If Bridgehampton resident Bob Balaban were not an actor, director, and film producer, he would still qualify as a part of movie history. In the early days of film, his uncle founded Balaban & Katz, a company that built luxurious movie palaces throughout the Chicago area. Balaban & Katz’s were the first theaters to be air-conditioned. In those days, theater owners were very powerful within the film industry, and Balaban’s elders parlayed their success into important positions at Hollywood studios. The Hollywood of the that era produced the elegant, safe, censored films that brought capacity audiences to the huge, ornate theaters around the country, an entertainment monopoly that sustained the movie industry for decades.
By the time Bob Balaban got into movies, the days of the movie palaces and the Hollywood studio system had passed. The elegant theaters were shuttered or carved up into multiplexes, and Hollywood began to offer more daring, risqué films to try to lure people away from their televisions. Late 1960’s films like Bonnie and Clyde, Barbarella and Easy Rider were a rebellion against the Hollywood Establishment, portraying violence and sex in ways that were an affront to all that studio system stood for. As for Balaban, his film debut in 1969’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy as a nervous student who picks up a hustler and performs an unprintable act with him (in a MOVIE THEATER, no less!) seems in retrospect fraught with symbolism. While it was obviously just a film role, Balaban’s small part in the film was in many ways the most shocking, at least to audiences of the time, and certainly earned the film its X rating.
According to Balaban, interviewed for the TCM series ”Hollywood Moguls,” his family was none too proud of his first film credit, and in fact after having seen the film they never spoke of it again. They, of course, made the mistake of confusing an actor with the role he is playing. In their defense, there is something about Balaban’s precise temperament and soft-spoken manner that allows him to inhabit particular roles with a seamlessness that makes you forget you’re watching a performance, and to truly believe that Balaban IS the character he is playing. His turn as high-school band teacher Lloyd Miller, the calm, competent foil to Christopher Guest’s showboating community theatre director Corky St. Claire in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman is a case in point. Balaban perfectly evokes the quiet bewilderment of a somewhat timid but skilled professional trying to do his job well in the midst of a circus of vanity, mediocrity and delusions of fame. His performance is the comic heart of the picture.
Of course, because of the quality of Balaban’s performance and because of Guffman’s faux-documentary style, it is easy to imagine Balaban’s mild-mannered onscreen persona as a genuine picture of the man. That he has sustained a similar persona through the full series of Christopher Guest “mockumentaries,” including Best in Show and A Mighty Wind (and also on television shows like “Friends,” in which he played Phoebe’s dad), only contributes to this sense. In other words, it’s hard to imagine Balaban ever raising his voice or being the least bit aggressive, and yet he has taken charge of numerous film projects, including directing 1989’s Parents, starring Randy Quaid and producing Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which was nominated for Best Picture of 2001. He has also found success in the competitive world of children’s books, authoring the popular “McGrowl” series, featuring the dogs of Cedar Springs.
Balaban appears on screen again in the upcoming comedy/con-caper Thin Ice, starring Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin, which will receive its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival this weekend. He plays an appraiser of antique violins who unwittingly tells the wrong man how much a certain violin is worth. Balaban will be on hand for the festival, not only for the premiere of Thin Ice, but also to lead a discussion with actress Susan Sarandon at Bay Street Theater on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.