Wes Anderson’s 2001 dramedy The Royal Tenenbaums is and isn’t a New York City movie, making it a perfect subject for this year’s edition of the Tribeca Festival, which is and isn’t a New York City film festival. (“Film” has been officially dropped from its name in order to broaden its already-growing coverage of television, VR, podcasts, and more.)
Mounting a delayed and pandemic-minded version of the festival, mixing online and in-person events, has changed the look of some of its signature events; a Royal Tenenbaums 20th anniversary screening was held outdoors on June 14th, and its cast reunion happened live via Zoom afterward.
Tenenbaums narrator Alec Baldwin served as host, insisting that director/co-writer Anderson told him he would never actually use the narration track Baldwin recorded — tossed off, in his telling — and was including it only to appease concerned producers. Anderson disagrees with this account (“I never said that!” he said, laughing), and indeed it’s difficult to picture Anderson working on a detail-packed narration track that he never intended to use.
Baldwin and Anderson were joined by co-writer and co-star Owen Wilson (Eli Cash), his brother Luke (burnt-out tennis star Richie Tenenbaum), Gwyneth Paltrow (adopted Tenenbaum sister Margot), and Anjelica Huston (Tenenbaum matriarch Etheline), who was mostly silent.
But the opening round of discussion focused on the star who wasn’t there, and who no one expected to show up: Gene Hackman, whose hilarious and perfectly judged performance as Royal did not immediately precede his subsequent retirement, but might as well have. (The year Tenenbaums came out, it was one of five Gene Hackman movies; he made two additional and undistinguished films before shifting his focus to writing novels.)
At the last big festival reunion for this movie, at NYFF in 2011, there were stories about the difficulties of working with Hackman, who seemed to be making the film reluctantly. These stories sounded a little more affectionate with another ten years gone by (and, perhaps, without Bill Murray to make more acerbic comments). Anderson noted that he thinks Hackman “objected to the money” (which was not especially ample), but that this might have also accounted for an especially strong performance, as if he needed to make the time and effort worthwhile in non-monetary ways.
Baldwin observed that he felt at this time in Hackman’s career, he would sometimes deflect a full commitment to a role, relying on his natural familiarity and charm. “He would immunize himself with laughter,” Baldwin said. Indeed, even the stories of Hackman being intimidating felt committed, at least; he was apparently always on set, even if he wasn’t in the scene in question. Luke Wilson recalled Hackman telling him, “You remind me of my son,” and Wilson responding, with some incredulity, “How’d you guys get along?”
After centering on Hackman, the conversation wandered a little more, through the movie’s origins to cast members’ favorite moments and memories from making the film. Paltrow claimed to find Anderson’s exacting style “relaxing” because he always knew what he wanted out of his actors, and said that the famous scene of Margot deboarding a city bus in slow motion is maybe the only scene of herself from any of her movies that she can stand to watch.
Meanwhile, Luke Wilson recalled the only time Anderson raised his voice was arguing about the length of the cuffs as Wilson was fitted for Richie’s suit. (Anderson noted he would have approached this differently today — and that the argument was especially silly on his end because Richie is almost always shot above the waist anyway.)
Little details of the movie’s real-life connections slipped out: Owen and Luke Wilson’s father had an “achievement-oriented” personality that might have influenced their story about young geniuses; the hand of Chas Tennenbaum (Ben Stiller), with a BB lodged in its knuckle, was provided by other Wilson brother Andrew, who really does have a BB in there, most likely shot by Owen; Owen feels that a contentious moment on-set between him and Stiller had some Zoolander-style give-and-take. (Wilson seemed to be saying that it actually informed their work on Zoolander, but it was hard to say; he had the spottiest video connection of the group. In any event, Zoolander was shot first.)
Put together, these anecdotes all emphasized how and why The Royal Tenenbaums feels so genuine, despite its storybook trappings — and despite certain audience members who may have seen it upward of a dozen times, its deadpan dialogue rhythms and verbal tics as memorable and repeatable as a Beatles chorus.
During the screening, the constant refrain of “I know” felt newly striking. At first, it’s employed most often by Margot, a subtle way of trying to cut down Royal’s attempts at emotional reconnection (and, sometimes, manipulation). But toward the end of the movie, when Stiller’s widower Chas quietly tells his semi-estranged father, with a quaver in his voice, that he’s had a rough year, Royal’s “I know you have, Chassie” offers gentle, heartbreaking catharsis. Like the movie’s New York scenery and cast of famous faces, it’s vaguely familiar, but coming from somewhere else entirely.
The Royal Tenenbaums isn’t necessarily Anderson’s best film — The Grand Budapest Hotel and Rushmore could each make a strong case — so much as it’s the one where his world feels most tactile, and closest to a fully realized alternate version of our own. The house at 111 Archer Avenue where the Tenenbaum family lived, and reluctantly reunites after the child geniuses grown into dissatisfied adults, is real (albeit not at the address fabricated by Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson). You can rent it. The movie was shot in and around New York City, in and around that real house, a melancholic shadow world, filled with Anderson’s meticulously rendered obsessions.
When Baldwin’s narration, elegantly delivered in dulcet tones, returns for the final moments of Tenenbaums, it’s like hearing familiar theme music. Returning to the film two decades later evokes a similar experience. There’s something about it that feels especially vivid and complete — and as always, it’s a welcome reminder that one should never pass up a chance to peek behind Anderson’s elaborately monogrammed curtains.