For someone who made so many big films over such a long period of time, it's surprising how rarely Richard Lester's name pops up in discussions of film history. His films haven't been forgotten, but it seems like other people get the credit for them. In the sixties, Lester directed the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, but everyone thinks of that as a Beatles film. In the eighties he picked up the Superman franchise from Richard Donner, but Donner is still associated with the Superman movies and Lester isn’t. (That's probably because Lester was brought in by the studio to finish up Superman Two after they took control away from Donner and the filmmaking community sided with the original auteur instead of the scab.)
Still, I knew that there must be something to the man’s career because Steven Soderbergh published a book of the two of them in conversation, and Soderbergh is such an interesting and smart guy that there had to be more to Lester’s career than meets the eye. I decided to dig a little deeper into Lester’s filmography and rented this, Lester’s 1966 film of the stage musical.
I’m glad I did, because this film still seems joyous and fun even fifty years later, whereas a lot of film musicals from this era have become kitsch. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is about a Roman slave who is hoping to buy his freedom, but to do so he has to help his owner's son woo a virgin bride who has already been promised to a returning general. It's a classic farce where things go wrong at every turn, and it's filmed with manic energy, juggling a lot of different plots and characters without ever becoming muddled.
Still, while that zany visual style definitely helps the film, the real genius comes from Zero Mostel’s performance, which is over the top in all the right ways. Every time Mostel creates a scheme his face goes from zero to sixty, with his eyes turning from sunken pools of despair to bug-eyed comic marvels. Every time one of his schemes hits a snag he does the same thing in reverse, melting down his euphoria into self pity. The clockwork that powers the farce isn’t always believable – it does seem a bit far fetched that this would all really work out in the end – but you always want it to ride it out with your old buddy Zero.
In fact, Mostel's performance is so charming that after the movie was over, all I could think about was how charming he was as he ricocheted between his peaks and valleys, and how well he balanced a physically broad performance with a verbally nimble performance. It wasn't until I had been thinking about the movie for some time that I realized that I hadn't watched it for him - I had watched it because I was curious about it's director.
So, I guess my summation of Lester’s career would be this: always the bride’s maid, never the bride.