Though he's been mentioned as a possible best supporting actor nominee for his work in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," Rodney Dangerfield still gets no respect. When he applied for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the comedian was turned down flat.
With major parts in at least three theatrical releases to his credit, Dangerfield meets the minimum criteria for consideration. But according to a letter signed by Roddy McDowall, chair of the Actors Branch Executive Committee, he still lacks "enough of the kind of roles that allow a performer to demonstrate the mastery of the craft."
"This is ridiculous--especially since thousands of academy members haven't done any movies, to speak of," says Dangerfield, who was informed of the decision earlier this week. "People still quote lines from 'Caddyshack,' which I did in 1980. 'Back to School,' which I starred in, took in (nearly) $100 million. And Oliver Stone--who told me he loved my work--cast me as the father from hell, a guy who molests his daughter. Maybe the character, which I wrote myself, was so distasteful that it turned the academy off. Certain people--Roddy McDowall included--sometimes let emotion overrule their intelligence."
"Natural Born Killers" was his first "dramatic" role, the 73-year-old Dangerfield admits. But previous comedic appearances in movies such as "Easy Money" (1983) and "Lady Bugs" (1992) also required him to "act."
"That's not me up there," he insists. "Even as a stand-up, I'm acting. But like Charlie Chaplin who was forever 'The Tramp,' I'm locked into an image--the 'nobody.' When I was performing at a New York club, a patron asked me for an autograph--and more butter. Last year, AT&T dropped me from their commercials because I wasn't 'dignified' enough. I can't seem to get out from under."
Dangerfield's name was submitted by actor Leonard Gaines--a 50-year friend who most recently appeared as the Ferrari dealer in "Scent of a Woman." The two used to hang out with Lenny Bruce at New York City's Hansen's Drug Store and--along with other "lunch bunch" regulars such as Jerry Vale, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby--eat at Beverly Hills' Cafe Roma several times a week.
Gaines, who asked veteran academy member Michael Dante to co-sign the membership proposal card, was also baffled by the response. "What is 'mastery of the craft' suppose to mean?" he asks. "Rodney takes direction, he hits his marks, he delivers his lines . . . what else is there?
"Rodney's a big name in the business," Gaines says. "I was doing the academy a favor by bringing him in. Who knows? He may have done a benefit. It would have been good for Rodney too. All the money he's made hasn't helped his self-image. And he'd have free screenings at which he'd see all his friends."
Though McDowall was unavailable for comment, academy executive director Bruce Davis says the organization, of necessity, is more selective these days. Demand for membership has been up ever since the studios started sending movie cassettes to academy members in hope of Oscar consideration.
"There's a certain justice in the charge that not every academy member has done work of note," Davis admits. "But during the past six to eight years, we've become more rigorous in our admissions process. Twice a year, we have a pretty impressive group of actors making these decisions--and they don't make them easily. Once you accept people, you have them for life. In the end, it's a double-edged sword. We're usually accused of having standards too low. Now we're accused of having standards too high."
The academy suggested it would be willing to reconsider Dangerfield's application once he has more credits under his belt. An unlikely scenario, the comedian says.
"Academy membership isn't something I need," says the comedian, who has written a book of jokes for HarperCollins and two feature film scripts in which he hopes to star. "And now that I've seen the way the academy functions, even the Oscar doesn't mean as much. I know the reality. Who are these geniuses who are judging us?"