This past weekend, Mayor John Moor of Asbury Park, New Jersey, declared November 17th to be Danny DeVito Day, in honor of the beloved actor and filmmaker, who grew up in the shore community. Gov. Phil Murphy will also deliver a statewide proclamation affirming DeVito’s birthday as an official holiday.
My only question: What the hell took so long?! The man is so much more than state icon — he’s a full-blown national treasure. As far as I’m concerned, you could add his head to Mount Rushmore. And I’m not alone.
Listen: Can you even conceive of someone remotely like DeVito coming along in today’s Marvelized, over-muscled, post-entertainment Hollywood? Is there a single working character actor younger than Michael Shannon these days, let alone a guy with the range to do One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and My Little Pony: The Movie? Someone whose dark-comedy slapstick could span the 30-plus years from Ruthless People to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where it’s been honed to untouchable mastery of the form? That the uncouth sitcom even made it to Season Two is a testament to his powers, while his conscience keeps it from pushing the envelope in the wrong direction.
As the Kanyes and Trumps of the world make a powerful case for the deranging, debilitating effects of wealth and fame, the 73-year-old DeVito demonstrates an incredible command of ego along with unapologetically progressive views. He’s a celebrity brave enough to call the U.S. “a racist country built on the boards of genocide” and tweet photos of his stubby, self-described “trollfoot.” This is a man who, although starstruck upon first meeting Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s, immediately began haranguing the rock star for owing a mutual friend $1.38 for a meatball sub. My New Jerseyan mind boggles at the fearlessness of speaking to The Boss this way. Oh, and don’t forget how he told Antonin Scalia to remove his ass from the Supreme Court.
But lest you think DeVito’s status as internet “woke bae” is the product of his recent political engagement or support for Bernie Sanders, return for a moment to his filmography. Probably no supervillain has had the pathos of his deformed, abandoned, unloved Oswald Cobblepot — a.k.a. The Penguin — in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. He was a producer of Erin Brockovich, which memorably made the case for individual activism against seemingly insurmountable odds. And two of DeVito’s notable mid-career movies (Junior and Twins) saw him cast as a shrimplike, misshapen foil to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idealized masculine figure.
Twins, in which the pair play test-tube brothers separated at birth, includes the rather distressing twist that DeVito is the sum of genetic refuse left over from the creation of Schwarzenegger, a genetically perfect Übermensch. Did DeVito need to accept a part that played almost cruelly on his distinctive stature? Of course not. Yet here, as in many roles, he cemented the American appeal of the underdog, overshadowing a man nearly a foot and a half taller.
If we love DeVito today, it’s because he continues to be that anomaly: a man of unquestionable status (not even Springsteen has a New Jersey holiday to call his own!) who doesn’t micromanage his appearance or voice. We can only envy how comfortable he seems in his skin. He moves independent of the PR machine, trolling his fans and busting balls as he pleases. He’s the opposite of a sellout, leaning into the bleak and misanthropic with risky directorial projects like Throw Momma from the Train and Death to Smoochy where others would have aimed to capitalize on a broader, shallower audience. Somehow he has hung on to his roots — he’s currently pushing for a tax incentive to bring film and TV production jobs to New Jersey — and eluded the patent phoniness that plagues his industry. What makes him such a delight as a thoughtless sleaze (“When I’m dead, just throw me in the trash,” he says as Frank Reynolds, the appalling patriarch of Always Sunny) is how this grotesquerie is confined to the screen.
One should never put complete faith in a male celebrity to be a good person who always does the right thing. But if you had to pick a guy to stand by, DeVito is up there with Keanu Reeves. I’m really not sure I can wait till November to binge-watch everything he’s been in while doing dramatic readings of his tweets and cutting my toenails with a steak knife. I might just make those my weekend plans. Each second we share this planet with him is a blessing, and I will never take a single one for granted. The day of recognition is a nice start, but keep your fingers crossed for the day DeVito is appointed ambassador to the aliens that make first contact. He’s clearly our best hope.