Dr. Strangelove live read
Courtesy of Film Independent

Controversy magnet Shia LaBeouf earned big laughs Thursday playing a demented military General whose fear of fluoride leads to armageddon in a raucous Live Read of the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove.”

Returning to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art following last month’s sojourn to downtown L.A., the event was introduced by Film Independent’s curator Elvis Mitchell, who compared the characters in Stanley Kubrick’s absurdist doomsday comedy with modern politicians like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin.

The script was selected by filmmaker Mark Romanek, filling in for Live Read founder Jason Reitman, who was seated in the audience for the performance. Romanek, who helmed “One Hour Photo” and “Never Let Me Go,” called the black comedy “my favorite I can think of.”

No stranger to Kubrick’s work, Romanek is attached to direct a prequel to the 1980 horror masterpiece “The Shining.” As in the past, the reading was performed exclusively for those present in the theater, and no recordings of any kind were permitted.

Before introducing the cast, Romanek explained that the Oscar nominated screenplay for “Dr. Strangelove” was originally conceived as a serious drama, but Kubrick lightened its tone when the paradox of mutually assured destruction struck him as morbidly funny. Satirical author Terry Southern, whose comic novel “The Magic Christian” Kubrick greatly admired, joined the project as co-writer.

To bring the script’s outrageous characters to life, Romanek selected a group of performers with impressive comedy chops.

Seth Rogen read the role of General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, originally played by George C. Scott in the film, and Olivia Wilde performed the role of Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, Miss Scott.

Using a delightfully silly British accent, actor and comedian Josh Gad voiced Royal Air Force Captain Lionel Mandrake, one of three characters played by Sellers in the movie. His Monty Pythonesque line deliveries scored major laughs throughout the reading.

In another role originated by Sellers, SCTV alumni and improv legend Catherine O’Hara portrayed beleaguered American President Merkin Muffley, who finds herself sequestered in the War Room with a group of squabbling advisors. At times, the script’s masculine pronoun caused confusion among the cast, who alternately referred to her as “Mr. President” and “Madam President,” depending on who was speaking.

In perhaps the riskiest casting of the night, LaBeouf read the role of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, unforgettably played by Sterling Hayden in the movie. The “Transformers” star, whose off-screen antics include wearing a brown paper bag on his head at the Berlin Film Festival, proved to be an inspired choice for the part. Barking his lines with a gruff, vaguely Southern accent, the actor imbued General Ripper with a tough exterior masking a deranged psyche. In a nod to Hayden’s cigar-chomping performance, LaBeouf lit a cigarette on stage, much to the amusement of his fellow actors.

Playing bomber pilot T.J. ‘King’ Kong, “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville took the stage dressed in a full military flight suit, with a comically fake mustache glued to his upper lip. As portrayed by Slim Pickens in the movie, the character is well known for the cowboy hat he dons halfway through the story. Switching things up a bit, Knoxville produced a Roman gladiator helmet instead, and wore it for the entire reading.

Croaking his dialogue like a wheezing Werner Herzog, Sir Patrick Stewart was gleefully unhinged as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove. Whether strangling himself on stage, or punctuating his lines with Nazi-inflected outbursts, Stewart stole the show with his maniacally funny performance.

Rounding out the cast were Fred Willard as the script’s authoritative narrator, Colin Hanks as Colonel “Bat” Guano and P.J. Byrne as Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski.

Romanek read the script’s stage directions himself.

Though none of the performers were given the script beforehand and no rehearsals were held, the cast found their rhythm rather quickly, and an unmistakable chemistry developed between them. LaBeouf and Gad, in particular, formed a unique bond during their scenes together. Like a seasoned comedy duo, the pair fed off each other’s manic energy, bringing their characters to life with hilarious results.

Highlights included General Turgidson’s extended monologue about getting the jump on “the Russkies,” Captain Mandrake begging a telephone operator to allow him to make a collect call to The White House, and Catherine O’Hara’s exasperated delivery of the President’s iconic line “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

In a surprise appearance at the end of the reading, Grammy-winner Fiona Apple walked on stage and delivered a lovely a cappella rendition of the 1939 standard “We’ll Meet Again,” which accompanies a montage of nuclear explosions at the climax of the film.

Halfway through her song, however, Johnny Knoxville tossed a whipped cream pie in her face, mirroring the movie’s original pie fight ending, which Kubrick wisely cut at the last minute.

Stifling laughter, and covered in cream, Apple continued singing as the entire audience joined in with her, reading the lyrics off a giant screen behind the stage.

Kubrick himself couldn’t have planned a funnier ending.

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