Screenwriter Paul Rudnick lives in a cluttered Greenwich Village apartment once occupied by John Barrymore and appointed to match its current owner’s famously arch and wicked wit: heavy Gothic antiques covered in blood-red velvet, the kind of furnishings that would look right at home in Rudnick’s new hit, Addams Family Values.
Rudnick, 35, only recently returned to New York after a promotional trip to Los Angeles, where he touted the Addamses to the international press. ”They seemed to enjoy the movie and felt it was a savage indictment of American life — and it was Brechtian,” he says, sitting up straight in a dramatic red leather chair in the middle of a living room that looks like the backstage jumble of an elaborate Hamlet production. ”I thought, ‘Fine.’ It made me feel like I’d be founding a Polish labor union any day now.”
Such is the irreverent, campy humor that flows continuously from Paul Rudnick. Consider the latest Addams outing — a family affair far more hilariously acid than its 1991 predecessor: Within the movie’s first couple of minutes, the Addamses’ devilish offspring, Wednesday and Pugsley (Christina Ricci and Jimmy Workman), have buried a kitty alive; within the first hour, half-mad with sibling rivalry, they have dropped their baby brother, Pubert, out the window and run him through a guillotine.
Pugsley: ”We just want to play with him.”
Wednesday: ”Especially his head.”
”It’s very smart,” says Addams producer Scott Rudin of Rudnick’s work, ”but it’s also very rude.” Indeed, by the end of the movie Rudnick’s sly references to incest, sadomasochism, and masturbation (a memorable joke involving the Addamses’ pet hand, Thing) have all danced a limbo under the PG-13 rating. No, Rudnick isn’t known for his niceties, but audiences like his work anyway — his new film has earned a lovely $36 million so far.
”We did decide that the first one had a certain plot-free quality that we could improve on,” says Rudnick, spinning his sass in a slow, soft, deliberate voice, not unlike a Sunday-school teacher hiding a hatchet behind his back. ”We decided to boldly head for plot. A Hollywood first.”
Addams Family Values marks a different kind of first for Rudnick. Until now, he has played mostly to cult audiences as an openly gay novelist and playwright. His potent Off Broadway comedy Jeffrey — now running in three cities — is about a gay Manhattan man who, fearing AIDS, swears off sex, then in a cruel twist of fate meets Mr. Right, who happens to be HIV-positive. Rudnick’s Premiere magazine column, written pseudonymously as the Jewish American Princess film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner, has a small but devoted following. (It was Libby who recently said in print that Burt Reynolds, in his toupee, mustache, and scarf, had begun to resemble a ”Mafia housewife on bowling night.”)
Rudnick’s initial venture into the Hollywood mainstream, writing the original screenplay for Sister Act, was a holy terror. What was meant to be a campy, knowingly showbizzy vehicle for Bette Midler was extensively rewritten for Whoopi Goldberg by Disney’s script doctors. The irked Rudnick ultimately insisted on listing ”Joseph Howard” as his screenwriter pseudonym for the movie. He was called in to punch up the jokes in the original Addams Family, but received no screen credit. So Addams Family Values actually represents the first time a mass movie audience can appreciate his trademark sensibility in uncompromised form.
Rudnick calls gay humor ”an embracing of life in both its good taste and bad…We love the Addamses and the Bradys. You know, Florence Henderson is far more disturbing than Morticia Addams.” Says Addams director Barry Sonnenfeld: ”Paul has a very subversive feeling about the entire bourgeois middle class. He hates them, and also is them.” How does this translate on screen? It’s Morticia (Anjelica Huston) forgiving the evil nanny (Joan Cusack) for all misdeeds except bad decorating: ”Really…pastels?” It’s Wednesday and Pugsley, misfits draped in black at summer camp, nauseated by the phony rah-rah ranting of their cruel blond and blue-eyed playmates, and finally roasting the little do-gooders alive. It’s every outsider’s revenge fantasy brought to full flower.
In much of Rudnick’s work, he employs an alter ego. In his 1989 novel, I’ll Take It, a comic ode to familial love and a good bargain, he bestowed his own sense of humor and style on Joe Reckler, the younger half of a mother-son shoplifting team. Among the Addams clan, Wednesday shoulders that responsibility. ”She’s a very powerful child and she doesn’t take anything,” says Rudnick. ”And she doesn’t want to fit in. I do think of her as completely autobiographical, especially the little flowered dress and the pigtails….I watched her and thought, ‘Why couldn’t I have carried myself like that at that age?’ You know, instead of crying.”
But it was usually laughter that filled the Rudnick household in Piscataway, N.J., where Paul grew up. His father, Norman, who died in 1992, was a physicist; his mother, Selma, is a literary and theatrical publicist; his big brother, Evan, to whom he is very close, is a liberal-arts student. The sense of humor came from Mom. ”Paul was really a good kid and never gave me a moment’s trouble,” she says. ”As the murderer’s mother always says, ‘He was always polite to me.’ ”
As a first grader, Rudnick declared his ambition to be a playwright. (In fact, he’d only been out of Yale a few years when his first play, the Whiffenpoof satire Poor Little Lambs, was produced Off Broadway in 1982.) As a fourth grader, Rudnick was asked by a teacher what person he most admired. He came up with splashy Broadway producer David Merrick. ”But he knew his teacher had never heard of David Merrick,” recalls Selma. ”So he said Walt Disney.”
Like Wednesday herself, says Rudnick, ”I went to summer camp — for approximately an hour. I realized a terrible mistake had been made.” Years later, as a camp counselor, he, along with some colleagues, diverted the funds meant to pay for ”papier mâché heads of various Disney characters” and instead treated their charges to an ice-cream orgy at a local soda shop. ”We felt every child should have that experience of total ice-cream gluttony,” says Rudnick proudly. ”And we made many children very sick and very happy.”
Rudnick himself lives almost entirely on a diet of refined sugar packaged by Hershey and metabolized at a nearby gym. He operates, he says, ”on an extremely infantile system of rewards and punishments. Like, I wrote a paragraph, let’s buy a shirt. I mailed a letter, let’s get some candy. It’s really that sense of becoming your own governess.”
His new comedy, The Naked Truth, about a controversial art exhibit, is slated to open Off Broadway this spring, and Rudnick will soon start work on a screenplay of Jeffrey, which was recently optioned by an independent movie producer. He has been offered another Addams Family sequel and says that this time Thing might hold hands with ”Miss Thing,” though a foot is also being considered for the love interest.
Rudnick has had a love interest of his own for the last seven months — his most serious relationship to date. ”He’s just the most spectacular man,” says Rudnick, gushing uncharacteristically. Sitting here amid all his spooky kitsch, he starts to glow. Blushing isn’t like him; he is, after all, no stranger to cynicism. But blush he does, and it makes you think of Wednesday Addams when she’s finally forced to crack a smile at summer camp. ”He’s a doctor,” says Rudnick, ”and it’s a wonderful balance because you just think, ‘My God, I wrote Addams Family Values. He saved a life.”’ — Additional reporting by B.J. Sigesmund