In its second season, Documentary Now! has stretched its spoofing muscles even further than the last. The IFC comedy took on larger challenges—from translating Spalding Gray’s one-man play Swimming to Cambodia into “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” to incorporating the existential themes of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman (in “Globesman”). The show continues the risk-taking this week with an ambitious two-part season finale: “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid.” Based on Robert Evans’ film autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, directed by Nanette Burstein; and Brett Morgen, Documentary Now has the unenviable task of creating a caricature from film producer Evans’ already colorful and quirky life. The episodes don’t disappoint: The show saves some of the funniest, most laugh-out-loud moments of the season for the finale.
As in the original documentary, the film’s subject provides the voiceover narration, and Hader is hilarious with his deadpan delivery. As producer Jerry Wallach, he opens the episode explaining that his bout with “Magenta Fever” as a child helped him face adversity later on. As a series of childhood photographs flash onscreen, the camera lingers on an old class photo focusing on a kid with a tonsure: “I was 5 years old. I was a bald guy.” His father won’t let him sulk, and buys him a kid-sized toupee (which is exactly as you imagine).
For those unfamiliar with Evans’ filmography, he’s responsible for a number of respected films, including Chinatown, Marathon Man, Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather (Parts I and II). He was the Paramount studio chief who embraced and embodied the Hollywood lifestyle: He’s been married seven times, was caught up in cocaine trafficking and implicated in a murder.
“Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid” largely stays out of the more controversial aspects of Evans’ life and sticks to his career trajectory. We follow Wallach from his Brooklyn childhood to the William Morris Agency mailroom. (In a nice carry-over from the opening scenes, his toupee plays a big role in helping him land the gig). He quickly makes the move from Hollywood power player to the head of Pinnacle Pictures Studios. Wallach is determined to change Pinnacle’s course, as it’s only produced educational films on drunk driving since 1964. The trailer for “Shaken, Not Swerved: Lessons in Drunk Driving” is so politically incorrect and ridiculously funny.
Sadly, Armisen doesn’t make an appearance until midway through the first episode. As Wallach searches internationally for the next big star to save the flailing Pinnacle, he finds Enzo Entolini (Armisen), “the Italian Chaplin.” Wallach explains that Enzo’s mom suffered from heart trouble, and the emotional stress from either sadness or mirth could kill her: “At an early age, Enzo learned to do B to B- level comedy, just enough to make his mom chuckle, but no more.”
Together, Wallach and Entolini embark on several projects that the producer hopes will lead to Oscar gold. In his adaptation of the novel She Cried for Justice, Entolini plays a former Nazi Guard (with a thick Italian accent), who falls for a Jewish prisoner, played by Bridget Bailey, a striking blonde actress. Of his casting choice, Wallach explains, “She had just the right va va voom for a Holocaust survivor.”
Needless to say, the film, renamed Blondes, Blondes, Blondes and a Millionaire, didn’t win the Oscar. Hader’s face is a treat to watch as the winner is announced, and the use of old Oscar footage adds elements of realism to the outrageous scene. Wallach becomes more determined to win by keeping up with the moviegoers changing times and tastes. His next big project was a “bondage-themed improvised movie with borderline unattractive, no-name actors.” Unfortunately, Fisting (yes, that’s its title) opened worldwide on May 25, 1977—the same day as Star Wars.
While Hader plays Wallach straightforwardly for maximum comic effect, we wish that Armisen’s role would have been expanded or developed further than the Italian clown. Like many of the episodes this season, save “The Bunker” and “Globesman,” Documentary Now has relied on either one of its two leads to carry the weight of an episode. Hader only had a small role in Juan Like Rice and Chicken, and Armisen didn’t even appear in Parker Gail’s Location is Everything. If we learned anything in the two seasons of watching this smart comedy, it’s that their scenes together are stronger, especially when Armisen and Hader play off each other, even when their characters are at odds, as in last week’s Stop Making Sense-inspired episode, “Final Transmission.”
The scripts for the episodes, written by Hader and John Mulaney, crackle with zingers and the sexist and racist language that was acceptable at the time. However, the true hero(es) of the episode are the members of Documentary Now’s visual effects and editing teams. Someone had to Photoshop a staggering number of images to include Wallach in some iconic photos with celebrities. The team also had to create movie posters for Wallach’s more famous works like Koreatown and Going Steady (a ringer for Love Story). The results are nearly seamless and are a visual treat for the viewers, adding a layer of jokes that should be seen and not heard.
Throughout the two episodes, on-camera interviews with a number of celebrities—including Peter Bogdanovich, Anne Hathaway and Peter Fonda—coupled with faked archival photos and real film footage, add a touch of realism to the autobiographical collage. Documentary Now ends its season on a high note with “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid,” blurring the line between fake and real films and crafting a thoroughly entertaining pastiche in the process.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.