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A Bugs life

Posted by Mark Feeney  July 27, 2010 10:00 AM

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bugs_bunny_main2.jpgLet us all join in singing that looneyest of tunes and merriest of melodies, "Happy Birthday." Today Bugs Bunny turns 70. Has there been a greater career in Hollywood history? Seriously. Seven decades on, the wisenheimer wabbit, who deploys his carrot the way Groucho did his cigar (and the resemblance does not end there), is still going strong. His most recent role was just two years ago, in "Justice League: The New Frontier. And even his earliest cartoons retain a freshness (in both senses of the word) and bite (ditto) that keeps them playing on cable. Live-action or animated, stars don't come any bigger or better.

Seventy is a major milestone, but that's no reason to sugar-coat and sentimentalize. Part of Bugs' greatness has been his innate orneriness. He was trouble onscreen -- and he could be trouble offscreen, too. You couldn't buy better PR than Bugs got when he very publicly paid for Daffy Duck's anger-management sessions and Porky Pig's speech therapy, then underwrote Elmer Fudd's campaign for the presidency of the NRA. Funny, though, how each character's career went on the skids soon thereafter.

Few have forgotten the notorious email interview Bugs did in The New Yorker when he turned 60. The controversy began when he was allowed to choose the interviewer: John Updike. ("That Harry Angstrom, he's my favorite character in contemporary fiction," Bugs explained. "I do think, however, that Thomas Sanchez is sadly overlooked as a major American novelist.") All hell broke loose with his now-notorious answer to Updike's final question. "Anyone you'd like to credit with contributing to your success?" Bugs was asked. "Uh, sorry, doc, I'm drawing a Blanc [sic]." The furor only increased when David Remnick explained in an editor's note that, rather than being an editorial insertion, that "[sic]" was part of Bugs' answer. The Entertainment Weekly coverline summed up the almost universal response: "Darth Bunny -- All Stick, No Carrot."

In fairness, Bugs may have his reasons for being so harsh. You don't survive seven decades in Hollywood without a measure of ruthlessness. When he sued the playwright David Hare for copyright infringement, Bugs became a First Amendment pariah. Yet people applauded his refusal to sign an endorsement deal with Energizer Battery. "Protecting the brand," he told The Wall Street Journal, "nothing comes before that. The integrity of the Bugs brand is sacred."

His efforts to extend that brand have met with repeated frustration. In such a long career, missed opportunities and might-have-beens are inevitable. But Bugs has had more than his share. He's been so successful at what he does that he's constantly been denied an opportunity to show his range and polish his resume. No one's ever given him the kind of chance Martin Scorsese gave Jerry Lewis in "The King of Comedy." Who's funnier, Ryan O'Neal or Bugs? Well, one guess who Peter Bogdanovich gave the lead to in "What's Up, Doc?" Barbra Streisand reportedly lobbied for casting Bugs because of the support he could have offered her in the comedy's "As Times Goes By" number. "Nobody in the business has better ears," Streisand has repeatedly said.

Robert Zemeckis was interested in Bugs for the title role in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Warner Bros. said it would let its most valuable property appear in a Disney project under one condition. He had to sign what the studio called "a Mickey Mouse contract." You can imagine Bugs' response to that. He settled for just a cameo appearance. Bugs desperately tried to buy the rights to "Watership Down." He was going to direct and play all the parts. "I'll make that Alec Guinness look like Deputy Dawg on a bad day," Bugs boasted to Daily Variety. Alas, the project fell through.

The biggest disappointment in Bugs' career has to be "Fatal Attraction." The part, though small, was pivotal to the plot. Furthermore, it would have marked a real departure for Bugs: drama instead of comedy, victim instead of victimizer. The part didn't even have any lines. Even so, it would have brought his career to a boiling point. Who can doubt that if he'd gotten the role it wouldn't have been Sean Connery who won the 1987 Oscar for best supporting actor -- or bunny, as the case might be.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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