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Can't Terry Gilliam ever get a break?

Posted on 18/3/14 by Pete

Can't Terry Gilliam ever get a break?

If the film director's hall of fame were the Peanuts cast (and don't tell me you don't read that strip, or you wouldn't be here), terry Gilliam would be Charlie Brown. Always having the bad luck, always the odd guy out. Every time he claws his way ahead, he slides two back.

Gilliam started out as the only American member of the famed Monty Python troupe, and right there his underdog status was evident. While the rest of the cast got to clown it up in front of the camera, he was behind the scenes making mind-bending animations like this one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

From there, after the troupe broke up, he launched his directing career. From the forgivably flawed first film Jabberwocky, he had his first smash hit with the unforgettable 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits. Not only was it a box office smash, but he had old friends from the Python troupe acting in it and the official blessings of Beatle George Harrison, who wrote the closing credits theme:

(For more on connections between the Beatles and Monty Python, check our sister site.)

You'd think from a launch like that, Gilliam could do no wrong. But the very next film he produced, his intended *magnum opus*, was so botched and butchered by Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg, a meddling, mean-hearted executive troll who drowns kittens for fun, that Gilliam was driven to take out full-page ads in Variety demanding to know why the film hadn't been released yet. Here's a dreadfully over-produced video interview with the man on the subject:

Yes, we mean Brazil, but be sure you find the uncut version before you ask what the fuss is about. Despite Brazil taking nothing less than the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for "Best Picture," Universal still seemed almost embarrassed to admit the movie existed and released it to barely-whispered announcements in theaters that barely flickered it on the screen.

Brazil will someday get the write-up it deserves all to itself in these pages, trust us.

With that hoodoo over his head, Gilliam's next effort was doomed before they even loaded the camera. 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a huge flop, losing $38 million at the box office despite an all-star cast that included Robin Williams at the peak of his popularity and Uma Thurman showing some skin. This time, Columbia Pictures was the assassin, barely releasing the movie at all.

Now, like many of us would in this situation, Terry Gilliam had no idea which god he had offended, but timidly tried to appease himself to all of them anyway. Throughout the '90s, he steadily crawled out of the grave where the industry had buried him alive, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. he was well-liked by everybody but the people who sell movie tickets and the people who buy them.

He was J.K. Rowling's first pick to direct the films for the Harry Potter franchise - but oh, no, Warner Brothers had to shoot that down. His production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was so troubled that it had to be canned. Likewise, his productions of The Brothers Grimm and Tideland were jinxed, by even so much as bad weather. The Onion even put up a piece mocking Gilliam for his bad luck.

Poor Charlie Brown! Here's Terry Gilliam going trick-or-treating: Other kids: "I got a candy apple!" "I got a popcorn ball!" Gilliam: "I got a rock."

But the final proof that there is a curse 'pon the man's head, of epic Greek Mythology proportions, came when he was producing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and his male lead, Heath Ledger, died during filming. We're sure we don't have to re-cover this famous tragedy, still fresh in the mind of the Internet if not elsewhere. But man, you have to wonder what's up with a career like this.

Just to give you an idea of how spiffy the film turned out anyway, here's the trailer:

There, in modern-day CGI, is the same fertile, fruitful, unbounded, childlike imagination that animated that weather clip we showed you at the top. Thirty-four years separate the two pieces - the bouncing sun timidly shushing itself to sunset and the spinning, deflating balloon with Christopher Plummer's face taking the form of a phantasmal Hindu deity. Thirty-four years apart, and the same starry-eyed dreamer behind them, with the same steady vision from the first to the last.

Where are you Charlie Brown? Come home, we miss you! Don't give up, you can still win.


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