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It's an Old Story, No Lie

A person forced to tell the truth is a familiar Hollywood device. In 'Liar Liar,' it gives Jim Carrey a chance to return true to form.

March 16, 1997|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In "Liar Liar," Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a pathological you-know-what whose law practice and mental health approach collapse when he's magically forced to tell the truth for 24 hours.

"Trust me," the ad's tagline proclaims. The film, due on Friday, itself has a promise to keep, with a premise movie and TV viewers, theatergoers and readers have relished for decades: the predicament of a dishonest person straitjacketed into excruciating honesty.

In describing his new film, director Tom Shadyac ("Ace Ventura," "The Nutty Professor") sums up the hook of earlier, similar tales:

"Classic comedies are based on lies. We love to watch people try to squirm out of situations. But this turns the premise on its head, because Jim cannot lie; it's the other extreme.

"It's also cathartic for an audience. If Jim sees a person and doesn't like what he's wearing, he tells him, where we in the audience would have to cover."

It's a character Carrey says he's been rehearsing to play much of his life.

"A lot of times I use that [honesty]--as a comic you're the one who blurts the truth out. An important part of comedy is calling the moment, saying what everybody's thinking in he room. And that's what's fun about this film--what everybody's thinking is going to be said. It's truth Tourette's syndrome."

Asked to cite some recent truth-bending of his own, Carrey volunteers: "After 'Cable Guy,' I had to look happy when I wasn't--I had to suck the bitter fruit."

Hollywood's fondness for habitual liars seems only appropriate, given the industry's historic fondness for equivocation and outright lies on topics ranging from net profits to stars' sexual kinks.

As early as the era of silents, when fibbing required title cards, liars were favorite antiheroes. But it took a 1914 novel to fully kindle Hollywood's love affair with dishonesty.

In "Nothing but the Truth," author Frederick S. Isham created the character of a Wall Street stockbroker, dared on a bet to tell the truth for a certain period of time. With its emphasis on verbal comedy, the material found its way onto the Broadway stage in 1916. It was an instant smash, playing two seasons with William Collier in the lead.

(Collier [or Isham?] would have less success with a 1918 follow-up, "Nothing but Lies," proving cash-in sequels are no recent blight.)

The pre-MGM fledgling Metro studio brought "Truth" to the screen in 1920, with Taylor Holmes as stockbroker Bob Bennett--who, befitting a less hurried era, had to tell the truth for a full five days. (Less optimistic about human nature, Metro encouraged publicity stunts in which people would tell the truth for three days.)

Nine years later, as studios scrambled for plots to relaunch their silent stars, Paramount refashioned the dialogue-driven story for Richard Dix. Aided by sound, "Nothing but the Truth" was an even bigger hit.

So much so, in fact, that by the time Bob Hope stepped in as Bob Bennett for a 1941 remake (successful again), Variety moaned, "Fare should be familiar to anybody more than 12 years old and not more than 102, since it has already been onstage and screen many times."

Echoed the New Yorker: "Perhaps its basic idea might be allowed a rest."

No such luck. Television--no slouch in exporting half-truths and deception--took to the story like an old friend. Best remembered is a 1953 episode of "I Love Lucy," in which Lucy takes a hundred-dollar dare from Ricky and the Mertzes to go 24 hours without lying (as a result, she brands Ethel "tacky," Fred a "tightwad" and Ricky a "coward" for keeping her out of show business).

Eight years later, "The Twilight Zone" put its own spin on the story, adding an element of fantasy that anticipates "Liar Liar."

In the 1961 episode "The Whole Truth," Jack Carson starred as used car dealer Harvey Hunnicut--introduced by Serling as a "larceny-loader wheeler and dealer, who, when the good Lord passed out a conscience, must have gone for a beer and missed out."

An ancient Model A on the lot somehow forces Hunnicut to tell his customers the truth--a crisis finally solved when Hunnicut pawns off the car on Nikita Khrushchev. (JFK, presumably, was above a crooked thought.)

Despite its many film and TV antecedents, "Liar Liar" allegedly has more personal roots, according to its producer, Brian Grazer ("Parenthood," "Apollo 13").

As a would-be player making the studio rounds in the late '70s, "I had a great presentation about myself, I was articulate and likable, but I was a big exaggerator--kind of a liar. And people never called me back."

Grazer credits his turnaround to a close friend, who stunned him by saying his failure was because of chronic lying.

"I thought, 'Oh my God,' " Grazer recalls. "It hit me hard. So I changed the way I lived. I told the cold, honest truth about everything. When it came to show business, I used very little hyperbole, and that became kind of an anomaly. I got a lot of mileage out of that."

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