Mike Myers will not reveal his source, but he swears it is impeccable. Apparently, the late King Hussein was a fan of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. And before his death from cancer last February, the Jordanian monarch, who had lost his hair from radiation treatments, took great delight in doing imitations of Dr. Evil, the bald arch-nemesis played by Myers in Austin Powers. (Cryogenically frozen in the '60s, and defrosted in the '90s, Dr. Evil becomes a laughing stock among world leaders when he threatens to annihilate the planet unless he receives a ransom of "one million dollars.") Hussein "would do Dr. Evil all the time," says Myers. "Evidently, he went to a meeting at the Pentagon and he turned to people and said, 'Gentlemen, I would like 20 F-16s - and one million dollars!'"
Now all we need are rumours that Bill Clinton goes around the White House saying, "Yeah baby! Oh, behave! Shag-a-delic!" Not since ... well, not since Myers hatched Wayne's World in 1992 has a movie latched itself onto the zeitgeist with such a profusion of Velcro-like catch phrases. Austin Powers, the horny British spy with the frilly shirts, fake chest hair and bad teeth has become a cuddly mascot for an age weary of correct behaviour, a symbol of safe sexism. In 1997, Titanic became the biggest motion picture of all time, but Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery offered up the year's most unsinkable schtick. And now the sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is being launched as coy counter-programming to the next biggest motion picture of all time ("If you see only one movie this summer," the ad goes, "see Star Wars, but if you see two movies....") But it has become an overhyped blockbuster in its own right - complete with a Madonna video, and a line of merchandise that includes a talking Felicity Shagwell doll and collectible Bell Canada calling cards.
In accordance with the law of sequels, the follow-up lacks the freshness of the original, and tries too hard to milk a few well-worn gags. But, speaking of milk, one has to admire the naughty bit of marketing synergy that has Austin Powers sporting a milk moustache in a dairy industry advertisement, then showing up in the movie wearing a brown version of it after unwittingly drinking a glass of liquefied excrement. Yes, the gross-out toilet humour in The Spy Who Shagged Me descends deep into Ace Ventura territory. And it is hard to imagine anyone being old enough and smart enough to pick up the movie's myriad cultural references while remaining sufficiently immature to lap up all the dumb comedy.
Myers seems as amazed as anyone else that the character's skewed charm should have found such wide currency. "It's outrageously flattering," said the polite 36-year-old Canadian actor, holding court in an abandoned casino atop the Carlton Hotel during last month's Cannes International Film Festival. In its heyday, the casino was the kind of place where a dinner-jacketed James Bond, or a velvetine Austin Powers, would have felt right at home, challenging some droll megalomaniac to a game of baccarat. But Myers, wearing a T-shirt with a NASA baseball cap perched over his crew cut, does not look remotely like an international man of mystery.
He looks like a Canadian. And, although he is an expatriate living in Los Angeles with his wife, screenwriter Robin Ruzan, he remains a die-hard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "If the Leafs won," he said, as he tracked their playoff hopes from Cannes, "I think I'd end up on Yonge Street naked, playing the tuba." That is one vow he will not have to keep, at least this year. "But when that day comes," he says, "there will be the sound of trumpets. Those that were faithful will be taken up to the kingdom of heaven. Those that were doubters will be smoked. I definitely bleed blue."
Myers is a star with the soul of a fan. He worships the past, and has made a career out of fetishizing it - concocting Wayne's World from a '70s adolescence of donut shops and heavy metal, then fashioning Austin Powers from nostalgic memories of a boyhood spent watching spy movies on TV. Myers grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, one of three sons born to Eric and Bunny Myers, who immigrated to Canada from England in 1956. His mother was an actress who gave up her career to raise her children. But Myers points to his father, who died in 1991, as his greatest comic inspiration. Eric, a Liverpudlian who made his living selling the Encyclopedia Britannica, introduced him to Monty Python and Peter Sellers, influences that left an indelible mark.
No matter how broad his comedy gets, Myers invests it with arcane detail and a studious wit. As a teenager applying to Toronto's York University, he submitted an essay with his application titled "Joseph Campbell's Cosmogenic Monomyth Cycle and The Spy Who Loved Me." But he chose show business as his postsecondary education. On his last day of high school, Myers went straight from writing his final exam to acing an audition with Toronto's Second City comedy troupe. Eight years after joining Second City, Myers landed a job with Saturday Night Live, where he created a gallery of memorable characters - from head-banger Wayne Campbell to Coffee Talk's Linda Richman.
