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Montreal 2005

Stephen Tobolowsky:
Natural Born Raconteur
By Christian Monggaard

Stephen Tobolowsky.

A few years ago, the now 54-year-old American actor Stephen Tobolowsky was chosen as one of the 100 most cool people in L.A. by Buzz Magazine and thus nominated to the title of the most cool person in L.A. But the editor of the magazine said when he phoned Tobolowsky, "I don't know who you are, so could you please make up a list of 10 cool things you have done?" Initially Tobolowsky refused because that simply wouldn't be a cool thing to do, but vanity kicked in and he compiled the list and submitted it to the magazine.

As the actor himself tells it in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, Robert Brinkmann's excellent documentary on Stephen Tobolowsky that was shown at this year's Montreal World Film Festival, he included a few strange but cool experiences. Like the time when he and his wife were thrown out of two restaurants — one in L.A., the other in Helsinki, Finland — within a short period of time and both times because of President Ronald Reagan; the time when he was held at gunpoint at a supermarket and only survived because of his ability to talk a lot and fast; and the time when he was recognized as the actor Stephen Tobolowsky at one supermarket and then mistaken for a stocking clerk at another ten minutes later.

It is not so much the stories themselves that are interesting as the way Stephen Tobolowsky tells them. He is a natural born raconteur and it is this skill that made one of his friends, the filmmaker Robert Brinkmann, want to do a film on him. The result, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, is not a groundbreaking documentary when it comes to style and form, but it is nonetheless a captivating one because of Stephen Tobolowsky and the director's decision to keep the actor in focus almost all the time.

You may ask yourself, as the editor of Buzz Magazine did, who Stephen Tobolowsky is. With his big glasses and round, balding head he is one of those inconspicuous actors you have seen a million times in movies but whom you just can't place and whose name you can't remember. You could say that his primary claim to fame is the role of the annoying — at least in Bill Murray's eyes — Ned Ryerson in Harold Ramis's excellent Groundhog Day (1993). Ned is the old friend and insurance salesman Murray keeps bumping into on the street.

Stephen Tobolowsky.
Stephen Tobolowsky.
Stephen Tobolowsky.

But actually Stephen Tobolowsky has been in more than a hundred films, several television series and plays. He is a character actor who, on the big screen, often gets minor parts as bad guys or boring businessmen and does a good job of making them believable. His best work includes True Stories (1986), which he co-wrote with David Byrne, Mississippi Burning (1988), in which he is a Klansman, Memento (2000), in which he plays the real Sammy Jankis, The Insider (1999), Accidental Hero (1992), Basic Instinct (1992), Thelma & Louise (1991), and The Grifters (1990).

In real life he is a charming, intelligent and witty man, and after having seen Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party you probably won't forget him again. The film takes place on the actor's birthday, at which he throws a party for his family and some friends — a party which is largely staged for the benefit of the camera. We go with Stephen Tobolowsky to the beach in the morning (where he tells a very funny and moving story about his rendezvous with a whole family of dolphins), through the day as he is getting ready for the party, and then to the party itself.

And he keeps on telling stories from both his personal and professional life; about his first encounter with LSD and his conversation with a dog; when he found out he was going to be a father for the first time — at the time he was making Great Balls of Fire! (1989); when he was the bass player in a rock band with some good friends; and some of the other touching and crazy things he has experienced in his life.

Stephen Tobolowsky is one of those people who not only experience a lot but also are capable of telling about it in a way that is absolutely captivating. He moves from the funny to the sad to the uplifting within minutes and, even though the film at times appears too staged — his friends and birthday guests silently listening and almost looking at him in awe —Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is a little gem of a biographical documentary.

By the way, even though the editor of Buzz Magazine loved Tobolowsky's 10-cool-things list, the actor never won the title as the coolest person in L.A. He lost to the usually obnoxious comedian Andy Dick.

Christian Monggaard
© FIPRESCI 2005

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