I guarantee that unless you are insanely into movie trivia, you have never heard of Stephen Tobolowsky. However, if you have even watched television or movies on a casual basis, you have seen Stephen Tobolowsky numerous times.
When I say his name to a friend, I usually get a strange look. But if I say “Ned the annoying insurance salesman from ‘Groundhog Day’” or “The guy in ‘Memento’ who gave his wife too much insulin,” then I get a positive reaction.
Stephen Tobolowsky has been in about 100 films, by his estimate, and even more television shows. He has been around the world and hobnobbed with all levels of celebrities. But few of us ever know who Stephen Tobolowsky is.
“Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” is a labor of love from cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, who met Stephen many years ago on a film set. He always wanted to make a movie about Stephen, specifically about the stories he tells. While Stephen has never been the star of an action film, stealing away with Angelina Jolie in the final scene, he has more bizarre real-life experiences than anyone else in the business.
The film was shot in one day – Stephen Tobolowsky’s 53rd birthday, two years ago. It opens with him telling stories on a beach, then we follow him home where he prepares a barbecue for friends to celebrate his birthday. During the entire time leading up to the party and during the party, Stephen tells story after story of some of the weird things that have happened in his life.
You might be expecting numerous stories of who he’s worked with and which celebrities he’s met. However, aside from a brief appearance by Mena Suvari at his party, the film is surprisingly celebrity-free. Instead, Stephen finds the bizarre aspects of life from the eyes of a regular person.
For example, when he recounts a story from his days working on “Great Balls of Fire,” he doesn’t talk about what Dennis Quaid or Winona Ryder did. Instead, he talks about an interaction he had with a guy on the crew that no one would recognize.
It’s clear from watching Stephen for 87 minutes that he is a people person. He loves an audience and enjoys telling tales – not because he likes being the center of attention, but because he likes to entertain. Here’s where Stephen’s roots in the theatre become very apparent.
We hear what it was like for Stephen to be held up at gunpoint, take LSD and talk to a dog, what real Hollywood auditions are like and how he was a contender for the list of 100 coolest people in L.A.
As possibly the most recognizable character actor of our generation, Stephen Tobolowsky has given us a gift for his birthday. It’s a window into his bizarre, unglamorous life. The non-linear presentation of the stories reminds me of a Spaulding Gray show without the pretension.
The DVD is set for release on May 30, Stephen’s 55th birthday. It includes 90 minutes of additional stories that didn’t make the cut of the film (that’s three minutes longer than the running time of the actual feature). Some of the subjects include a date with a stripper, an evening with a prostitute, bug tacos and home invasions. A final treat is the film’s trailer which features Stephen interviewing random people at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival.
“Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” is a different film, one of a kind you might never see again. It’s definitely worth a look.