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MOVIES : ROB REINER IN HOLLYWOOD : The Sweet Misery That Fame Brings

November 25, 1990|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Just before his fifth movie, "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," was about to come out in 1989, Rob Reiner, the director, was waiting for his car at a West Hollywood restaurant. "The parking guy says to me, 'Hey, Mr. Reiner, four pictures, not a stinker yet,' " Reiner recalls. "And I'm wondering, does he think 'Harry and Sally' is a stinker?"

Such doubts come readily enough in Hollywood, where directors commonly spend tens of millions of dollars and 12 to 18 months working on a film from start to finish. The month before it opens consequently is a time of fear, great expectations and sifting the remarks of valet parkers. It happens to be that time of the year again for Reiner, whose adaptation of Stephen King's novel "Misery" (from a script by William Goldman), starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, opens in theaters Friday.

Reiner, who has a tendency to appear glum under the happiest of circumstances, is riding a wave of improbable success behind the camera that still hasn't crested. Far from a stinker, "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," the unfashionably talky romantic comedy about friends who become lovers starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, turned out to be his biggest hit yet, grossing close to $100 million. It also attracted his first career backlash from an array of reviewers who charged him with poaching on Woody Allen's piece of Manhattan.

But the criticism put only a small dent in Reiner's growing reputation as a major director, one who made an odds-defying leap to the present from his role as Michael (Meathead) Stivic, Archie Bunker's live-in nemesis on ABC's "All in the Family" for eight years (1970-78).

The period he spent between the end of "All in the Family" and the release of his first film, "This Is Spinal Tap," in 1984, provided the basis, Reiner says, for his identification with the subject of "Misery," which is about a popular writer of romance novels who is kidnaped by a demented fan at the moment he has killed off the fictional heroine who made him famous.

Reiner's experience was nothing as dramatic as what happens to the novelist--played by James Caan--who is held captive in a mountain cabin by a dreamy, homicidal fanatic (Bates). "I wasn't in the position of being a sex symbol or anything like that," Reiner says. "The insight I have is more from the standpoint of what any creative person goes through in the process of growing. In my case, I went from being a sitcom actor to directing features."

When "All in the Family" ended, Reiner was offered what he describes as "an enormous amount of money" to appear in a spinoff. Instead he sat out four years while he tried to answer the calling that he felt was his all along.

"As an actor I was always more aware of everybody else onstage, or if I was doing 'All in the Family,' I was aware of where all the cameras were, where the other actors were, the audience. I was always more interested in the script and in the structure of the script than I was in my performance. Which is not such a great way to approach your acting job."

But when he ventured out into the executive suites of Hollywood asking for the chance to direct "Spinal Tap," a satire about the excesses of rock 'n' roll and its reverential treatment in conventional documentaries, he couldn't get anyone to take him seriously.

"It was right on the cusp of the time in which people who came out of TV were thought to be pariahs. You just couldn't go into features. Now, people are actually looking for television stars to be the locomotives for films."

Among those who are in demand for such assignments is Reiner's ex-wife and "Laverne & Shirley" star Penny Marshall (they divorced in 1981), who directed the 1988 hit comedy "Big" and the upcoming "Awakenings."

"But in those days," he continues, "it was very hard for me to make the crossover."

Yet crossover he did, with an eventual assist from his former "All in the Family" boss, Norman Lear, who supplied the money necessary to finance not only "Spinal Tap" but Reiner's subsequent films, "The Sure Thing," "Stand By Me" and "The Princess Bride." All proved to be profitable and drew wide critical approval, followed by "When Harry Met Sally . . ."

" 'Harry and Sally' was the biggest hit I ever had, and it got the worst reviews of any picture I've ever done," Reiner says while characteristically hunched over his lunch in Beverly Hills. When he says the film got bad reviews, he means it only got a "75-80%" affirmative vote from the nation's critics, according to his assiduous calculations. "But 'Spinal Tap,' I'm not exaggerating, literally didn't get one bad review--that I read. 'Stand By Me' and 'Princess Bride' were pretty even, about 90% (positive). 'Sure Thing' was about 85%."

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