Cary Elwes, who played Westley, has put out his memoir of the making of the move. Fittingly for his character, it is called As You Wish. It's not much of a book, but it did tell me a lot I didn't know about how it came to be written, accepted, adapted, cast, etc. Elwes can't stop telling us how wonderful everyone was, reminding us of their resumes before and after, and describing them as the only possible people who could have played each part. It gets irritating after a while. However it is just that sort of gushing that pushes one back a distance and allows the questions "What makes this good, then?" and "Why do I like this?" much more possible to answer.
That has been fun.
In some types of comedy, it is important that the actor not betray that he knows he is being funny. He or she has to play it straight, with no wink-wink nudge-nudge to the audience, or even an acknowledgement that there is an audience. Elwes keeps reporting throughout the book how Rob Reiner stressed this during “The Princess Bride,” not merely as a tactic to calm his actors, but as a key to understanding the script.
I entirely agree, which is why I can’t fathom how Reiner thought Billy Crystal was so uproarious as Miracle Max.
But first, I give credit to Mandy Patinkin, who got this so thoroughly right that it held everyone else together. Almost everyone in the cast plays it pretty straight, but there is a lot of leakage – tongues creeping into cheeks, smirks playing at the edges of lips. If anything, Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya is a little too serious and intense – or would be, if it weren’t the anchor for the others.
Compare: The most similar movie would be “Monty Python and the Quest For The Holy Grail,” which relies much less on actors playing it straight. We see from the landscapes, the costumes, and parts of the dialogue that they would be capable of making a serious Arthurian movie – a pretty darn good one, actually – and that is enough. We don’t require that they go farther than that. In that context, Inigo Montoya would only partly work. Certainly, his dead-serious “I want my father back you son of a bitch!” would be jarring.
Yet it is that line, and the strand of seriousness that runs through everything leading up to that, that makes The Princess Bride funny. Patinkin can shrug when the Man In Black will not say who he is, or joke with Fezzik, with the complete naturalness of a normal man in an odd world. There is no movie around him and he is not joking with us. There are men with six fingers and giants of unbelievable strength, but these are details to him. The horrible childhood tragedy and life given over to revenge are all that matter to him, and are no different than they would be in our world. He wouldn’t be funny if he weren’t a little unnerving.
It was nice to learn how earnest the Greatest Swordfight of Modern Times was – they hired the best fencing instructors and worked for weeks, and it absolutely shows in the believability of the encounter. Again, it is the seriousness – one senses that if by some slip one did cut the other, the script would go out the window and they would keep going, this time for real.
Robin Wright plays Buttercup almost entirely straight, and Andre the Giant is a showman within the movie (“poor circus performers” does not seem at all untrue in his case), providing cover for any possible breaks in the fourth wall in his case. Elwes tries, and gets it most of the time – Sarandon, Shawn, and Guest (Humperdinck, Vizzini, Rugen) not so much. Peter Falk did not seem to be the sort of grandfather who would like the book he is reading to his grandson, but he played it seriously and I bought it. The others are cartoons and they know it. They drag the movie down.
I always thought that Crystal didn’t really know Miracle Max and seemed rather wrongly inserted at the end, and now that I know about the making of the movie, I find this is true. He and Carol Kane were brought in briefly at the end, did their schtick, and left. The rest of the cast is more of an ensemble. Apparently Rob Reiner found Crystal so uproarious as Max that he had to repeatedly leave the set to prevent his laughter from spilling into the scenes. I don’t get it. Crystal played Crystal + 40 years. “To blathe…mutton, lettuce, and tomato…” Just not right. You’ll like the Miracle Max in the book better.
Cary Elwes keeps gushing how every cast member was the only one who could play the part, the perfect choice. Not really. It is likely true about Mandy Patinkin, and is nearly true about a few others, including Elwes himself. I doubt that another director would have gotten as close as Reiner.