The Keaton-Douglas debates: Oscar winners co-star for the first time in Rob Reiner’s ‘And So It Goes’

A lot of people—Rob Reiner, among them—were amazed last spring that The Film Society of Lincoln Center, for the first time in its 41-year history, presented its prestigious Chaplin Award to a director who has never been Oscar-nominated for

A lot of people—Rob Reiner, among them—were amazed last spring that The Film Society of Lincoln Center, for the first time in its 41-year history, presented its prestigious Chaplin Award to a director who has never been Oscar-nominated for directing: Reiner. Mind you, some films he directed made the Oscar running, but the closest he ever came personally to winning one was as producer of A Few Good Men.

Fortunately, he built his house on solid rock rather than Oscar gold—Castle Rock, in fact—and, as a founder of Castle Rock Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment, he is pretty much the master skipper of the American mainstream, dispensing populist fare in a variety of hats. IMDB identifies him as “Actor/Writer/Producer/Director/Composer,” among other categories.

Reiner’s latest bid for mass appeal is a boy-meets-girl-for-the-Social Security-set—Grumpy Grandpa (Michael Douglas) meets Ageless Blithe Spirit-next-door (Diane Keaton). The romantic comedy, opening on July 18 from Clarius Entertainment, is called And So It Goes, and for it he serves not only as Producer/Director/Uncredited Actor but also the heretofore-unlisted Genesis.

Its concept sprang from a press junket for his 2007 opus with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, The Bucket List. “Every single journalist asked, ‘What’s on your bucket list?’ When they asked Jack that question, he’d always say, ‘One more great romance.’ That sparked me. I thought, ‘Gee, there’s a movie in that—people who find each other later in life, people who are basically saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve given up. I’m not going to be with anybody,’ and then they find each other. That was the inspiration. I gave the idea to Mark Andrus, who wrote it, and then we did some rewriting on it.”

His choice of the little-known Andrus was not done with a dartboard. Andrus wrote Nicholson’s last Oscar-winning role—the gleefully misanthropic writer in As Good As It Gets—and that basically is what we have being heated up here for Douglas, a bitter widowed realtor who prides himself in being willfully unpleasant to people.

Both guys melt to mush because of a loving woman. In Douglas’ case, it’s Keaton, a neighboring widow who wants to be a nightclub chanteuse but can’t seem to get through a song without crying. Douglas improves her act, and she improves his life.

“We were really thrilled to get Michael and Diane,” Reiner admits. “That was, for me, two home runs. They have great chemistry. I was surprised they’d been around so long and had never done anything with each other. It was a perfect match.”

Douglas, who put in a term as The American President for Reiner, certainly knows his way around the curmudgeon turf, having set the bar for that as the English prof in Wonder Boys. The part plays right into Keaton’s history for taming difficult males.

If love were all, these two films would be featurettes. Nicholson had the added complication of having to care for a neighbor’s pooch. Douglas has a granddaughter he never knew he had, suddenly dropped on his doorstep by his prison-bound son.

Yep, Little Miss Marker rides again—and just about every other Shirley Temple flick in which she pulled an irredeemably nasty old crank back into the human race. The reforming tyke this time is Sterling Jerins, a 10-year-old with already 10 films and two series to her credit.  Most notably, she was Brad Pitt’s daughter in World War Z.

Frances Sternhagen, pretending to be a seasoned smoker, and Broadway’s Rocky, Andy Karl, are also in the cast, bringing genuine fun to Douglas’ real-estate office. Sternhagen makes a game show with the cigarette, but Reiner—more vehement anti-smoker than she—divvied up a fake ciggie, which she flashes with grand élan.

Auteurs would probably say that And So It Goes nuzzles in nicely with the rest of Reiner’s comfortably commercial crowd-pleasers, but, for him, the only connection he sees in his films is that every one of them has something to which he can relate.

“I get drawn to things because I somehow can connect with them,” he says. “Either the main character is going through something I’ve experienced, or there are maybe thoughts or feelings I’ve had. I did The Bucket List because I’m past 60 and that is when you start thinking about your own mortality and how much time you have left.

“That’s the way I approach it. I don’t really think about what the genre is. Misery was a thriller, but the main character was a guy who had essentially been typecast by the success that he had had writing these books. I knew what that felt like coming out of a TV series. At that time, people from television were looked down upon, like second-class citizens. There were the movie people, and then there were the TV people. You didn’t go back and forth. Nowadays, everybody goes back and forth, and it’s fine, but to be thought of as a movie director after you’ve been a sitcom actor! So, I knew what that character was going through, how he felt imprisoned by fame.”

Reiner’s prison term ran from 1971 to 1978 when he became a household face on “All in the Family,” which, for five of those years, was the most watched television series going. He won two Emmys playing Michael Stivic, better known by his father-in-law’s nickname. (“I could win the Nobel Prize, and they’d write ‘Meathead Wins the Nobel Prize.’”) At series’ end, Meathead moved on. “They offered me a lot of money to do a spinoff with Sally Struthers, but I wanted to do these other things.”

