In sitting down to write a memorial tribute to a talent who has just passed, there is, I suppose, always the risk of overstating the importance and impact of the person being discussed. In the case of Ivan Reitman, who passed away on February 12 at the age of 75, that is not a worry because it is impossible to overstate his influence over the years. Throughout his career, he was responsible for some of the most successful films of his era, he helped introduce the world to an array of unique talents ranging from Doug Henning to David Cronenberg, and he changed the face of screen comedy in ways that are still being felt to this day. And yet, even though the films he is best known for, including the comedy hits “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), “Stripes” (1981) and “Ghostbusters” (1984), are often thought of as broad and ramshackle comedies, there was a wit and intelligence behind them that made them far more memorable (not to mention funnier) than they might have turned out in other hands.
He was born in Czechoslovakia on October 27, 1946 to Hungarian Jews, his father an underground resistance fighter who owned a vinegar factory and his mother was an Auschwitz survivor. When the political situation became untenable four years later, he and his parents escaped to Vienna and later relocated with a relative in Toronto. There, he became interested in show business and would go on to study music and drama at McMaster University while making short films. In 1971, he directed his first feature, an obscure comedy entitled “Foxy Lady” that is perhaps most notable for featuring, in supporting roles, the screen debuts of Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. The next year, he briefly worked at the then-new Toronto TV station CITY-TV, where he made the acquaintance of a young station announcer named Dan Aykroyd, but was fired within a year.
In 1973, he reunited with Levy and Martin on “Cannibal Girls,” a goofy gross-out horror-comedy in which a young couple encounter car trouble in a remote town and end up at a seemingly quaint bed-and-breakfast where they encounter—well, you saw the title. Reportedly shot in nine days at a cost of $9,000, the resulting film is not exactly a classic, either as a comedy or as a horror film (the Gene Shalit-like mustache sported by Levy is both the funniest and scariest thing about it) but it did prove to be at least slightly more endearing than its title might have suggested. More importantly, the film was sold to legendary exploitation house American-International Pictures and did get a decent amount of theatrical play. That year, Reitman also produced the stage show “Spellbound,” a one-act musical with a book by David Cronenberg and music by Howard Shore that starred illusionist Doug Henning. A year later, a reworked version of the show—in which the original book and score were replaced while retaining Henning and his illusions—debuted on Broadway as “The Magic Show” and would run for four years and be nominated for several Tonys.
Over the next few years, Reitman concentrated on producing films and his projects would include Cronenberg’s first two commercial features, “Shivers” and “Rabid,” the violent horror-thriller “Death Weekend” and (under the pseudonym of Julian Parnell) “Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia,” the third sequel to the infamous sexploitation classic “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.” On stage, he had another success when he produced “The National Lampoon Show,” an off-Broadway offshoot of the popular humor magazine featuring a cast that included the likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, and Brian Doyle-Murray. When most of the cast left to join the new television show “Saturday Night Live,” Reitman went to Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons with the idea of taking some of the skits from the show and using them as the basis for a feature film.
That project would eventually develop into “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and while Reitman initially harbored hopes of directing the film, Universal, the studio behind it, did not feel that he had enough experience to helm a major motion picture. The job instead went to John Landis, who had just had a big hit with “Kentucky Fried Movie.” If you have read this far, you presumably know that the 1978 film was an instant sensation that quickly became one of the most successful comedies ever made and transformed Belushi, already hot from his work on “SNL,” into a comedy icon. Yes, it’s true that some of the more outrageous bits of humor have not exactly stood the test of time but those moments are blessedly few and far between. However, while it does manage to maintain a mood of sheer anarchy for its entire running time, “Animal House” also contains a sense of genuine sweetness and wit throughout that helped to mitigate some of the raunchier moments and kept it from being just a collection of sick jokes. To this day, it is still regarded as a comedy classic. In 2001, the Library of Congress would induct “Animal House” into the National Film Registry.
