This review was written by Bob Thomas for The Dispatch.
“Winning ‘Matilda’ doesn’t try to be cute”
How come a jovial figure like Danny DeVito makes such dark movies?
Could he be angry at the world? Hardly. As actor, director and head of a production company, DeVito is one of the busiest and most successful operators in Hollywood. He has a loving, talented wife, Rhea Perlman, and three delightful children.
Did Danny have a miserable childhood?
Forget it. He was raised in Asbury Park, N.J., under the watchful eyes of two older sisters and grew up happy, if somewhat overweight.
So how do you explain his films as actor-director: “Throw Momma From the Train”, a funny take on matricide; “The War of the Roses”, a violent view of a marraige gone wrong; “Hoffa”, a searing study of corruption in the labor movement?
Now comes “Matilda”, based on a children’s story by Roald Dahl. But what a children’s story! The major figure is a horrific school headmistress who puts miscreants in a dungeon and delights in grabbing a tyke by her pigtails and demonstrating the hammer throw.
“I’m not into the darker side of life, like brutality and murder,” DeVito declares. “I don’t mind people being stupid enough to wind up on a chandelier; that is just kind of silly and funny and inane and just dumb. That’s cool; and Micheal (Douglas) and Kathleen (Turner) falling to their death at the end of ‘The War of the Roses’.
“I’m not into the other kind of darkness, like the ‘Seven’ deadly sins, which is kind of murky for me. I do like certain things, whether it’s hanging your mother from a train or having a woman throw a kid over a fence by her pigtails.”
Want to tell us a little more about that childhood, Danny?
“I was the baby in the family”, he recalls. “My two older sisters were very important to me, still are. Because of the age difference, they were kind of like my moms, too. They were good role models.
“My mom and dad were kind of Old World, though they were born in the United States. There was not a lot of conversation in the house about sex and drugs… My sisters would tell me things that were really important. That’s what we try to do with our kids.”
Although DeVito was movie crazy as a kid, he never dreamed of being an actor. For a time he worked as a hairdresser in his sister’s shop. Hoping to earn more by adding makeup to his skills, he sought a school in New York. The only one he could find was the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While learning makeup, he also discovered he loved acting.
“Matilda” as a movie had its inception as the result of Danny’s in-house literary scout, Lucy DeVito.
“We usually read at night to the kids; it’s a pattern that has been going on since they were born,” he says.
“We started with picture books, now we do this chapter thing. We read ‘The Red Pony,’ ‘Call of the Wild,’ things that they’re interested in. Three years ago Lucy, who was 10 at the time, brought Roald Dahl into the house and said, ‘We’ve got to read this.’ And we did.
“I thought it was terrific. Lucy and Gracie, the 8-year-old, got off on it big-time; Jake was a bit too young.”
Dahl’s story concerns a dreamy girl, Matilda, daughter of dreadful parents and sister to a bully. She is branded a misfit and dispatched to a girl’s school with a headmistress who could make Lady Macbeth seem like Marie Osmond. But Matilda develops magical powers and is able to punish her tormentors in the most delightful ways.
DeVito was entranced with the idea of playing Harry Wormwood, the crooked car dealer, with Rhea as his wife, the ditsy Zinnia. But he learned that the Dahl Foundation had commissioned a screenplay that was acquired by Universal Pictures. DeVito moved his Jersey Films from Sony to Universal to prepare the film. Universal passed, and DeVito brought “Matilda” to Sony.
“I made this film for my children – and myself,” he says. “I enjoyed walking that line again, stretching the envelope as far as I could, making it believable and still not damaging anybody.”