When ZAZ Broke Up: Jerry Zucker and How We Choose to Spend Our Lives

This post is part three in a series on ZAZ. Click here to read part one on Jim Abrahams, and here to read part two on David Zucker.

Of the Zucker Abrahams Zucker trio, Jerry Zucker has probably had the most prestigious career, even though he made only three solo films. In the 1990’s, he directed the sorts of movies that ZAZ might have made fun of (and did).

‘Top Secret!’

ZAZ’s second film, Top Secret! focused on a love triangle between hero Nick Rivers, love interest Hillary Flammond, and Hillary’s former lover Nigel. When Nigel turns out to be the villain, it allows Nick to win over Hillary.

While not the main focal point of the movie, it sets up much of Zucker’s later work. Jerry Zucker’s films tend to focus on men choosing how to spend their lives. Oftentimes, the films present a love triangle between the hero, his love interest, and another choice.

‘Ghost’

Zucker made his first solo film, Ghost (1990), after reading the script by Bruce Joel Rubin. The story follows Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze), a man murdered in front of his girlfriend, Molly Jensen (Demi Moore). Now a spirit, Sam finds that he can only communicate through psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg).

Working with Rubin, Zucker edited the original script to suit his sensibilities. Among other changes, the original script had more violence and Molly making love to a Sam possessed Oda Mae. Zucker also changed Molly from a sculptor to a potter and added the famous pottery scene. This is included on the DVD special features for the film.

Much of Ghost’s success comes from Zucker and the amazing team of people who worked on it. Walter Murch edited the film. Maurice Jarre composed the score. It’s one of the first films after The Color Purple (1984) to use Whoopi Goldberg to her full potential. Zucker also credits Goldberg with grounding the movie.

A massive financial success (and moderate critical success), Ghost became the highest grossing film of 1990. It also received Academy Award nominations for best supporting actress for Whoopi Goldberg, best film editing for Walter Murch, best original score for Maurice Jarre, and best picture. Rubin and Goldberg received their awards.

‘First Knight’

His next film would be the King Arthur film First Knight (1995) with Julia Ormond, Richard Gere, and Sean Connery. It follows Guinevere (Ormond), who meets Lancelot (Gere) on her way to marry King Arthur (Connery). The film focuses primarily on their relationship. Unlike Zucker’s other films, the love triangle is between three people who genuinely like each other.

Although it became a box office success, First Knight came out to middling reviews and unfavorable audience response. It also came out after two better received historical epics: Rob Roy and Braveheart.

‘Rat Race’

His final directed film, Rat Race (2001), updates the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1964) formula to modern times. The film focuses on a group of people chosen by eccentric Billionaires to race from Las Vegas to Silver City in search of two million dollars. Over the course of a day, they will all try to make it to the finish line first.

Rat Race began as a spec script by Darryl Quarles (writer of Big Momma’s House (2000)). Andy Breckman wrote the final script. Breckman would become known for creating Monk (2002-2009). Actor John Cleese said that it was one of the two truly great scripts he had read up to that point.

Observations

In all three of Jerry Zucker’s films, the lead character is a romantic choosing how to spend his life.

Ghost tells the story of a man who squanders his life, only to have it taken away from him. In the story, the love triangle occurs between Sam Wheat, Molly, and Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn). When Sam discovers that Carl is the primary villain, he must stop Molly from falling for him.

First Knight has a different sort of love triangle. Connery’s King Arthur is an elderly, kind, and practical king. He knew Guinevere’s recently deceased father well. His marriage to her is one of convenience rather than love. Lancelot acts in the complete opposite manner.

The film constantly presents Gere’s Lancelot as a daredevil confronting death. The opening scene has him winning a sword fight. When asked how he did it by a peasant, he gives a few pointers before saying “you cannot fear death.” He later competes in an obstacle course without proper protection and survives. He does this so he can kiss Guinevere as a prize. When he talks to Arthur about fearing nothing, Arthur tells him that a man who fears nothing, loves nothing. Every choice made by Lancelot comes from impulse rather than common sense. He does not see things based on consequences, but based on the current moment.

Rat Race’s lead character of Nick Schaffer (Breckin Meyer) gets a lecture at the beginning about “living more.” When presented with the race for money, Nick has the least interest in joining. However, his interest grows when he meets Tracy Faucet (Amy Smart), a helicopter pilot. At the end of the film, Nick decides to make the eccentric Billionaires match the earnings of a Smash Mouth charity concert.

In all three cases, the hero of the story is a romantic finding out how he wants to spend his life (or what is left of it).

Producing

In an interview with The Onion, Jerry’s elder brother David discusses the Production company he co-owned with Jerry: Zucker Brother Productions. Under the company, Jerry Zucker would produce films as My Life (1993), A Walk in The Clouds (1995) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). Although not directed by Jerry Zucker, all three films focus on characters making big life choices.

David Zucker says that he and his brother could not agree on what made a good movie. He points to Ghost and My Best Friend’s Wedding as examples. The elder Zucker did not feel they would make great movies until he actually saw them onscreen. In particular, he did not feel that My Best Friend’s Wedding would be that entertaining. However, he credits his younger brother Jerry for hiring Australian Director P.J. Hogan. Jerry Zucker would go on to produce two more of Hogan’s movies (Unconditional Love (2002) and Mental (2012)).

Since Rat Race, Zucker has served as a producer on multiple productions, including Fair Game (2010) and Friends with Benefits (2011). Zucker’s last credit is an acting role in Asthma (2014), directed by Jake Hoffman (son of Dustin). In the film, he portrays the protagonist Gus’s father.

Conclusion

In his work, Zucker focuses on how people choose to spend their lives. The characters of the films often have to deal with questions of what truly matters to them in life. The love stories of the film often delve into the characters’ crises as well as their desires.

Trivia

  • In audio commentary, whenever the Paramount logo comes up, Jerry Zucker always makes the joke that he and whoever he’s with designed it.
  • The Zucker brothers cast their mother Charlotte in almost every one of the movies they produced or directed. She last appeared in My Boss’s Daughter (2003).
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