One of the offshoots of the massive success of “Animal House” was that it gave Reitman the clout to direct a new film of his own. This was “Meatballs,” a low-budget summer camp comedy designed to take advantage of both the new appetite for youth-skewing comedies and Canadian tax shelter laws that allowed investors to deduct 100% of the money they sank into projects. Dozens of movies were produced under these principles but Reitman had a couple of aces up his sleeve—he brought in Ramis, who had co-written “Animal House,” to be one of the screenwriters and he convinced Murray to make his first major big-screen appearance as Tripper Harrison, the goofball lead counsellor at a dilapidated summer camp featuring round-the-clock shenanigans and goings-on. (The story goes that Murray’s agreement to actually appear in it was so tenuous that no one was sure he was actually going to be in it until he finally turned up on the third day of filming.) Instead of pushing the humor to scatological extremes, as many of the “Animal House” copycats were doing, Reitman made the wise move to give it a more gentle, PG-suitable feel and concentrated a good portion of the story on Tripper befriending a painfully shy camper and helping him to develop his self-confidence. That, combined with Murray’s hilarious antics, helped make it a sleeper hit that summer, grossing more than $43 million in the U.S. and Canada on a budget of just over $1 million.
For his next two films, Reitman would reunite with Murray and Ramis and the results would be another pair of hits. “Stripes” told the story of a slob (Murray) and his pal (Ramis), with nothing better to do, who decide to join the Army on a whim and discover that it was nothing like the relaxed environment suggested by the ads. Again, the film probably did not appear at first glance to be much different from any number of service comedies that preceded it—especially “Private Benjamin,” which had much of the same premise and which premiered several months earlier—but Murray and Ramis (now serving as an actor as well as a co-writer) made for an inspired team that helped breathe fresh air into the familiar material. The film also made the inspired decision to make Murray’s ostensible nemeses, drill sergeant Sgt. Hulka into a serious-minded hard-ass instead of a blustering blowhard and cast in the role Warren Oates, an actor who could play a more than convincing tough guy. Thanks to this decision, the scenes between the goof and his superior have an actual edge to them that helps keep it from becoming a cartoon. The film was another critical and commercial hit, becoming the fifth-biggest film of 1981, a year in which Reitman would co-produce another hit with the trippy animated adventure “Heavy Metal.”
After that came “Ghostbusters,” a film that, like “Animal House” before it, was so successful that it grew from a mere hit movie into a genuine cultural phenomenon. Taking a Dan Aykroyd screenplay that was set aside due to a combination of impenetrability, expense, and the passing of proposed star Belushi, Reitman took on the project, brought in Ramis to help shape the material and Murray to take on Belushi’s part alongside Aykroyd and Ramis as paranormal exterminators out to save New Yorkers from increasingly malevolent spirits. Released at the height of the Reagan era, the film captured the zeitgeist of that period like few others—this was, after all, a story that not only was the ultimate celebration of free enterprise but deployed a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency as a secondary villain—it would go on to become the most popular screen comedy of the 1980s and spawn an entire cottage industry that continues to this day.
And yet, despite the film’s enormous popularity, Reitman’s contributions to the project have always tended to be underrated when it is discussed. Unlike his previous films, which were relatively modest in size, budget, and ambition, “Ghostbusters” was a hugely expensive proposition that attempted to blend together two things that did not necessarily go together easily—elaborate special effects and broad humor. The problem with bringing the two together is that films involving elaborate effects require lots of planning and careful execution of numerous disparate elements in order to succeed, while comedies generally require a certain degree of spontaneity (or at least the illusion of it) if they are to work. The genius of “Ghostbusters” was that it somehow managed to juggle these diametrically opposed concepts—it was a miracle of state-of-the-art technology while at the same time maintaining a loose and laid-back comedic approach that, in the best way possible, felt as if all involved were just making it up as they went along. To this day, it remains one of the best examples of the effects-driven comedy ever made and from the moment I first saw it on opening day to the moment I shuffle off from this world, I will consider the arrival of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to be one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
Reitman stumbled a bit with his next film, “Legal Eagles,” an overproduced comedy-thriller with Robert Redford, Debra Winger, and Daryl Hannah that felt more like a deal memo brought somewhat to life than a movie and which proved to be a surprise box-office disappointment. He quickly rebounded with “Twins,” a project that saw him mining the previously untapped humorous potential of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then best-known for a string of super-violent action films, by placing him in a high-concept buddy comedy in which he and Danny DeVito played … well, you saw the title. That movie would become a massive hit and lead to two more projects with Schwarzenegger—the popular “Kindergarten Cop,” which saw him playing off of a bunch of little kids to surprisingly charming effect, and the not-so-popular “Junior,” which re-teamed him with DeVito in a vaguely off-putting farce about the world’s first pregnant man.
