Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.
“Does anyone still want to go to the movies? Hell, yeah.” is how Peter Travers begins his review of Ben Stiller’s broad supermodel comedy Zoolander. This same question has been asked again in the wake of COVID-19’s upheaval of our way of life. For Travers, though, he was asking following the tragedy that defined the last two decades of our nation: 9/11.
You may not remember it, but Zoolander was released just 17 days after the events of September 11, 2001. It was cosmically unfortunate timing for a film set in New York with shots that prominently feature the World Trade Center. After the attacks and prior to the film’s release, the producers felt it was appropriate to bowdlerize the Twin Towers from the city’s skyline, further sparking controversy for their erasure. As critic David Ehrlich reported a few years later, director Oliver Stone said, “Launching such a silly movie in the direct wake of an American tragedy was an affront to those who had their lives taken from them on that fateful morning.”
But was it really? Or was it a film that gave the nation a necessary catharsis? The IMDB user reviews from 2001 are a melancholic time capsule to show how the public, while still processing the trauma of the attacks, reacted to a film as silly as this one. On September 23rd, one reviewer wrote, “As I watched Zoolander at a press screening on Friday, one thought kept coming to my mind: ‘This is just what I needed.’” Another wrote, “I walked out feeling better than I did walking in.” On the 29th, a user wrote, “If you want to escape from things that have been going on, especially in Manhattan, then go see Zoolander. You will not regret you went.” And on October 2nd, “This film is fun. It is just what many of us who still seem to be a little melancholy since September 11th need right now.”
While I can understand Stone’s sentiment to mean that we shouldn’t laugh at a funeral, as the user reviews point out, for many of us, laughter is the only way to move forward after a traumatic event. It allows us to regain a modicum of normality that we can hang on to like a buoy during a storm. Comedy is a great reminder that life, as tragic as it can be, will go on so long as you keep your good humor. And at a time when it felt like we couldn’t move forward, along comes the wide-eyed naïveté of Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander.
Stiller turns in a compelling performance in the movie that’s more than just about making us laugh post-9/11. The essence of Derek Zoolander — the pursed lips, his pseudo-serious cluelessness — were ingrained in the character since his introduction in a series of skits for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards, but Stiller was able to now give him three dimensions for the feature. And for a movie about a model, it should come as no surprise that the secret to Stiller’s performance lies completely in the face.
It is inarguable that a lot of Derek’s expressions can be considered mugging for the camera. I find that it goes deeper than that, especially when you focus on his nonverbal communication. For example, take the part when Derek meets Mugatu (Will Ferrell) for the Derelicte campaign.
The scene is hilariously remembered for Derek’s inability to understand scale models, yet I also sense a visible pain behind his eyes. In the weeks leading up to this moment, he’s become the laughing stock of the fashion world, lost his best friends in a freak gasoline fight accident, and even his own family wants nothing to do with him. So what does he do? He’s forced to drag himself back to the industry that humiliated him.
Stiller doesn’t play the anxiety because he’s made Derek so vacuous that he’d never be able to comprehend complex emotions like angst. But he still allows his anguish to permeate subconsciously through his wide expressive eyes. In them, we can see Derek’s grief, from having to bury his young friends and from never getting the approval he craved from his father.
As he bends over to look at the model of The Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, his brow furrows in consternation, showing with his eyes how much he wants to express what he’s feeling in the moment, but he just can’t quite articulate what those feelings are. When he finally asks, “How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?” he stares at Mugatu, as if to say “Did I do good, pop?” Even with someone he barely knows, Derek’s watery eyes search for some kind of paternal validation. He may not know how to give voice to the pain he’s experiencing, but he still hurts just like you or me.
In his obtuse sadness, Stiller gives Derek these confident, if fleeting, moments of lucidity that speak to his inner truth: he may not have book or street smarts, but dammit if he isn’t brilliant in his own unique ways. The dialogue where he gets granular about body care tips or the inner workings of his industry is where Stiller allows Derek to truly come alive. He has a keen memory for fashion trends from decades before. He can spot a famous hand model with one look at their cuticles. He can even pinpoint clogged pores just by studying the way pulled-back hair can aggravate the skin. In these moments, Derek doesn’t have to look for approval, because he doesn’t need it. He has the confidence that comes from expertise. Just because he is an airhead, doesn’t mean he can’t be a genius. And it’s that contradiction that allows Stiller to make Derek less of a cartoon and more of an actual person.
Before September 11th, the national emergency that was remembered for unifying the nation was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Only twenty days after that tragedy, the madcap proto stoner comedy Hellzapoppin’ was released. Was it too soon after a national tragedy to release such a silly movie? I don’t think so. And neither did anyone else. The archived reviews of Hellzapoppin’ make no mention of the world-changing events of Pearl Harbor, unlike the reviews Zoolander had in the wake of 9/11.
If anything, the perfect time for the surreal, oddball humor of a film like Zoolander is immediately following a tragedy. We need something, anything, to capture our attention and force us to take a moment to stop dwelling on something that can’t be changed. Some people use booze to cope. Others go for a walk. Or maybe read a book. But for a lot of people in the fall of 2001, the dopey antics of a really ridiculously good looking supermodel were exactly what was needed to collectively begin our long road to healing.