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That Guy Dick Miller
"After this movie, you'll know Dick."
The person who came up with the blurb copy line for That Guy Dick Miller deserves an award, because he captures just the right tone for a terrific movie personality who's largely unknown, yet beloved by veteran movie fans everywhere. Documentaries about film personalities are ubiquitous, but the subject of this show will win over viewers in a matter of minutes. He's a genuine underdog with no industry honors, yet he has a screen presence that makes every scene he's ever played, a keeper. We know him, we like him and we can't keep our eyes from him; he steals a scene just by being present. Dick Miller is real and authentic, an unpretentious personality that never leaves a blank hole on the screen. That Guy Dick Miller is ninety minutes focused on an actor who perhaps best represents the historical mass of character players that we recognize and love... but often can't remember their names. Jobbing journeymen, they wait for the phone to ring and hope that they're remembered by agents, casting directors and filmmakers. In Dick Miller's case, he's been a credit to every show he's been in for the past sixty years. He's also at the center of vintage fringe Hollywood cult moviemaking. Roger Corman brought him back time and again, sometimes just as a good luck charm. Julie Corman remarks on camera, "I read a script and thought, where's the Dick Miller part?" Some personalities just need to be in the movies.
Director Elijah Drenner is the latest in a group of directors that came from the ranks of disc-supplement producers. Laurent Bouzereau, Jeffrey Schwarz, Bret Wood and David Gregory have all made feature documentaries, long-form cable shows, or even dramatic features. Drenner does what film-related producers do best: find the right talking heads and get them to focus on the subject at hand. In this case it looks like everybody who has worked with Dick Miller leaped to participate. It's like "This Is Your Life" with a long list of notables -- directors, fellow actors, family members -- eager to tell us what Dick's really like.
We all know Dick Miller as the nervy 'little guy.' He usually plays a tough character that dishes out dialogue or story exposition with verve and style, like one of those street-wise Warner Bros. actors from the early '30s. He's best known as Roger Corman's jack-of-all-trades, both in bit parts and starring roles. He's most famous for the terrific beatnik horror comedy A Bucket of Blood. Dick plays the nebbish coffee shack bus boy Walter Paisley. An aspiring artist without an art, he finds fulfillment with an unwanted side effect, murder. The various spokespeople assure us that this was not Miller's real personality. After playing Indians and cowboys for Corman, Miller half-improvised a perfect vacuum-cleaner salesman for Not of this Earth, making film history in the most obscure way imaginable.
The film charts Miller's family beginnings, his on-off side career as a film writer and his splendid marriage to actress and kindred soul Lainie Miller. In photos, old home movies and her own career appearances, she also comes off as a frisky live wire. Lanie acts like a nut with Dick but is also a pro with unexpected talents -- she played the tassel-tossing stripper in Mike Nichols' The Graduate.
Although recognized and beloved, and frequently tapped by productions needing a strong actor in a key part, Dick Miller never achieved name status. There was even a lull in his career when Corman turned to hipster youth stories, leaving Miller behind to play squares and lame authority figures. That's where the new generation comes into play, guys who got their start with Roger C. and probably loved his stock company more than he did: John Davison, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush. Miller became a fixture in their movies as well, finally coming to represent the ultimate tongue-in-cheek personality casting placement -- who can play the ultimate actors' agent in Hollywood Blvd.? Who is perfect as the local promoter whose summer camp is decimated by marauding killer Piranha? Who is guaranteed to spruce up any connecting scene, rattling off story points while keeping the audience amused?
The participants are clearly happy to be there -- starting with adorable Jackie Joseph, who we once thought must have been married to Miller. Frances Doel, Belinda Belaski, Jonathan Haze, John Sayles, Paul Petersen and Robert Picardo all have Madman Miller tales to tell. Actor friends say he wouldn't leave home, just in case the phone rang while he was gone. Former teen actor Corey Feldman admits to behaving like a jerk on the set of The 'Burbs. Director Drenner gives us a choice outtake of Miller telling Galligan to keep his mouth shut during other actors' dialogue.
The show often cuts back to Dick and Lainie ribbing each other at home, showing off wardrobe choices (a pink sports coat?) that Dick often wore. Dick is a true card. He impishly claims to never have blown a line, which is of course followed by a blatant blooper where he goes up on his dialogue.
We see clips from a broad assortment of Millier film and TV appearances. Some clips are montaged but we also get a clear look at a number of the actor's scenes, often with pointed analysis. An admirer points out the way Miller played a straight leading man as a scientist-hipster in the ultra-modest space epic War of the Satellites. Director Drenner relies on clever animation to carry a few sections of the picture, enough to give the show variety without overloading the cuteness factor. At 92 minutes That Guy Dick Miller might be a little on the long side, but I only saw a couple of moments that seemed redundant. The intervewees are too animated to be called talking heads - all begin to grin as they speak and several crack up at memories of their run-ins with Miller. Producer Jon Davison is filled with glee, while producer Michael Schlesinger's description of a manic Miller scene is such a broad performance that Drenner is able to inter-cut it with the original Miller clip. The show finds a way to effect a sentimental finish -- ah, we're gonna miss this guy -- with a major Dick Miller wink ending. Perhaps That Guy Dick Miller is not for everybody -- what really good movie docu is? -- but film fans and the curious will love it.
Indiecan Entertainment's DVD of That Guy Dick Miller is a fine encoding of this lively, highly polished movie docu. The show carries a great many film clips, most of which are in excellent shape; just a few have slight flaws. This is the first I've seen of clips from Roger Corman's interesting early westerns, and I fear that quality copies may no longer exist. The new footage is all of excellent quality.
I've mentioned the superior graphics and animation -- never overused - and also need to compliment the soundtrack music credited to Jason Brandt. Without resorting to kooky-ness, it nevertheless communicates the essential eccentricity of the wild life of a movie actor on the maverick fringe. That Guy Dick Miller is highly recommended. It lays out a slab of fun Hollywood history without dumbing-down anything, and we like the people we meet in it. It's a difficult job done extremely well.
Indiecan fills the extras menu with some nice material -- outtakes, a Q&A session at the L.A. premiere with the principals, Dick Miller's home movies, a photo gallery, some Miller trailers and an interview with makeup man Rick Baker.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
That Guy Dick Miller DVD
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Los Angeles premiere Q&A; Dick Miller's home movies, interview with Rick Baker, outtakes, photo gallery, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2015