Barry Sonnenfeld: the Most Neurotic Man in Hollywood

Memoir doesn’t tell all, but reveals a lot

As a cinematographer, director, and producer, Barry Sonnenfeld has straddled the artistic/commercial divide, filling his resume with critically-acclaimed films like Miller’s Crossing and commercial blockbusters like the Men In Black franchise. Sonnenfeld attached himself to a huge variety of projects, from Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Misery, and When Harry Met Sally, to the TV shows Pushing Daisies and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Yet all that success hasn’t kept his underlying neuroticism at bay. He’s subtitled his new-ish book, Call Your Mother, unfortunately released at the dawn of the pandemic era, “Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker.” Driving the point home, the foreword details an anecdote about Sonnenfeld and Larry David arguing about which of them is the most neurotic, and demanding that Cheryl Hines, who plays David’s wife in his series Curb Your Enthusiasm, cast the deciding vote. It took a year, but finally she caved, and announced while appearing on Late Night with David Letterman that she awarded Sonnenfeld the honor.

Sonnenfeld

No wonder the book opens with epigraph, “Regret the past, fear the present, dread the future.” This life philosophy makes sense as Sonnenfeld delves into his fraught childhood. If his mother isn’t threatening suicide, his father is stealing the Sonnenfeld’s Bar Mitzvah money. Or both parents are failing in their familial duties, by leaving Sonnenfeld at the mercy of a family friend who regularly molests him. Years later, his father offered the following excuse for why they hadn’t felt it was such a big deal at the time: “First of all, Barry, don’t forget child molestation didn’t have the same stigma back then that it has now.”

But Sonnenfeld leavens his many struggles with a substantial dose of humor. He might have endured much, but Call Your Mother reveals Sonnenfeld to be a survivor. It’s also a testament to how the rivers of fate can push you in unexpected directions. For Sonnenfeld’s career in movies is something of a fluke. He admits to having no interest in movies at all, and only went to film school because his mother suggested it. Sonnenfeld was a photographer, and, he writes, “Film is just a lot of photographs stuck together with words.” Two years after graduating from NYU’s film school,  Joel and Ethan Coen hired him to work on their first film simply because he owned that most precious of resources–a 16mm movie camera. That film, Blood Simple, gave Sonnenfeld his first major movie credit.

Sonnenfeld’s film career is just one aspect of Call Your Mother, the stories of a life in movies mixed in with the detailing of his complex family relationships. He also provides vivid depictions of his various physical ailments: sciatica, kidney stones, fear of flying. This is disappointing if you’re a film buff, because when he does open the movie memory vault, Sonnenfeld comes up with a wealth of entertaining stories, beginning with his post-film school dues-paying period. I advise you not to read his chapter on the shooting of nine porn films in nine days, pithily entitled “An Actress Short, a Cum Shot Behind,” on a full stomach.

He clashes with director Penny Marshall while shooting Big because of her perennial indecisiveness. She later offers him this faint praise: “I never thought you were a good cameraman. But you picked a good film stock.” Director Andrei Konchalovsky, during Sonnenfeld’s mercifully brief stint as a cinematographer on Tango and Cash, meets his work with derision: “You light [a film set] like a girl. You light like a pussy.” Forced to get a roomful of children to cry on cue in his directorial debut, The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld blithely informs the tykes that they’ll all be getting a measles injections, then hot-foots it to his car in order to escape from an angry parent screaming “I’m going to fucking kill you!”

 

Blood Simple gets its own chapter, of course. Other famous names pop up: Robin Williams, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman. But you’d sure like to hear more about the making of Men In Black, aside from learning that Sonnenfeld can beat Will Smith in leg wrestling. An anecdote about Out of Sight, which Sonnenfeld produced, would’ve been nice. Heck, I’m sure he could have even found something worthwhile to share about the last feature film he directed, the widely panned Nine Lives (where, in case you missed it, Kevin Spacey gets trapped inside the body of a cat).

Well, we can always hope for a second volume. In the meantime, revel in the ruminations of a man whose youthful traumas seared but didn’t scar him. Will Smith joked to Sonnenfeld he’d like to take him around public schools as an inspiration: “If this guy could end up as a successful film director on big-budget films, anyone can.” Which means there’s hope for all of us.

(Hachette, March 10, 2020)

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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