Christopher Guest’s films Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), For Your Consideration (2006) are known for featuring an ensemble cast without any one character serving as the star. Yet, in Waiting For Guffman, Guest’s own character, Corky St. Clair, is the best in a cast of bests.
A 25-year veteran on the New York theatre scene, Corky St. Clair is brought in by the city council of Blaine, Missouri, the ”stool capital of the United States”, to put together a musical for the town Sesquicentennial. Corky St. Clair somehow gets Broadway producer Mort Guffman to fly out and see the show. If Corky can whip his cast of townsfolk into shape enough to impress Guffman, the show Red, White, And Blaine may be headed to Broadway.
Cheery and effeminate, Corky St. Clair has a keen eye for women’s fashion and buys most of his wife Bonnie’s clothes. One character says of Corky St. Clair:
“We’ve never seen his wife. Although I once saw Corky in a store buying clothes for her. Maybe she’s not supportive of him.”
He is ultimately a compassionate director who inspires his cast members to believe that they do, in fact, have talent. For that, they adore him.
Waiting For Guffman isn’t a film about community theater actors so much as it’s about average people dreaming of something bigger than they are, fighting to get out of their comfort zone. That their dreams are so small says a lot about them. One of them, a Dairy Queen employee, played to perfection by Parker Posey, dreams of someday going to NYC and watching television with Italian guys. In comparison, Corky St. Clair dreams of returning to Broadway where he was once crushed by the city’s indifference to his talents.
Corky St. Clair has so much riding on this endeavor that he occasionally snaps. When the town board refuses to give him $10,000 for his production, he glowers: “You’re all bastard people! I’m going home to bite my pillow!”
He’s such a whirlwind of writing, directing, choreography, and in some cases, teaching his cast how to act, that he can’t be blamed for losing his temper. The chance to become something other than yourself can drive most people crazy. By the end of the film, marriages will end, some people pursue their dreams and find them empty, and others remain stuck where they are. If this hadn’t been one of the funniest, smartest films of the 1990s, it would have been one of the bleakest.
The cast is astonishingly good. There is Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guest, as a dentist who dreams of stardom; there’s a husband and wife team played by Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara who star in all of Corky St. Clair’s productions, and are known as “The Lunts of Blaine.” There’s Posey as the Dairy Queen girl, and Bob Balaban as the show’s frustrated musical director. There’s even a UFO expert (David Cross), who explains how Blaine was once visited by extraterrestrials, a moment dramatized in Red, White, And Blaine.
Corky St. Clair has a thing for a hunky young male cast member (Matt Kessler), while a male on the town council (Michael Hitchcock) seems to have a crush on Corky St. Clair. When the hunky actor bows out of the show a few days before opening night, Corky St. Clair screams into the phone: “I hate your ass-face!” After the actor quits, Corky St. Clair casts himself as the show’s male ingenue. He’s wrong for the part, but he doesn’t trust anyone else to do it. This is, after all, his shot at redemption.
Waiting For Guffman was released in January 1997, the time Hollywood traditionally uses to dump its junk, and it was financial dud. Audiences caught up with it, though, and it developed a loyal cult following. I see it as the Citizen Kane of late 20th century.
There is an underlying sadness to Waiting For Guffman, which somehow makes it even funnier, which makes sense; the title of the film is a nod to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot. At Red White And Blaine’s start, the mysterious Guffman’s seat is seen to be empty, much to the dismay of the cast. Corky St. Clair reassures them that Broadway producers always arrive a bit late for the show, and sure enough a man takes Guffman’s reserved seat just as the show begins. After the curtain comes down, Corky St. Clair invites him backstage. The man is actually Roy Loomis, who has come to Blaine for the birth of his niece’s baby, but he tells everyone he enjoyed the show. Corky St. Clair then reads a telegram stating that Guffman’s plane was grounded by snowstorms, meaning that, like the “Godot”, the real Guffman is destined never to arrive.