“These other things” were films. There he found himself having to surmount another obstacle—the awesome rep of his dad, now 92-year-old Carl Reiner from an even more golden era of television. His first two directorial efforts—This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing—were well-received comedies but very much in the family ballpark.

“Even though I love satire and I’ve done a lot of satire, Spinal Tap was certainly something that my father used to trade in. The Sure Thing was a light romantic comedy, and he’d done those things, too.” His third time out, Stand by Me, is his favorite film.

“I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s the one that means the most to me. It was the first movie that really reflected my personality and my sensibility. It’s melancholy, but it’s also funny. It was the first thing that was really an extension of the way I am. I was hoping people would like it because it meant they would be validating the things that I believed in. Even though I was in my 30s, I was establishing myself in my own personality separate and apart from the things he’d done. So it meant a lot to me, that way. It’s all about a young boy who was trying to feel good about himself and concerned about how his father felt about him. It had all those issues in it.”

Reiner only got the film when the originally assigned director, Adrian Lyne, went extra weeks shooting 9½ Weeks—and where, one wonders, is Adrian Lyne today?

The following year, when Reiner started a film and television production company with Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman, Glenn Padnick and Alan Horn, he named the company after the fictional Maine town in Stand by Me. Stephen King, who wrote the novella that Stand by Me is based on (“The Body”), had, in turn, got the name from the fictional Castle Rock in Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s boys-to-men saga.

The pictures that followed this have, for the most part, found audiences waiting with open arms. “I’m lucky that I’ve had a few that people still remember,” the director says modestly. “They had a tribute to The Princess Bride last year at Lincoln Center. As time goes by, its cult following keeps growing. What’s nice about it is: I have people come up to me who saw the movie when they were kids, and now they have kids, and they’ve showed the movie to their kids. It’s nice to have a movie that lasts.”

And some of the lines from Reiner movies last, too—forever embedded in the brains of movie audiences: “Mr. Man,” which an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates called her crippled captive, James Caan, in Misery; “I’ll have what she’s having,” which Estelle Reiner delivered with intrigued curiosity after Meg Ryan loudly faked an organism in Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally…; “You can’t handle the truth,” which Nicholson blasted from the witness stand at Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.

The latter was said on Broadway by Stephen Lang with nowhere near the comparable impact. “First of all,” explains Reiner, “you’ve got Jack Nicholson in a big close-up, and it’s being said by one of the greatest film actors who ever lived.

“But you never know. You’re just doing scenes. I didn’t know my mother was going to be etched in film lore. You’re just making a movie. You’re thinking, ‘Here’s a moment that may work. Maybe that’ll get a laugh, or that’ll be a dramatic moment.’”

These days, he’s cooking up a storm at Castle Rock. “It’s crazy now. I’ve got more things in development now than ever before. I have two feature films that are out to actors now. One’s a very oddball, interesting romantic comedy—a two-hander for 25, 27-year-olds. The other’s a thriller. And then I’ve got a number of TV projects. One is a really cool murder-mystery thriller that takes place over a period of many years. It’s told in the style of Memento, from back to front. It’s called ‘Honest.’’’

More immediate is The Case Against 8, which got a fast theatrical run before it bows June 23 on HBO. Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, who won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award in the U.S. documentary category, the film is a five-year chronicle of the groundbreaking Supreme Court case that overturned Proposition 8 and paved the way for marriage-equality battles nationwide. The legal team of conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, who previously squared off as opposing counsels in Bush v. Gore, provided the give-and-take commentary.

“That documentary was done while we were filing and trying the Federal Court challenge to overturn Proposition 8,” recalls Reiner. “We didn’t know there was going to be a film in it. We just thought we should document this, just to make sure we have a record of it. This was the first time anybody has ever tried, in Federal Court, a case involving marriage equality. Then, as we went along, we took some of the footage to HBO, and they said, ‘Yeah! We like this,’ and they funded it.

“It’s the entire case. There are two sets of plaintiffs—two men, two women—who filed the lawsuit in California. You see it all the way from the district court, where we won, through the appellate court in the Ninth Circuit, where we won, then on to the Supreme Court, where it gets overturned and our two sets of plaintiffs get married.”

Then there was that little feting that Reiner received April 28 from The Film Society of Lincoln Center. “When you get older now, I guess people just want to do this stuff for you. They send me things that say show up, and I never do them. Then, somebody said, ‘No, no, you should do this. Look at the people they’ve honored.’ I looked. There was Alfred Hitchcock and Fellini and Scorsese, and I’m thinking, ‘Jesus Christ! Maybe I should do this thing.’ Then, I thought that maybe it was a typo.”

Among other distinctions, the evening was when Harry (Billy Crystal) met Sally (Ryan) for the first time in 25 years. Scorsese himself presented the Chaplin Award to Reiner. Among the others present to sing his praises: Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. “It was great, but I gotta say that it was also a little embarrassing—like having somebody sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you all night long."