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MOVIES : Clinton's Card : When 'Dave' screenwriter Gary Ross isn't turning out jokes for a president and other politicos, he is glorifying the little guy, sometimes in a 'Big' way

May 02, 1993|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

If he weren't such a funny guy, says his friend Paul Begala, his lines would be spoken only by actors.

Which is not so terrible. The last time an actor said words written by Gary Ross--as Tom Hanks did in "Big"--the movie grossed $120 million and Ross was nominated for an Oscar for his first produced screenplay.

But since Ross is the kind of writer whose populist wit runs to lines like "Anyone who says Clinton doesn't inhale never saw him around a Big Mac," his words play as well within the Beltway as they do in Hollywood. Or as Begala, a White House political consultant, puts it, "Gary's jokes are so good that even Clinton doesn't rewrite them."

Which explains the framed letter from the President--thanking Ross for helping write Clinton's recent performance at the fabled Gridiron dinner in Washington--on Ross' desk in his office at Universal Studios.

"When they need some jokes they call me," says Ross, studying his White House epistle with a certain nonchalance. "It's not like I spend half my life writing political stuff. I'm a screenwriter. But yeah, it's kinda cool."

It has also not hurt Ross' career. The 36-year-old screenwriter is one of the more visible members of a younger generation of Hollywood activists who lend their writing and producing talents--rather than their fund-raising abilities--to Democratic circles. He was one of a team of screenwriters who crafted sound bites for Michael Dukakis' failed 1988 presidential bid. He followed that with similar work on Clinton's campaign last year and now counts among his close friends such White House operatives as Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's press secretary, and Jon Emerson, the deputy director for personnel.

"A lot of people can write funny lines," says Myers, who has used several of Ross' one-liners in her public appearances. "But Gary can write a joke which also incorporates the candidate's message and that's fairly unique."

"Gary is very politically astute, but he also had a good sense of the pulse of the people," adds Emerson. "It's why his sound bites work and why his movies work."

Indeed, Ross' political acumen has added an element of air of verisimilitude to his second film, "Dave," a Washington comedy about a presidential impersonator directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The film, which will be released by Warners Friday, has been received well by preview audiences and is generating good word of mouth as a possible early hit of the summer movie season. A special advance screening of the movie in Washington Tuesday was attended by such Washington luminaries as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and White House staffers Bruce Lindsay and Rahm Emmanuel.

Although the film's central premise--an average Joe standing for a major leader--has been used previously, from Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper" to such films as "Prisoner of Zenda," "Moon Over Parador" and last year's "The Distinguished Gentleman," Ross wrote "Dave" out of a reaction to contemporary politics. Or, as he says, "The megalomaniacal chief of staffs populating the White House in the recent Republican administrations." Indeed, the movie's Capra-esque attitude toward power and the proverbial little guy evokes not so much a bygone era in film as it cannily captures some of the populist themes played out in the presidential election last fall. Or as Myers puts it, "Gary brings to his films a lot of the hopefulness that Clinton revived in people."

"Is 'Dave' a glorification of the little guy? Absolutely," says Ross, easing his football-player-size frame into his leather swivel chair. "I wanted to see what would happen to an ordinary guy with decent values who crash-lands into this power structure. Does his innocence make him weak or does it immunize him against the corruption?"

Those same questions might also be applied to Ross, the son of screenwriter Arthur Ross, who has been writing screenplays since the early 1980s. Although he has been called in as a script doctor on such films as "Mr. Baseball," "Beethoven" and the upcoming "The Flintstones," Ross is becoming known for his original scripts, which thrust a naive but well-intentioned protagonist into a cynical, pragmatic world with the predictable happy ending. "Big," a fantasy about an adolescent boy grappling with corporate America, was seen in 1987 as something of a comedic commentary on Wall Street's financial excesses. In "Dave," Ross is attempting to bring that same sense of renewal to politics. In his next film, a cryptically titled drama, "a couple of points . . . ," which he will also direct for Universal, Ross intends to explore similar issues within the judicial system.

"I clearly deal with innocence--corruption vs. non-corruption--a lot," says Ross. "I like examining that question: 'Does a lack of corruption make you stronger or weaker in a corrupt system?' I've done it twice now (in film) and where it comes from in me, I don't know, but I honestly wonder about that."

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