During this period, Reitman also directed the inevitable “Ghostbusters II,” which proved to be the kind of movie fondly remembered only by the accountants of the reunited creative team—while enough people saw it to make it a huge hit, nearly all of them forgot about it a week or so later when “Batman” arrived in theaters. (Oddly, Reitman was once proposed to make a “Batman” film in the early 1980s that reportedly would have seen Murray as the Caped Crusader opposite David Bowie as the Riddler.) He would also make perhaps the most endearing and likable film of his entire career with “Dave,” a charming 1993 political comedy fable about an ordinary guy (Kevin Kline) whose side gig impersonating the lookalike President becomes full-time when the real guy suffers a major stroke and he is pressed into pretending to be the real deal by underlings hoping to seize power for themselves. Unlike the real President, the new guy is an idealist who is determined to use the opportunity to do good, even bringing in an accountant friend (Charles Grodin in one of his most inspired turns) to help balance the budget. While the idea of making an idealistic political comedy in the post-Watergate world might have seemed to be an impossible task, “Dave” was just that—it took a potentially silly sitcom-level premise and transformed it into the kind of warm and funny feel-good comedy Frank Capra might have created back in his heyday. More importantly, it is a film that clearly meant something to him on a personal level that could be felt throughout while watching it.
Following this burst of activity, Reitman began focusing more on producing and his director efforts became increasingly rare and increasingly indifferent. “Father’s Day” was an awkward and deservedly forgotten buddy comedy with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal that somehow failed to generate any laughs, while the romantic comedy “Six Days, Seven Nights” floundered due to the lack of any romantic or comedic chemistry between co-stars Harrison Ford and Anne Heche. “Evolution” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” once again combined comedy with elaborate special effects but neither one was able to mix them together with any of the effectiveness of “Ghostbusters.” “No Strings Attached” was a modest and largely forgettable romantic comedy with about a couple of friends (Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher) who decide to embark on a relationship that is … well, you saw the title. His final directorial effort was “Draft Day,” an odd drama with Kevin Costner as the harried general manager of the Cleveland Browns being pulled around by personal and professional concerns on—well, you saw the title. The film is most distinguished by the presence of the late Chadwick Boseman in an early-career role, as a promising player that Costner considers drafting in lieu of a different, big-ticket player.
On the producing side, there were such hits as “Space Jam” and “Private Parts” and missteps like “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” “Post-Grad,” “Baywatch,” and “Father Figures.” In 2009, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture for producing “Up in the Air,” a film directed by his son Jason, who had by then established himself as a filmmaker of note with the hit “Juno.” During this time, there were incessant rumors about the possibility of a third “Ghostbusters” film that never quite came to fruition. However, he did serve as one of the producers of the 2016 female-driven reboot that proved to be better than it is usually given credit for. Just last year, Reitman not only produced “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” for his son, he appeared in it as well by doing the motion-capture work for the ghost of Egon Spengler which would later be superimposed with the image of the late Harold Ramis—while the ultimate effect proved to be more than a little ghastly in execution, at least it had the right sentiment behind it.
At the time of his death, Reitman had a number of projects in various stages of development including “Triplets,” a long-rumored “Twins” sequel that would have supposedly reunited Schwarzenegger and DeVito and thrown Eddie Murphy into the mix as well. Regardless of how any of these might have turned out, Reitman’s legacy as one of the most influential filmmakers of his time had long been set. As a producer, he often had a knack for combing the right array of talents in ways that inspired their best work; as a filmmaker, he showed that he could generate big laughs and something more when given the opportunity. For movie fans of my generation and beyond, his contributions cannot be underestimated and the best of them will continue to make people laugh for generations to come.
And that’s the fact, Jack.