By Sandra Schulman|
Ally McBeal is both an award winning hit show and a cultural lightening rod for issues of feminism, sex, law, morality, and sometimes, even love. While much attention and controversy swirls around title character and star Calista Flockhart - miniskirts in court! poster girl for anorexia! it's the men of Ally's world that drive much of the "dramedy's" love angst. And according to Fox Network, 40 percent of the show's viewers are men.
If you have been on the planet for the last two years, you know that Ally McBeal is a wacky show that takes place within the setting of a law firm. Of the nine major characters on the show, six are (gorgeous) women; Georgia, Billy's beautiful and intelligent wife (Courtney Thorne Smith); Elaine, Ally's officious assistant (Jane Krakowski); Renee, Ally's sassy confidante and roommate (Lisa Nicole Carson); Nell (Portia di Rossi), the newcomer to the firm; and Ling (Lucy Liu), the one-time lawsuit crazed beauty who brought chaos to all by joining the firm. As anyone who has seen the show can attest, they are quite a handful!
Left to that monumental albeit ofttimes pleasant task are the three male stars, character actors John "The Biscuit" Cage (Peter MacNicol), the quirky but brilliant, stuttering, frog loving, legal strategist; Billy (Gil Bellows), Ally's former boyfriend and Georgia's current husband (sort of- she's currently suing the firm for causing her divorce); and Richard Fish (Greg Germann), ringleader to the group and head of the firm.
In the past two years, each of the characters has in some way or the other been romantically involved with each other, or at the very least, been involved in the romances of each other. People have been working hard, but not necessarily on legal briefs.
So just what is the meaning of love as portrayed by the men of Ally McBeal? Who knows? As John Cage would say "a moment, please". We may also need a Fish-ism, outre sayings from Richard Fish, or a radical change of heart- and haircolor- from Billy, to figure that out.
Note that none of these actors are classically handsome (well, maybe Billy if that's your type), and all have exhibited seriously weird character traits over the past few seasons; Fish had a wattle fetish, Cage loved a frog and bleached-blonde Billy surrounded himself with a female harem. Yet, no matter what they do, they still get the women. Why is that?
Appealing yet oddball males can be found in Shakespearen stories and in literature. Why did Beauty love the Beast? Perhaps for the same reason Fay Wray wept when King Kong, bullet-riddled and raging, tumbled off the Empire State Building to his death. They saw the kindly heart behind the hideous head.
In last year's theatrical release of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Helena (played by Calista Flockhart, incidently) and Queen of the Fairies Titania (portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, wife of Ally creator David E. Kelley) are both fooled in love by mischievous fairies. Helena goes from being totally rejected my men to having two men in love with her; while Titania falls for a man who has the head of an ass! Even through rose-colored glasses, love can be blind.
So why can't the diminutive, quirky Cage snare a woman as stunning as the blonde on blonde Nell? Well, he can! Fish ping pongs from the delicious wattle of Whipper (Dyan Cannon) to the Szechwan spice of the exotic Ling And Billy, for all his blank faced mannerisms, managed to marry the blue eyed Georgia after leaving Ally heartbroken at law school. All is fair in love and war indeed.
Some may confuse the shows fictional characters with real life - as evidenced by Time magazines cover story on the death of feminism that featured McBeal - but the actors know that sometimes a story is just a story. In "real life", MacNichol, Germann and Bellows are all happily married with extensive film, stage and TV credits to their names.
MacNichol's character Cage is so convincingly eccentric he was nominated for an Emmy in the show?s second season. The versatile MacNichol has also appeared in "Sophie's Choice", "Bean" and in TV's Chicago Hope, but the bulk of his career has been on the stage. Texas-born MacNichol lives with wife Marsue in Los Angeles.
Gil Bellow's character Billy is a gentler - if slightly confused - soul. He left Ally for truer love with Georgia, although Georgia's recent divorce filing puts the union in doubt. She cites the law firm, their unisex bathrooms and Billy bleaching his hair blond as chief factors in the relationship's demise.
