Missing From the Movies: Billy Crystal

By  · Published on June 14th, 2016

National treasures like him should gleam on the big screen.

Last week was the 25th anniversary of the release of City Slickers, a movie some consider the peak of Billy Crystal’s movie career. He would probably prefer to be remembered for the film that followed, Mr. Saturday Night. But even though he proudly gave that is his all and even achieved his third (and still last) Golden Globe nomination for his performance, it bombed at the box office. He was crushed by the disappointment, and he surprisingly didn’t have much better success on the big screen through the 1990s (anyone revisiting Father’s Day this Sunday?), not even with the City Slickers sequel.

In 1999, he finally had another big hit with Analyze This, but again the sequel did poorly (he once joked that the only sequel he actually wanted to do was Mr. Sunday Morning). After that, it took him a decade to show up in theaters in a significant role. Then nothing since. He’s been busy and successful at many other things, of course. He’s the voice of one of the most popular Disney animated characters of this century, Mike from Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and its even bigger follow-up, Monsters University (finally a hit sequel!— well, prequel). He also starred in the Tony Award-winning one-man play 700 Sundays, which was a blockbuster hit on Broadway.

He’s hardly fallen out of the limelight or lost much in the way of fame. He proved that again a few days ago with his moving eulogy and resurrected impersonations at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. But he did have another blow last summer with the cancellation of his FX series The Comedians, a project he seemed proud of on the same level as Mr. Saturday Night. Crystal may be most proud of his family, though – and he should be, with one of the longest-running marriages in Hollywood, two daughters who followed him into showbiz, and a handful of grandkids. He’s doing just fine.

Compared to his surviving peers, the comedic actors of his generation who dominated the box office in the 1980s, he’s one of the more distinguished gentlemen. He’s neither the marquee icon that Tom Hanks became nor the resurged cult sensation that Bill Murray is, but he’s never had a big scandal – not even when he appeared in blackface as Sammy Davis Jr. during the 2012 Oscars, and despite his lackluster movie grosses in the 1990s, he never fell out of favor the way Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd did. He’s kind of on par with Steve Martin, who is also missed from the movies lately.

For some fans of Crystal, it might still be unsatisfactory that his one major starring movie role in almost 15 years was as a wacky grandpa in the critically decimated Parental Guidance. But as Crystal’s fictional version of himself in The Comedians reminded us (and Josh Gad’s fictional version of himself), that movie made $150m worldwide. So nothing to criticize? Well, nothing to dismiss anyway. Still, he deserves better, and those who grew up on his talents deserve better, too. Even in his prime he wasn’t prolific, but he had range as far as what sorts of movies he could do. There is absolutely nothing similar about the movies Running Scared, The Princess Bride, Throw Momma From the Train, When Harry Met Sally, and City Slickers.

Ironically for a man so renowned for his impersonations of other people, Crystal’s biggest flaw in his movie work has been that he’s often just “Billy Crystal.” Maybe he’s not a great thespian – we’re not looking for Olivier, here (“good, because he’s dead”) – but his earlier movies allowed for a bit of range. When we watch him in When Harry Met Sally, we see Harry Burns. Later movies also just had lesser quality writing and directing, and they tried to recycle the magic of his successes (or of My Two Dads in the case of Father’s Day), and maybe they even tried to make him seem like more of a marquee star than he was. His best movies aren’t really Billy Crystal movies, they’re great movies that happen to feature Billy Crystal in a lead role.

Or in a supporting role, as in the case of The Princess Bride, the only one of his peak era movies where he’s doing him, and his over-the-top shtick, but it’s still perfect because it’s a minor dose and also he’s covered in a lot of make-up. It’d be great to see him show up in more of these kinds of parts. He did something slightly similar in The Tooth Fairy, but not nearly as memorably. The main thing about that role, too, is that it was really just a cameo. It’s just him, uncredited, showing up with wings on. His character in The Princess Bride is not a cameo. It‘s not just him showing up with a nose on. Miracle Max is a character, one seriously developed and performed.

A year out from the cancellation of The Comedians, it’s unclear what Crystal has lined up for his next big thing. He’s been working on an an animated adaptation of the children’s book “Which Witch” with The Jim Henson Co. and a movie based on the 1950s baseball novel “Man on Spikes,” but both were announced years ago. Now might be the best time for some prestigious auteur to add him to an ensemble cast in a role that will stand out and give him a newfound notability as a significant cinematic presence. Preferably on the darker side, a la his character in Momma, rather than the wacky side.

33 Things We Learned From the ‘Princess Bride’ Commentary Tracks

What shouldn’t happen is what Hollywood would probably prefer to do with someone like him these days: resurrect one of his hits or franchises and try again. Not that you can really do a sequel to When Harry Met Sally (save for a brilliant fake one – directed by his daughter) or another installment of City Slickers, not without key element Jack Palance. Maybe another comedic remake of a Hitchcock movie reuniting him with Danny DeVito would work, though. But a lot of his greatest co-stars (including Bruno Kirby, Gregory Hines, and Robin Williams) are sadly gone or retired.

Crystal should be more alive and working harder than ever. But not with a meta TV series about a comedy relic out of touch with younger, hipper audiences that gets canceled because he’s out of touch with younger, hipper audiences. With good movies again, the kind that will turn the younger, hipper audiences on to him for proper reason, like Drive for Albert Brooks and Birdman for Michael Keaton. Unlike his old friend, Ali, Crystal isn’t the greatest at what he does, but he is really great, and the movies want him back. They need him back.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.