When I first saw Peter Farrelly, it was at an awards ceremony like none I'd ever seen. The event was the Media Access Awards, and the winners were either members of the media who best represent the disability community or individuals living with disabilities themselves who were being acknowledged for outstanding performance.
Smack dab in the middle of all the festivity was Peter Farrelly, director and co-writer of such feature-film hits as Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, Me, Myself, & Irene, and Shallow Hal.
What made his presence so surprising is that each of the movies mentioned are seemingly filled with mockery and humor at the expense of this very community that is clearly enamored with and grateful to Mr. Farrelly. If you're familiar with much of Farrelly's work, you may be asking yourself "How is this possible?" The answer became evident as the evening progressed, and culminated with rousing and heartfelt speech given by Farrelly. He ended by asking his casting director and a fellow executive producer to stand up with a spotlight on them, so that every actor in attendance could easily identify whom to talk with about auditioning for work.
What I found most telling, however, was that Peter, after a very long evening, listened to story after story from a stream of people he believes deserve a chance to be heard. Each person had his undivided attention well after the ceremony was over. It was past midnight when I found Peter surrounded by the last small group of people waiting for their chance to be heard. The clean-up crew had begun their work on the all but abandoned banquet hall, and Peter Farrelly had officially closed the joint down.
Farrelly's interest in the topic of disability began during his youth on an afternoon he spent swimming with his best friend, Danny Murphy, who took a dive that the too-shallow water couldn't accommodate. That one moment resulted in Danny's using a wheelchair due to an injury to his spinal cord. Danny is still occupying the role of best friend in Peter's life and from the sound of things, he remains as rambunctious and irreverent as ever. It was at Danny's urging that Peter started thinking of ways to represent this whole group of people in a light that's more realistic and more human than we're accustomed to seeing on-screen.
Along the way, Danny explained to Peter that the syrupy, saint-like representations of people with disabilities in the media not only were inaccurate, but also served to further separate this group from the population as a whole. Peter says, "The problem is not that we look down on these people, but rather that we look up at them and feel that they are better than us.... we revere them." What one would have discovered at the awards show and what Peter already knew--is that this group is bawdy and funny and angry and deep and all the other adjectives that describe the full range of human emotion. What I discovered is that Peter Farrelly is not a man merely content to talk about how things could be better, then sit idly by hoping someone will act, he makes change happen.
Peter sees all kinds of potential for the entertainment industry's use of this largely untapped talent pool. Who better to realistically operate a wheelchair or do scene-work about struggle and deep emotion? He feels it is largely Madison Avenue that must come around, as the advertising community has recently done in its handling of phenomena such as baldness and the wearing of eyeglasses. "Until the '90s, neither had been associated with sophistication, youth, or beauty. Now people who aren't bald shave their heads, and people without vision problems wear glasses. The definition of cool or what's acceptable is constantly changing," explains Farrelly. "Until someone breaks the mold and shows us something differently and makes that which once seemed like a weakness into a strength, we'll keep our misperceptions.:"
Farrelly hopes to facilitate the transition. He cites another example, how several years ago he wanted Robert DeNiro for a movie, but was told, "Forget it. DeNiro doesn't do comedy." Farrelly replied, "He's the greatest actor going--he can do anything." Unfortunately, the studio won out. "But DeNiro, not too far down the road, wound up making Analyze This and Meet the Parents," Peter points out, "and now every comedy script in town goes directly to DeNiro first."
Farrelly probably wouldn't call himself a visionary, but he certainly possesses the instincts of one. He is always questioning, searching, trying to force his way outside the box, to make sure that he's not just following the easy path, the prescribed road. He offers a riddle that was popular some years back to help make his point: "A guy's driving down the street with his son, and they have an accident. They hit a car head-on and the father is taken to one hospital and the son to another. When they take the son into that hospital, the doctor comes out and looks at him and says, 'Oh, my God! That's my son!' and the question is, how could that be? Well, the answer is, the doctor is his mother. " Peter believes its' up to artist, filmmakers and certainly Madison Avenue to change and broaden perceptions.
There are not the sort of concerns you would necessarily expect from one of the "Kings of Gross-Out Comedy." Peter's brother, Bobby Farrelly, is the other "King" with whom he writes, directs, and shares a production company called Conundrum. As you walk into this place, Conundrum Films, you are instantly hit by a plethora of surprising stimuli--there's at least a dog or two to greet you as you enter what appears to be a rec room, complete with ping-pong, fooseball and darts. On the day I visited, I saw many pairs of shorts and sandals, tennis shoes and even a pair of bare feet. Filling out one of these beachcomber outfits and playing one mean game of fooseball was Woody Harrelson, who if one didn't know better could have been mistake for production assistant on break. The Farrelly brothers have created a working environment in which it would be absurd, if not practically impossible to keep up pretenses or put on airs. The office space is so warm and fun and conducive to creativity that not only would a phony be easy to spot, it's hard to imagine that type of person would be drawn to a place where there is such an utter lack of Hollywood artifice anyway. This place is about the work. I imagine this is how making art should feel--joyous, inspired, unstructured. That these guys have made so much money seems like the icing, not the cake. Their success seems almost a accident, but most assuredly it is not. The Farrellys are smart and driven and purposeful, but somehow with just the right balance and motivation. There is a great desire to get things done. There is little emphasis on who gets credit. One person's gain means everybody moves forward. These two men, these Farrelly brothers, surrounded by life-long friends and extended family, take their licks as a team and know that their victories are made sweeter because they are shared. Observing them is both wonderful and inspiring.
I expected to meet a goofball, possibly a cynic--definitely a Hollywood director. Instead, I met a man who is a father, a brother, an advocate, a humorist--a person short on sanctimony, long on action. Peter Farrelly is the kind of rare individual who makes you believe that lofty things are possible, a man impassioned by a desire to live life fully and to see that others get to share in such a pursuit.
I've lived in Los Angeles and worked in Hollywood for over a decade--long enough to be surprised or impressed by very little. Peter Farrelly did both, and I am grateful.
by Hope Allen
Excerpts from the Hope Allen Issue
Hope is on the Way
CEO Jean-Luc Butel Talks about iBot and iGlide
Winds of Change