When asked by AFI if he could be the honoree of the 41st Life Achievement Award, Mel Brooks responded, "Of course! What took you so long?" It's a good question. It's clear from last night's event at the Dolby Theater -- a procession of food, drink, roasts and tributes -- that Hollywood peers just adore the 86 year-old director, screenwriter, composer, you-name-it. He's a renaissance man and an immortal legend and no one disputed that.
At the end of the night Brooks took to the stage to accept
his AFI Life Achievement Award. The speech was classic Mel, brief and
dryly hilarious and in the middle of it he paused to blow his nose.
Pulling out a piece of paper he said sarcastically, "I don't want to go
awry, I don't want to make mistakes, this is nearly an important
Then he read us his notes: "Don't forget to thank AFI, friends, family and colleagues for coming. Try to be sincere. In all sincerity I'd like to thank AFI, my friends and family for coming and wearing tuxedo. Don't forget the splendor of the event, beautiful table settings, lovely, uh, flowers. Don't mention the pedestrian food and incredibly cheap wine. Everything looks so beautiful tonight, they've gone to so much trouble. Everything looks great, it's like the movies -- it's full of shit."
He went on to say, in what he called a little "bullshit" sentimentality, "The movies saved my life, they rescued my soul no matter what." Brooks is a class act but there were no fake niceties in his speech. Why would we want it any other way?
Introducing Brooks as the evening began were AFI president Bob Gazzale and Brooks' old partner-in-crime Carl Reiner, with whom he appeared in skits on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." Producer Stuart Cornfeld reminded us that Brooks was the first man to "put the Third Reich to comic song" in "The Producers," the long-lived 1968 musical movie. Billy Crystal recalled Brooks approaching him to play crackpot producer Max Bialystock in the Broadway version. "Why would I want to be the eighth guy to play Max Bialystock?" Crystal responded. "You won't," he remembers Brooks saying, "you'll be the 12th!"
In a taped interview, Whoopi Goldberg said that Brooks "has no sense of a line in the sand," meaning that he has always been fearless when it comes to crossing boundaries of the un-PC and the profane in his comedy. At mezzanine table, friends and I debated what we thought was our favorite Mel Brooks movie. Many of us all said "Blazing Saddles," which giddily defiled the American western more than any other film to date, but as montages and Mel movie moments came onscreen, we kept changing our minds.
There was no shortage of Jewish jabs -- natch, shameless comedienne Sarah Silverman, describing him as "singular, an enigma, and ridiculous," cracked a few. So did Cloris Leachman who says she picked up some Yiddish from Mel, particularly the word "shtup," which was met with rousing laughter. Leachmen will always be remembered for playing Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein" in 1974 and three years later appeared in the Hitchcock spoof "High Anxiety."
Another little chestnut Mel shared with us in a video interview: when he screened that film for Hitch, who apparently said nothing and didn't laugh, Mel was nervous. But a few days later he received a case of champagne from the master of suspense with a note that said "Have no anxiety about 'High Anxiety' -- it's a wonderful film. Love, Hitch." David Lynch, too, had wonderful things to say about Mel, who championed "Eraserhead" when looking for a director for "The Elephant Man" (1980). Martin Scorsese spoke about Brooks' "extremely disciplined mastery of film" and Brooks returned the compliment, saying: "No one so short has ever been so talented in film."
Among other attendees -- who offered more of a ribald ribbing than typical awards show-tailored adulation -- were Robert De Niro ("Who do I have to fuck to get into a Mel Brooks movie?"), Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman and Larry David, who said "there are very few highs in the world that compare to a Mel high."
You can watch a telecast of the gala June 15th, 8pm PST, on TNT. Don't miss it, you'll laugh your head off.