Pee-wee’s Big Adventure plays at the Trylon Cinema from Thursday, January 11th, through Sunday, January 14th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
What movie has the finest ensemble cast of the 1980s? Hannah and her Sisters? The Color Purple? The Breakfast Club? The Untouchables? Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean if you’re feeling obscure? Nope! It’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
I could write two other blog posts explaining why it’s the best film of Tim Burton’s career and a crowning achievement of American cinema in general, but let’s take these things as a given and spend some time diving into the MVPs of the cast. Note: I’m focusing on the supporting players here as Paul Reubens’ performance as Pee-wee speaks for itself. Also, I’m not interested in rankings, so these are not ranked and are simply in order of appearance.
Erica Yohn as Madame Ruby
Here’s the woman who makes the whole plot possible! Erica Yohn gives a great turn as a huckster spiritualist. I imitate how she pronounces the “T” at the end of “basement” at least once weekly.
Judd Omen as Mickey
It’s always exciting to see a performer choose to act with utter conviction where others might phone it in or ham it up. Judd Omen positively kills his scene. He has the intensity of an understudy for Dog Day Afternoon and the charisma of a real action star. Just watch his eyes pop out of his head a bit when he curses, “I’m bad, Pee-wee!” Also, “See you in the promised land. Arrivederci, baby!” should be a more famous 80s mic-drop line than “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker.”
Alice Nunn as Large Marge
The brilliant screenplay gives everyone a lot to work with, no matter how small the part. Here, Alice Nunn is mesmerizing—and, of course terrifying—as butch icon Large Marge. I started watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as a wizened 16-year-old, so unfortunately her jarring stop-motion cackle didn’t quite traumatize me like it did my friends who watched it as young kids. That said, “it was the worst accident I ever seen” is among the best line deliveries in the movie and I look forward to it on every viewing.
Diane Salinger as Simone
If we must ascribe a message to this film, it’s “follow your dreams and don’t forget the people you meet along the way.” Diane Salinger embodies this beautifully. With a single glance at Pee-wee as he earns his keep in the diner kitchen, she channels mystery and pathos. When she bonds with Pee-wee over her Paris dream and his love of his bike, her face is all soulful compassion. I’d like to form a club for other people who clock her immediately when she pops up almost 20 years later as Steve Buscemi’s therapist at the end of Ghost World.
Jan Hooks as Tina
Jan Hooks has a deceptively tough gig as Tina the Alamo tour guide. She’s wonderfully likable and poised as she recites her canned speech, but she’s ultimately responsible for delivering the heartbreaking, climactic line of the film (“There’s no basement at the Alamo!”). Watch how she draws out each utterance just a bit longer than necessary with her charming, over-the-top Texas drawl. By doing this, she feeds the growing tension throughout the tour. Masterful!
Carmen Filpi as Jack
I have a difficult time laughing, really laughing, at movies and TV. I may smile or raise my eyebrows, but a true, wheezing crack-up is a treasured rarity. I’m actually more likely to laugh at a line from a book. This makes me miserably suspicious of people who can cackle all the way through a movie, especially in public. I’ll seek the root cause of this out when I return to therapy one day, but I digress. Anyway, Carmen Filpi’s approximately 45 seconds on screen crescendo to an unbearable rendition of Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don’t Care. I’m a little desensitized now, but for years I was able to rouse myself into rib-shattering laughter by simply imagining the moment when his final bellow drives Pee-wee to jump off the train. A+ to Filpi!
Cassandra Peterson aka ELVIRA!!! as Biker Mama
I wanted to honor the fantastic biker/Tequila dancing scene (the moment where Pee-wee knocks over all the motorcycles also has the power to actually make me laugh—hats off!) in this list somehow, and was delighted to find that the Biker Mama is played by none other than Cassandra Peterson, otherwise known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I suppose this explains why she shimmers with high-frequency star power for her few moments onscreen. In the Elvira spirit, she manages to make her “I say you let me have him first!” line just suggestive enough that it’s menacing and weird for a kid’s film—but also a little titillating.
The Rest of the Cast as Everyone Else
This was a painful list to put together. I considered including plenty of other cast members, including but not limited to the kid actor from the film set Pee-wee crashes, Amazing Larry, Morgan Fairchild, and Chris Brolin as Dottie and P.W., and Twisted Sister. How to reconcile this? I guess you will simply have to catch the film at the Trylon and make your own bingo card of MVPs.
Edited by Finn Odum