Take One: Ruthless People (1987)
DeVito wants Bette Midler dead and gone in Ruthless People. The sooner the better preferably, with a minimum of fuss and personal expense. Sam "spandex mini-skirt king" Stone's wife Barbara (Midler) is kidnapped by the nicest people to ever venture to the criminal side, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater. When, over the phone, Reinhold relays his strict rules regarding heiress Barbara's ransom, DeVito’s face brightens by the minute at the idea that she will be killed if he disobeys their orders or if any police intervention is suspected. Cue a fleet of cop cars and every news channel in LA reporting on the story. Cut to: Sam popping a champagne cork with filthy glee.
Ruthless People is a daft rejig of crime film plot staples, a film noir hijacked by a clown. DeVito gives it just the right amount of mugging and brimful-to-overflowing silliness it requires. He revels in the heightened ridiculousness of the plot in his typically impish fashion. There’s something consistently sly written across his face that suggests he’s so in on the joke and wants us to be just as tied up in the murderous slapstick as he and the rest of the cast are. DeVito mined this goofy performance style to perfection during the 1980s in films like Twins, Throw Momma from the Train and Wise Guys, but it's perhaps best expressed right here. DeVito is ever the generously complicit comedian in Ruthless People and deserved that Golden Globe nomination for his comic efforts. (Inexplicably, Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ Hogan won that year.)
Take Two: The War of the Roses (1989)
When the DeVito-directed The War of the Roses was first announced there was talk, rumours really, that it would be the next installment of the Romancing the Stone series. It wasn’t, but it featured the same core trio: Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner romantically entwined and Danny DeVito on the sidelines. MORE...
DeVito has appeared in all six of the films he’s directed so far and similarly acted as narrator on his last to date, Duplex/Our House. He works well under his own direction, but rarely, if at all, gets mentioned in any ‘great actor-turned-director’ lists. His work on Roses alone, both behind and in front of the camera, deserves much higher credit.
Roses was a grim look at how marital life can comically sour into resentment, hate, and even attempted murder. Events go from blissful to deathly in under two hours. DeVito is Gavin D’Amato, a lawyer colleague of Douglas’ Oliver, and a one-man Greek Chorus commentating on the events of the story he's telling in flashback. He gives good character in these wraparound segments but pops up in the main plot too, acting as Oliver’s confidante and parading tall blonde dates around at parties (rather bizarrely, he likes to rub gravy onto their feet!) DeVito clearly relished his role as storyteller, proudly dispensing words of wisdom to a troubled husband (future Homer Simpson Dan Castellaneta).
There is no winning in this - only degrees of losing!”
When he's not dispensing advice, he's nervously chain-smoking cigarettes from a flustered near-sexual scrape with Turner’s Barbara. DeVito’s enthusiastically expounded office monologuing is so precisely delivered and enjoyable to watch that a entire film of him relaying tales in character would’ve been a delight in itself. His way with words is expert and often adroit, something rarely attributed to his work.
Take Three: Batman Returns (1992)
Is it fair to say that the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler are cemented in our collective minds as the ‘holy four’ of Batman villainy? They’ve been reinterpreted throughout the Burton/Schumacher/Nolan films, as well as collected together in the first film version, Batman (1966), a bigscreen companion to the TV series. DeVito’s Penguin, aka misshapen brute Oswald Cobblepot, was perhaps the first example in the Bat universe of an actor fully embodying a villain with anything resembling genuine pathos alongside all the evildoing. (This same approach failed epically with Ahnuld’s Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin.)
Hidden beneath gaunt makeup and in flamboyantly grisly mode, DeVito’s Penguin/Oswald arouses conflicting emotions: we feel for his unfair life of abandonment, but recoil at his funfair carnage. Screenwriter Daniel Waters wrote the part with DeVito in mind and he indeed proved apt casting. The actor ran – well, waddled– with the opportunity. Remember the spittly black slobber when he spouts animatedly about his evil plan (to kill all of Gotham’s first-born sons!), the ingratiatingly fake pleading for sympathy in his role as Gotham’s new mayor, and the dark glee he takes in using old fairground accoutrement as weaponry? It all adds up to one grotesquely gonzo performance. (Indeed, Batman’s villains are best when their eccentricity and megalomania go gleefully hand in hand.)
DeVito’s Penguin remains one of the vilest villains in any Bat-film, but he didn’t skimp on the gallows humour either. He’s willing to kill off his clownish henchmen as quickly as the children of the city, but he does it with a gun-brolly and an army of penguins to accentuate his absurdity. Burton’s eager empathy for his freakish misfits allows DeVito a grand time in Gotham City and an ultimately pitiful send-off. He emerges from his watery grave, to a mournful piece by Danny Elfman, like a deformed ghoul out of Carnival of Souls, and is then ushered back into it by his flightless minions after he finally expires. It’s the best aquatic performance by an actor in the last 30 years.
Three more films for the taking: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Throw Momma from the Train (1987), The Good Night (2007)