Billy Crystal is back Sunday as host of the Academy Awards, a responsibility he's held eight times before. By now, the 63-year-old comedian is a pro at this — a reliable, familiar choice who's beloved and admired by his peers.
And he's achieved that status in this business through his many indelible comic roles. Here are five of his best.
"When Harry Met Sally ..." (1989)
Easily THE performance of Crystal's career. Everyone involved here is at the height of his or her powers: Meg Ryan, director Rob Reiner, writer Nora Ephron (who earned an Oscar nomination for her screenplay). It's got a retro romantic comedy vibe with a directness that makes it a modern classic; a Woody Allen rip-off, yes, but with a charm all its own. Crystal is at his snappy, sarcastic best but he has a sweetness, too, as the neurotic Harry, who keeps running into Ryan's high-strung Sally as they struggle to navigate the complex dating scene of Manhattan. They are, of course, meant for each other, and Crystal was a surprisingly convincing romantic lead. This movie would be cast totally differently today. It would star Channing Tatum or Ryan Reynolds, someone great-looking. Maybe Seth Rogen. Maybe.
"Monsters Inc." (2001)
Man, this movie made me cry. I mean, it's one of the greatest Pixar films, and Crystal has a delightful interplay with John Goodman as a couple of monsters who inadvertently befriend a little girl they're supposed to frighten. But it takes a heart-wrenching turn, and that emotional impact comes from both the writing and the performances. Crystal lends his voice to Mike Wazowski, a green, one-eyed ball who looks like a hyperactive lime with spindly arms and legs. His high-pitched, whiny shtick provides the perfect contrast for Goodman's rich, gravelly vocal tones, and he brings great energy to this fast-talking, lovable little dude.
"The Princess Bride" (1987)
One of the greatest comedies of all time, of course, and a sentimental favorite of mine growing up. Reiner's fairy tale has a strong ensemble cast full of great, memorable performances. That includes Crystal's as Miracle Max, the disgruntled former employee of the evil Prince Humperdinck who creates a magical pill that brings the swashbuckling hero Westley back to life. Because he's only mostly dead, you see. Crystal described the character, with his exaggerated nose and ears and wild, gray hair, as looking like a combination of former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel and his grandmother. He and Carol Kane have a lively, old-school banter as a bickering but loving husband and wife, like something out of a Borscht Belt comedy routine, and while he's only in one scene, it's a standout.
"Throw Momma From the Train" (1987)
I always admired the fact that everyone involved here has the decency to acknowledge that they're stealing from "Strangers on a Train," which happens to be my favorite Hitchcock film. This is not an homage, this is outright theft, but it's respectful, and with a comic twist. In Danny DeVito's directing debut, he and Crystal co-star as two guys with nothing in common but the desire to have someone killed, so they agree to swap murders to avoid suspicion. Crystal, who plays an author, serves as the frustrated straight man among larger-than-life figures — an abusive ogre of a mother, a skittish momma's boy. And every writer can relate to the anxiety of looking at a blank page (or screen) and not being able to get past the words "The night was ...."
OK. So this is a bit of a cheat because it's a television performance. But the role was so groundbreaking, Crystal was so good in it and the show was so culturally significant, I had to include it. In this nighttime parody of daytime soap operas, Crystal played Jodie Dallas, an openly gay character functioning as a major figure on network television, a rarity at the time. His inclusion drew criticism both from religious conservatives as well as gays, who believed the character perpetuated some negative stereotypes. Actually, he was one of the more grounded and low-key characters in a show full of eccentrics and melodramatic weirdoes. It was an early indicator of great things to come.