Movie director-screenwriter Alexander Payne said Friday night that he had long resisted being the subject of the Omaha Press Club's roast.
“I didn't think anyone would have anything negative to say about me,” he told a packed house of more than 300, keeping a poker face. “Well, anyway.”
Anyway is right.
Payne, a double Oscar winner born and raised in Omaha, became the club's 139th Face on the Barroom Floor. Several who know him well found one or two things to say about his matinee-idol looks, his Greek heritage, his obsession with cats and his alleged long-held desire to be the most famous Nebraskan.
They also said one or two sexual things about him that can't be printed in a family newspaper.
The occasion was the recent opening of Payne's sixth feature, “Nebraska,” which again has him being talked about for year-end awards.
“Nebraska” is the fourth movie Payne has shot primarily in his home state, this time mostly in small towns around Norfolk.
Creighton Prep high school classmate Mike Decker, an Omaha attorney, said he found Payne difficult to roast.
“You can't do a fat joke, a bald joke, a short joke,” Decker said. “And he made it harder by seating his mother, Peggy, right here. ... But there are websites devoted to his many hairstyles.”
Decker said Payne's vanity about having a Hollywood tan is over now, though. “Today a tanning day for him is just 50 shades of gray.”
Decker unveiled a photo of a teenage Payne dressed as a cowboy all in white (authentic Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Decker cracked) with six-shooters drawn in each hand. Though the photo was taken in the Prep library during a senior prank, Decker said Payne was shooting a little-known movie at the time, “Brokeback Biblioteka.”
Kurt Andersen, a fellow Nebraska native and host of NPR's “Studio 360,” reminded Payne he was not the Omaha Press Club's first honoree of Greek heritage. In 1972, a year before he resigned as vice president of the United States, Spiro Agnew was the club's fourth Face on the Barroom Floor.
Andersen complained about how a recent feature he wrote for the New York Times, about a road trip he took across Nebraska with Payne, was edited. “There's a vast conspiracy in the American press to protect Alexander Payne because they love him and his movies,” Andersen said.
He also drew applause by saying Payne tells stories on-screen that are “authentically and deeply and absolutely American, in all their heartbreak and comedy, in a way nobody else is doing. I'm grateful my friend Alexander is satisfying our hunger for that.”
Dr. Ann Beeder, a psychiatrist at Cornell University who met Payne while the two took a practice SAT test at Central High School, explored his psyche through a slide presentation of portraits she had painted of him.
Payne, she said, is obsessed with being the most famous Nebraskan — and, “pathologically,” with cats.
Payne, she said, told her she should do an art exhibit of his portraits, which she will do in Paris next spring. The exhibit is to be titled “The Most Famous Nebraskan.”
She told the audience it should get a partial refund, since Payne could have gotten big stars like George Clooney to roast him, “and instead he asks me.”
Will Forte, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer-actor who co-stars with Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” said he was not mean enough to be the roasting type, so he prepared by being rude to waiters and yelling at his mom. “But this is what you wanted, you (expletive),” he cracked.
In a hilarious, profanity-laced rant, Forte would first insult Payne in a loud voice, then whisper groveling compliments contradicting each slur.
He said he was puzzled that people keep talking about “Nebraska” being a black-and-white movie, but “this movie is pretty much all white. I don't recall a single black person in this movie.”
Payne got into the spirit by recalling that Decker was once the shortest, skinniest kid in class; that Andersen ruined their road trip by eating an extra helping of refried beans over lunch; that it was now clear why Beeder belonged in psychiatry and not the arts; and that he chose Forte to be in “Nebraska” because “I needed an actor I was sure would not overshadow Bruce's performance.”
More seriously, Payne said, the event meant more to him than he anticipated as he looked out on an audience full of “people who have meant something to me my whole life. Thank you for coming.”