In his career, actor Bellows has played everything from a homeless drifter, to a yuppie magician, to an inmate in "The Shawshank Redemption". His often unrevealing facial expression allows for a myriad of interpretations. Offscreen, Bellows lives in LA, is married and had a child last year, a life changing situation that has become something of an obsession for him. The Ally McBeal co-star took childbirth so seriously he did everything but deliver his daughter Ava Emmanuelle himself. Actually he did that too, with the help of a midwife. "I was the first person to see Ava's head come out," says Bellows, whose wife is actress Rya Kihlstedt. Bellows, who cut the umbilical cord, had studied up on pregnancy so thoroughly that he could tell Rya what was going on inside her body at each stage. "I felt like Professor Gil," he says, laughing.
The couple decided to have a home birth in part because Rya's mom had no problems in labor. Indeed, when the big moment came on April 4, Ava "just scooted out," Bellows recalls. "She was like, I'm here already. She keeps me up in a good way. I stay up to take care of her and watch sports news and then I go to sleep. I have another shift when I wake up before I go to work. She's funny, she's cute. I highly recommend it," he says.
Bellows maintains a healthy sense of irony when it comes to his good career fortune. "A friend once told me that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success," he says. "It's taken me about nine and a half."
Greg Germann is married to singer Christine Mourad, splitting his time between New York and LA. But he offers no excuses for the smarmy behavior of Richard Fish. "Fish? He's unapologetic," says Germann, who quickly adds that his character is "probably pretty good at heart." Although he's a team player, he's no Duddley Do-Right. In fact, Fish's favorite line is "It's not just winning, it's winning ugly that matters."
Fish's unpredictability mirrors Germann's career, whose work on the stage in New York, in the series "Bakersfield PD" or as the desk clerk in 1993's "So I Married An Axe Murderer." shows his slightly schizo technique.
Germann attributes his popularity to "my tight jeans, the physique, the intellect, the comic timing." The Ally show, Germann says "Is like a Preston Sturgess movie...it moves fast, it's funny and romantic. I even enjoyed the frog episodes. All my life, I only caught them. I never had to act with one. But I loved the frog. The little boy in me came out when we'd play with it between shots."
Germann, the son of a playwright father and homemaker mom, grew up acting in local stage productions in Golden, Colorado. In the early '80's, he moved to New York City and began landing Off-Broadway roles. After winning parts on the short-lived TV shows "Sweet Justice" and "Ned and Stacey", he was tapped by Ally creator David E. Kelley for the loopy law firm in 1997. "Sometimes," says Kelley, "you cast an actor who has the talent to do anything, and that is Greg." In addition to attempting to revive a frog, Germann has stretched his range by mud-wrestling a woman on the show.
"That's the beauty of the show," says Germann, who lives in a Spanish-style LA home with wife Christine, 33, an actress, and son, Asa, 1. "I get to do these things that appeal to 5-year-olds. When I was a kid I'd write notes to girls that said, 'Do you like me: More than a friend, less than a friend, as a friend, check one.' Invariably I would get 'As a friend,' which is heartbreaking enough. Then underneath they would write 'But you're funny.' I loathed it. I felt like, God, I want to be something besides funny!"
Times have changed and now Germann doesn't mind getting noticed on what many consider to be chick show. "If you had that many men [in the cast] and it was called Billy McNeal, people wouldn't say it was a guy's show," he reasons.
Germann particularly enjoyed stroking Dyan Cannon's neck wattle "I loved that scene. It didn't feel safe." Such an off-kilter sensibility is a plus on a show where characters do much of their emoting in a unisex bathroom. "I think it's great," Germann says. "One week, you actually heard peeing! I think the show is very romantic."
Now that is the true meaning of 21st century romance! The men of Ally McBeal are so weird, they're lovable. They're so confused, yet understanding. They're so lonely, yet compassionate. They're bewildered and secure at the very same time. Now, what woman wouldn't love to have a man like that for her very own.
If loving men who are quirky, self-centered, romantic and greedy as all get-out is your idea of romance, ladies, Happy Valentines Day!