|This year's Academy Awards telecast will be missing something. Billy Crystal, who has hosted the ceremonies six times in the last 10 years, will be taking a break and passing the reins to Whoopi Goldberg. Crystal's wisecracks and movie parodies were a welcome relief from the stale speeches and tepid production numbers. They were even more entertaining than some of the nominated films.
During a roundtable interview in New York City, Crystal explains his absence."I felt like I needed a little break, like you do from everything," he says. "I didn't want to say 'yes' and do it begrudgingly because it'll show. I won't be happy being there, and that'll be bad for everybody. I wanted to have fun this spring. If I don't feel that little 'Johnson' for it, then I don't do it."
Fans of the comic may not get to see him standing next to the miniature golden men, but he will be back on the big screen in Analyze This. In director Harold Ramis' comedy, Crystal portrays a psychiatrist who treats a stressed-out Mafia don played by Robert De Niro.
Crystal would seem a natural to play the beleaguered shrink, but it's a stretch to think of De Niro agreeing to parody the gangster persona he embodied so memorably in The Godfather: Part II and Goodfellas. According to Crystal, however, the two-time Oscar winner leapt at the chance. "(Producer Paula Weinstein) said, 'Do you think he would do it?' I said, 'I think he should do this because this is great for him. It'd be hilarious, and when you want scary, there's nobody scarier. Who do you want to see do that? There's a number of people that would be very good at this, but (they) are not him,'" he says.
While the project was in development for five years, Crystal recalls the partnership fondly. "This always felt good. Our styles are very interesting opposite of each other, and our rhythms are very much the same," he says. "We come from (New York); we talk a certain way. It just fit. We really like each other, and it shows....We had talked about directing it ourselves, which would have been really interesting. I said, 'You know what, Bob? I just want to be your friend.'"
If De Niro stayed away from the director's chair, Crystal insists the actor did make important contributions. "Any movie is a challenge, but when Robert De Niro says, 'Yes,' you'd better be on your game to act with him. If Bob smells sentimentality, he gets squirrelly. He hates it. He was too kind to go, 'This stinks.' He would do it in an English accent. It was his way of saying there's no way (De Niro's character) would do this."
De Niro is known for doing extensive preparations for a role, like the training and weight gains he endured to play boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Crystal remembers that he went through a similar regimen. "We carefully thought out stuff. I spoke to a therapist, who I don't pay, who's a friend. I spoke with someone who works at the suicide hotline. I wanted to look a little different. I also gained 50 pounds for the part," he jokes. "Bob said, 'What are you doing? What are you torturing yourself for?'"
Crystal explains that playing a convincing therapist required a special approach. "You have to earn the patient's trust. You have to let them know you're not going to hurt them. That meant using less words and letting (the patient) talk," he says.
Crystal, who also produced and wrote for a successful therapy-based show titled Sessions, says that simply playing a psychiatrist lends an element of bitter comedy. "Any therapist I've ever met, I have a lot of friends from school who are, their lives are stinky."
Analyze This promises to make a strong big screen comeback for the comic. Crystal scored on the TV shows Soap and Saturday Night Live and with the films When Harry Met Sally... and City Slickers. However, some of his more recent vehicles such as My Giant and Father's Day under-performed. "You don't get desperate. You get concerned, but you don't go, (in a tone of mock despair) 'What am I going to do?' Hopefully you've got something good to do, and people trust you." He adds, "The Father's Day script was never ready to shoot. It was a rush job. There was too much to explain. (Analyze This) is so much easier to describe: Mafia guy, nervous breakdown, sees a shrink. And you go, 'Who is it?' I say, 'Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.' You go, 'I've got to see that.' Try to explain Father's Day in one sentence, and you can't."
Promoting his latest movie is consuming Crystal's time, and he says he's also preparing a one-man Broadway show that could eventually be broadcast on HBO. With all of his recent activity, it's easy to see why Crystal took a break from the Academy Awards. However, there is one movie parody sketch that he would have liked to perform. He says, "I'd already be thinking of Saving Private Ryan jokes. I'd be a Nazi shooting Tom Hanks. 'You win every year! Mr. Goody Two Shoes! Mr. Jimmy Stewart!' I'd kill him, in a good natured way."