Ivan Reitman dying just a couple of weeks after the release of the most comprehensive special edition of Ghostbusters to date feels like a particularly cruel joke: no sooner are we reminded of how profound an impact he had on the world than he leaves it. I’m not even sure it works as irony; surely he would have rather hung around and heard people tell him how much they loved his goofball fantasy comedy, which redefined the Hollywood blockbuster on its release in June 1984. (Seriously, I just wrote several hundred words about it. It’s weird to be snapped back to it so soon.)
But, yes. He’s gone, dead at 75 and leaving a legacy stretching back over decades both on-screen and off. There are the movies, of course – dozens of them, both his own films and the projects he produced. His son Jason and daughter Catherine are both ensconced in the entertainment industry; Catherine as a producer and star of Workin’ Moms, among other things, and Jason as a director – most recently of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a direct sequel to his dad’s 80s movies. And the family name is literally written on the Toronto landscape: the TIFF Bell Lightbox stands on Reitman Square, a parcel of land donated by Ivan and his siblings (and the Daniels corporation) in honour of their parents, Leslie and Clara, who emigrated to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia after World War II.
Mostly, though, there are the movies. Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, which made Bill Murray a superstar, cemented Harold Ramis as an invaluable writer, producer and actor, and did okay for Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson too. Twins and Kindergarten Cop let Arnold Schwarzenegger transition from R-rated action hero to family-friendly comedy star. Dave and Junior, two 90s comedies that transcend their high concepts because their director is more interested in the tiny moments that pass between their characters.
Seriously, if you’ve never seen Dave – and since the announcement of Reitman’s death, I’m learning a lot of you haven’t – take a look at it this week. (It’s on Crave and Amazon with a Starz subscription, and if you have a library card it’s also streaming free on Hoopla.) It’s a Frank Capra-flavoured satire with Kevin Kline as a presidential impersonator tapped by the Secret Service to play the role for real, and if it had stopped there it would be a charming, inconsequential little picture. But Reitman tapped Ghostbusters veteran Sigourney Weaver to play the First Lady, and Weaver turns her character’s arc into one of the richest performances of her career – almost all of it playing out in the background of Kline’s story, and the camera missing none of it.
Not everything he did was a hit: Legal Eagles, a creaky Robert Redford comedy made right after Ghostbusters, was a mannered dud, and Reitman’s last run of features wobbled between undercooked (No Strings Attached, Draft Day) and outright awful (My Super Ex-Girlfriend). But when he was in his zone, mixing comedy and chaos and relying on gifted comedians to come at a given story from unexpected angles – or just letting the camera roll while Bill Murray wise-assed his way through a conversation – he created films that changed the course of screen comedy.
Judd Apatow’s talky, messy movies wouldn’t exist without Reitman’s looseness paving the way. Ghostbusters proved that comedies could go toe-to-toe with big summer movies like Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Gremlins, but it’s not the visual effects that people remember best: it’s the back-and-forth of the characters, the little asides when Murray’s Peter Venkman and Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz come back to the office complaining about how little sleep they’re getting (“You didn’t used to look like this”) or when Ramis’s Egon Spengler and Annie Potts’s Janine do a little nerd flirting (“I bet you like to read a lot.” “Print is dead.”).
Eddie Murphy was revolutionizing the action comedy over at Paramount with 48 HRS, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop – and in fact Murphy was one of the comedians Aykroyd had wanted to cast in Ghostbusters – but his projects were harder, faster-moving; Reitman’s films shuffled along amiably, letting the characters enjoy themselves along with the audience.
He also caught the sweetness in the way Schwarzenegger carries an incapacitated Pamela Reed to her sickbed early in Kindergarten Cop; the absurdity of the muscle-bound action hero hefting his screen partner all the way off the ground undercut by the delicacy with which he holds her. And there’s that moment in Dave where the whole movie seems to hang on whether Sigourney Weaver will confirm or deny a ridiculous story Kline’s character is telling – and her response is both completely appropriate and totally ridiculous. It brings the house down.
That level of attention – and the rate of return on those projects – was impressive, given that Reitman started his career making disposable Canadian tax-shelter pictures. His first two features, 1971’s Foxy Lady and 1973’s Cannibal Girls, would be entirely forgotten now had they not been early vehicles for Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin; around the same time, Reitman also got David Cronenberg’s first two features Shivers and Rabid rolling at Cinepix, launching the career of one of Canada’s foremost auteurs. But he was always playing in the comedy sphere, and an association with the National Lampoon in New York City – and a friendship with Ramis – led him to pitch the project that would become National Lampoon’s Animal House, which minted Saturday Night Live whirlwind John Belushi as a movie star and John Landis as a director.
The momentum of Animal House gave Reitman the chance to direct a comedy of his own, the sweet and shaggy summer-camp comedy Meatballs – a no-budget Canadian indie shot at a Haliburton summer camp in 1978, just as Animal House exploded across the U.S. He tapped Ramis to co-write it and got another Second City grad-turned-SNL breakout, Bill Murray, to star. The three of them reunited for Stripes in 1981, and when Dan Aykroyd delivered his 300-page far-future epic about scientists who invent ghost-trapping technology to Columbia Pictures and wanted Reitman to direct it, Reitman brought in Ramis to work with the actor on a version of the script set in the present day. The movie they made bore almost no relation to the original concept. I can’t imagine anyone seeing that as a negative.
I only interviewed him once, when Evolution was coming out on home video late in 2001; a sci-fi comedy starring David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones and Seann William Scott, it had been a box-office disappointment, knocked by some critics for wanting to be the next Ghostbusters. Reitman told me that was never his intention: Ghostbusters had left a such a big footprint on his career that any genre comedy he made afterward would be interpreted that way. All he wanted, he said, was to make funny movies with funny people. And for the most part, that’s exactly what he did. Not the worst legacy, not by a long shot.