
Art Direction: David F. Klassen
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Editing: Sheldon Kahn
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Kevin Kline (Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell), Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Mitchell), Frank Langella (Bob Alexander), Kevin Dunn (Alan Reed), Ving Rhames (Duane Stevenson), Ben Kingsley (Vice President Nance), Charles Grodin (Murray Blum), Laura Linney (Randi), Bonnie Hunt (White House Tour Guide).
C-110m. Letterboxed.

by Genevieve McGillicuddy

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