November 29, 2001


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Wes Anderson certainly constructed an impressive gene pool for the fictional family unshrouded in his newest cinematic venture, The Royal Tenenbaums. He began by selecting a muse. And who better than the patron saint of Hollywood guts and grit Gene Hackman? He used Hackman as the building block for the character around whom the story, at this point in time defined as being about a family of geniuses, would eventually evolve.

For the gestating story of this family, Anderson collaborated with long time friend, co-author, and up-and-coming actor, Owen Wilson. Over the course of a year, and a much treasured ping-pong table, these two real-life characters would weave an ensemble cast of similarly genius-like personas to follow up their two previously acclaimed scripts, Bottle Rocket (1994) and Rushmore (1998). Soon, Wilson and Anderson had hybridized a lush cast of personalities for their gifted family of Tenenbaums led by the remarkably unusual Royal.

It’s possible that the silver screen has not seen such a colorfully original character as Royal since John Cleese and Charles Crichton created Kevin Klein’s Oscar-winning role as Otto for 1989’s A Fish Called Wanda. Anderson really had no choice but to write a stellar part since Hackman told him to can the idea of writing a custom-tailored role for him several years earlier. Providentially, Wes Anderson isn’t easily dissuaded. In fact, the young director may be called downright ballsy for approaching the 71-year-old ex-Marine, who recently flattened a fellow Angeleno on the 405 over a contested fender-bender, despite his original protestations. “I said please don’t because then I feel I have to play an idea that’s not really mine. Of course, he went off and wrote it anyway, and thank goodness he did because it was a great pleasure,” praised Hackman.

But what Anderson knew then that Hackman and the rest of the all-star cast know now, is that neither The Royal Tenenbaums nor its creators are fly-by-night successes. And, on December 14, it’s likely that audiences everywhere will be welcoming Anderson, Wilson, and their newest project into the realm of American movie classics.

If the phenomenal writing, direction, and production of The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t convince you, maybe the cast and their career-redefining performances will. The list of actors alone tends to drop jaws. The most elite Hollywood royalty accepted significantly lower sums to be a member of the Tenenbaum family, but most expressly to work with Anderson. As Ben Stiller noted, “I would venture to say that I didn’t take as big a pay cut as the Ocean’s Eleven stars because I don’t get paid as much, but everybody was working for whatever it was just to do the movie.”

So who were these artistic martyrs? Anjelica Huston joined the ranks in the role of Royal’s better half, Etheline Tenenbaum. The child-prodigies-turned-hardened-adult-has-beens are played by Ben Stiller (Chas), Gwenyth Paltrow (Margot), and Luke Wilson (Richie). Danny Glover adds extra glint as Etheline’s accountant and eventual love interest, as well as Royal’s subsequent nemesis. Bill Murray settles into a smaller supporting role with no less shine than his larger starring role in Rushmore as Margot Tenenbaum’s tortured husband, Raleigh St. Clair. And finally, Owen Wilson lends his usual dose of insanity and spunk as the childhood comrade of the Tenenbaums who, as an adult, becomes a celebrity author and source of pain to all those in love with the moody Margot.

Amazingly, the presence of so many Hollywood titans did not stifle any of the accompanying performances. Instead, each actor seems to shine brighter in the light of so many stars, and the credit for this largely goes to the seasoning of the talent, and the sheer strength of the characters they portray. It is a credit to Wilson and Anderson’s writing that their words are able to so aptly support such a weighty cast. But just as an actor is dependent on the quality of his or her character, so such Herculean characters depend on an equally titanic thespian to give them life.

“I would have done a movie with each one of these people, and then you get them all together and I felt like I didn’t know which way to turn. At the Tenenbaum house we had a green room which was set up with couches and chairs and it was really fun to go in there with Hackman, Ben Stiller, and Anjelica Huston,” described Luke Wilson, a lightweight veteran of cinema only in comparison to his co-stars.

Wilson is the real veteran cast member, however, when it comes to working with an Anderson-Wilson creation. It’s a strange, but successful dynamic that exists between the two brothers and their college buddy. “They write good parts [for me]. I mean, they all kind of have mental problems