Today is the birthday of multi-talented songwriter, singer and actor Paul Williams (b. 1940). Williams has had a career most people would drool over: his hit songs of the early 70s (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”, “You and Me Against the World”, “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”, hits for Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy and The Carpenters, respectively), his starring role in and score for Brian DePalma’s brilliant Phantom of the Paradise (1974), his lyrics for “Evergreen” (the love theme of Barbra Streisand’s 1976 remake of A Star is Born), his great role in the smash hit Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and his songs for The Muppet Movie (1979) and Ishtar (1987). He has continued to act, write and perform ever since, although a serious drug and alcohol problem bumped him down from the “A” list in the 1980s. Today he continues to enjoy what most of us in show business would consider an enviable life, touring the world and getting nice checks for his personal appearances.
On the other hand, who is “Stephen Kessler”? An obscure Hollywood director with two previous credits (Vegas Vacation, 1997, and The Independent, 2000), he apparently took it upon himself at some point during the last decade to make a guerrilla style documentary about how “pathetic” Williams and his career now were, playing dates on the outskirts of Las Vegas, San Francisco piano bars, and hotels in the Philippines. You know what? If Paul Williams wants to trade places with me, I’ll take it! The resulting film is Paul Williams Still Alive (2011). (Thanks, Kevin Maher, for letting me know about it).
The film is a complicated item to digest. Ultimately, wise soul and gentleman Williams is smart enough to turn the movie on its head, calling Kessler on his shit and using the film as an opportunity to get his own message out (a positive story about the possibilities of recovery). I might say he also helps Kessler look like an ass, but Kessler does a fine job of that all by himself. Interestingly, Kessler leaves all sorts of stuff in the film that reveal him (Kessler himself) to be a schmuck, which is why I say the film is a complicated object to digest — Kessler should be given credit for the unvarnished portrait of himself much more than his ugly, sophomoric attempts to make fun of a “former” star. And yet, Kessler’s narcissism is woven all through the film, and so perhaps even here I’m reluctant to give him any credit. After all, an unflattering portrait of himself is still a portrait of…himself. I wouldn’t mind seeing a real documentary of Paul Williams sometime.
Oh! Also Paul Williams played Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Williams was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite and most-often asked back guests during the 1970s, mostly because of segments like this:
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc