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Who knew that the end was only the beginning?

Actress Annabelle Gurwitch parlayed her firing by Woody Allen into an experience-sharing multimedia blitz.

March 11, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

ANNABELLE GURWITCH is finally done being fired. Four years after Woody Allen abruptly dismissed the L.A.-based actress from a play he was directing -- telling her, among other things, that her reading of the part made her seem "retarded" -- Gurwitch has come to the end of her multifaceted, multimedia journey of self-discovery.

Like all good baby boomers, Gurwitch took the personal and made it political. And professional. First was the stage work -- "Fired: Tales of Jobs Gone Bad," which began at Comedy Central Los Angeles, moved to off-Broadway and has appeared in venues throughout the country. Last year, the book "Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized and Dismissed" came out, along with And now "Fired!" the documentary is opening Friday at the Laemmle Grand.

"Finally I can walk away," says Gurwitch, who, though she's best known as the host of TBS' "Dinner and a Movie," has gotten used to being referred to as "the fired lady." "I've done what I can, I did what I set out to do."

That was, at first, to make herself feel better. By telling everyone she knew, and even people she didn't, that she had been fired by Allen, a man she considered, even after the whole Mia Farrow/Soon Yi scandal, a demi-god. She discovered to her surprise that almost everyone she knew had a story about being fired, and she began collecting them, through staged readings and then the book.

"With the book, I thought it would make a great present, you know, for someone who had just been fired," she says. "Because when it happens you feel so devastated, so alone, it's important to know that you aren't."

Along the way, Gurwitch says, she began to notice that getting fired was a bit of a national trend -- that corporate mergers and the downsizing of American companies meant an awful lot of people were facing life without a paycheck or health insurance.

"The month I was fired something like 160,000 New Yorkers lost their job. Maybe not all by Woody Allen," she adds with a laugh, "but that's a lot of people. It really opened my eyes."

Gurwitch is small and slender with attractively mussed hair and a Spider-Man T-shirt under her black pinstriped suit. Sitting in the Alcove in Los Feliz, she is surrounded by hip mamas and guys in black T-shirts and retro aviator shades, people who all look as if they might have gotten fired by Woody Allen and wound up getting a book and documentary out of it. It's a discrete demographic, native mostly to L.A. and New York -- the creative type with just enough insight, chutzpah and narcissism to see within the unfolding of her daily life a message for the world, whether delivered through NPR essay (which Gurwitch also does) or documentary film.

"Fired!" the film follows Gurwitch's personal journey in form as well as content. It opens with a dozen or so entertainers, including Tim Allen, Illeana Douglas, Anne Meara, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Garlin and David Cross, sharing their stories of being fired.

"All of the people I interviewed were my friends," she says. "I didn't consider calling people I didn't know. I had all these great stories from doing the stage shows already."

But "Fired!" then moves past the comfort zone of having successful entertainers share their embarrassing moments and dives into the less soothing world of "real people" -- office and factory workers who have lost their jobs -- and their health insurance. She goes to Lansing, Mich., deep in Michael Moore territory, and finds more of the same -- factories closing, corporate downsizing, layoffs in the double and triple digits.

"I could have done several different films," Gurwitch says. "I could have done all serious, or I could have done all funny. But I, we -- the directors and I -- decided to follow the narrative of how I got fired and then what happened, including how I noticed suddenly that everywhere I looked there was downsizing."

In the film, this is at times an uneasy marriage, with strange albeit interesting connections -- Gurwitch interviews a former White House chef because he is, she says, the only person in Washington to admit to being fired. Fortunately, Gurwitch never pretends to be more than she is -- an actress who got fired, had a sort of epiphany and is interested in following its ripples. She intentionally, and wisely, left the analyses to professional economists (although one of these is Ben Stein, as well known for his movie and television roles as any Greenspan gravitas).

"There are so many nights when I lay awake and wonder if I put the right things in the movie," she says. "Jeff Garlin asked me what percent of the movie that I wanted to make got in there, and at first I said 90. Now I think it's closer to 70. Thank God for DVD extras. Mine are like 90 minutes, which is longer than the film."

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