Max Basner (played by Jackie Gleason): (snarling): “Why don’t you get yourself a regular car?”
David Basner (played by Tom Hanks): “It’s a jeep, Dad. I look good in it.”
(They climb in, Max doing so uneasily.)
Max: “This goddamn car. You have to be a mountain climber to get in it.”
(David puts on the radio to fill the silence. Max thrusts a big, fat, smelly cigar toward him.)
Max: “Want one of these? They’re Honduran.”
David (sullenly): “No.”
Max: “You can’t get the Cubans anymore.”
David (hoping to put this to rest): “No, thank you.”
(The silence resumes, finally broken by Max.)
Max (morosely): “I lost my lines. They fired me.”
[David gets out of the Jeep and walks around angrily for a minute, then gets back in.]
David: “What are you gonna do?”
Max: “I know you hate me. But you have to help me.”— Nothing in Common (1986), screenplay by Rick Podell and Michael Preminger, directed by Garry Marshall
When Garry Marshall passed away a week and a half ago, the director-producer-writer-actor was recalled most often for several TV series (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Odd Couple, Mork and Mindy) and films (Pretty Women, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries). But for me, the work that lingers in my memory the longest is the dramedy Nothing in Common, released 30 years ago this week.
Although only Marshall’s third film to that point, he demonstrated a sure touch with a variety of actors: an insecure model unsure if she could establish herself as an actress (Sela Ward), an up-and-coming star (Tom Hanks), and an aging legend who needed to be treated with care (Jackie Gleason). He needed all of this skill in serving a script that threaded together a romantic comedy and deeply serious drama.
On one level, the film can be enjoyed as one of the best screen treatments of the creative exhilaration of the advertising world, focusing on how Hanks’ David Basner woos clients as easily as women. It’s breezy and insouciant, a throwback to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
It takes a long while for the yuppie David to realize that life is not that easy. That recognition arrives courtesy of what he has not bothered to notice—has not really wanted to notice—on his headlong path to success: that the marriage of his parents (played by Gleason and Eva Marie Saint) has come apart.
The beginning of the above exchange between David and Max hints at part of the reason for the crumbling marriage: Max’s irascibility. But David’s resentment at being drawn into the parental quarrel, we’ll soon learn, increases because of guilt over traits shared with his father: lack of commitment and a wandering eye.
In his cinema swan song, Gleason employed none of the attributes that had endeared loud-mouthed Ralph Kramden to audiences in The Honeymooners, such as his helpless, inept dreaming and constant sheepish begging of forgiveness from wife Alice. Even in this scene, when we realize the extent of Max’s emotional extremity—getting fired from his job, like another used-up salesman, Willy Loman—we know that this not-very-good father was temperamentally unsuited for his sales specialty: children’s clothing.
And Max's cigar: It sums up an awful lot about the attitudes and appetites that have brought him to his current pass, one so desperate that he has to beg help from the son he really has never communicated with. Within the immediate context of this scene, it signals both his in-your-face personality and his half-hearted, clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself with David. Before long, though, the gesture says even more about the self-indulgence that imperils first his marriage, then his health.
How much of himself an actor brings to a part is a complicated question, and Gleason’s role in this movie is a case in point. He ate and drank to excess, cheated on his wives, was an absentee father, and could be cruel to others involved in his shows. It was as if he felt bound to inflict on others the hurt he experienced when his father abandoned the family. If it sounds familiar, it should: Max seems an awful lot like him, but without the transcendent acting talent. (In fact, the screenwriters of Nothing in Common, Rick Podell and Michael Preminger, drew on much of this unhappy background when they created the 2002 TV biopic Gleason, starring Brad Garrett.)
Yet that talent is impossible to discount, and perhaps, at some level, Gleason understood all too well how Max must feel. In his 2012 memoir, My Happy Days in Hollywood, Marshall noted that Gleason was thoroughly professional and uncomplaining during shooting, despite considerable physical frailty. (He died of cancer a year after the film’s release.) The actor concentrated on his work and did an exemplary job in humanizing without sentimentalizing this most difficult of men.
When Nothing in Common was filmed in the mid-1980s, “selfish” was associated so frequently with “yuppie” that it might as well have been a barnacle stuck to the noun. If Hanks’ David is not outright selfish, he is certainly self-absorbed. While the film initially earns comic mileage from his attitude (“Does self-involvement count?" he responds when a lover asks if he’s involved with anybody), a reckoning will be in order.
What could make such a person snap out of this emotional constriction? Ties of family so strong they override years of distance, misunderstanding and wariness. Until the 2007-09 financial crisis, probably nothing forced baby boomers out of their careerist zone so much as the need to care for their aging parents.
Nothing in Common was Marshall’s attempt to execute the same kind of change in direction that Neil Simon was performing around this time with Chapter Two and his Eugene Jerome autobiographical trilogy: comedy not merely shot through with one-liners, but filled with rue. Audiences did not respond as enthusiastically as they did to his preposterous prostitute-as-Cinderella tale, Pretty Woman.
But, in addition to providing Gleason with a memorable fadeout and Ward with a good career launching pad, the film served notice that Hanks—not unlike Jack Lemmon in The Apartment—could master drama as easily as comedy. Moreover, in depicting the discomfort and agony of a Me Generation forced to choose between career aspiration and unwanted personal responsibility, it still rings today with powerful truth.