After six years at SNL, and the success of two Wayne's World movies, Myers took a year and a half off to travel, to improve his hockey skills and to read. During the sabbatical, he says, "I heard the song The Look of Love by Burt Bacharach. And all the childhood memories of my father, of watching Monty Python and Benny Hill and Carry On movies and The Mouse that Roared and Strangelove, all the James Bond movies ... it all came back." Myers wrote Austin Powers in three weeks. He sent the script to an executive at New Line Cinema. "I sent it over in the morning, and that afternoon he green-lit it, which is unheard of," says Meyers. The movie cost just $18 million to make, grossed $80 million at the North American box office, and $65 million in video rentals.
Behind the goofy antics of Wayne Campbell and Austin Powers is an actor who, by all accounts, is fanatically dedicated. "He's a very serious, hardworking perfectionist, and nothing like his character," says Myers's co-star, Heather Graham (Roller Girl in Boogie Nights), who plays CIA pop tart Felicity Shagwell in The Spy Who Shagged Me. And Myers displayed surprising versatility by tackling a dramatic role in 54. Although the movie was dreck, he won acclaim for his intensely creepy portrayal of Studio 54's sybaritic owner, Steve Rubell. It was as if, in Rubell, Myers had found the dark, disco flip side to Austin's blameless libido. But the actor appears in no hurry to shed his latest comic persona. Austin Powers, he says, "spoke to my heart - definitely more than Wayne's World." And he hopes to turn it into a franchise, in the spirit of Sellers's five Pink Panther films. "If someone said every second movie I did had to be Austin Powers," he insists, "I'd be very happy."
Austin Powers is a warm, fuzzy cartoon of Sixties psychedelia, a Shirley Temple cocktail of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, without the drugs. And Myers has a theory for it. In the Sixties, he says, "everything got redesigned, and the subtext was: 'I'm sexually liberated and you're an uptight square and you can't handle it.' Everything was eroticized. Even the jumbo jet was sexy. And obsession of any kind is inherently comedic, that obsession with trying to freak people out - 'this is a crazy movie, it doesn't have a plot, you can't handle it.' "
Some people even find The Spy Who Shagged Me too hard to handle. In England, where "shag" is considered almost as rude as its f-word synonym, some newspapers hesitated to run ads for the film. And in Singapore, censors insisted on changing the title to The Spy Who Shoiked Me. In the local Singlish dialect, the word "shoik" means "to speak well of," explains Myers. "So it's The Spy Who Spoke Well of Me. I think that's hilarious. This always happens. In Italy, Wayne's World was called Confusi di Testa, or Confusion of the Head, and in Portugal the title translated as Don't Count Them Out But They Are Idiots Nonetheless."
Like his Canadian compatriot Jim Carrey, Myers has made his name playing hero-nerds with arrested libidos, and made a science out of scavenging kitsch. "Right now," says Myers, "pop culture is an appetizer tray. We're trying a bit of this and a bit of that. It's weird to think there's no movement in music. Rap is 20 years old. Techno samples These Boots Are Made for Walking against a Kraftwerk beat. It's like a kaleidoscope - you just turn it and that's the new creation."
Which is exactly what Myers has done with Austin Powers. Tapping rec-room memories and TV dreams, this child of the Canadian suburbs has spun British wit and American vulgarity into a wild confection that seems neither British nor American - another case of secret cultural identity. Who knows? Perhaps the mild-mannered Mike Myers is just a shag-a-delic double agent - working undercover with Canadian intelligence.
Good and Evil
Austin Powers: The spy who shagged me
Directed by Jay Roach
As with the James Bond flicks that it mocks with needling affection, the most fun is to be had in the opening credits, which begin with a prologue in the 3-D lettering of Star Wars, a voice on the sound track that sounds like Shirley Bassey with a throat infection, and a montage that has Austin Powers cavorting with synchronized swimmers. For the first half of the film, as the premise kicks in, the gags just keep on coming. And to its credit, this is one movie that never pretends to be more than the sum of its jokes. But eventually the schtick wears thin, and this Austin Powers sequel feels bloated by a manic attempt to outdo the original.
With a virtuosity reminiscent of Peter Sellers, Myers plays three roles: spy/fashion photographer Austin Powers, his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil, and a newly added henchman, a disgusting 500-lb. Scot named Fat Bastard. The droll Dr. Evil is, once again, the richest character. The sequel finds him headquartered in a Starbucks tower, and appearing on Jerry Springer with his punk son (Seth Green) in a show titled My Father is Evil and Wants to Take Over the World. Reversing the original story line, the sequel sends Austin and Dr. Evil back in time, to 1969. Dr. Evil somehow steals Austin's "mojo" - his libido- and our hero spends the movie trying to get it back, with the help of Felicity Shagwell, a CIA sexpot flatly played by Heather Graham.
The sequel offers some nifty touches, notably a midget clone of Dr. Evil named Mini-Me, and kooky cameos from Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson. But as the script runs out of ideas, it falls back on a string of scatological sight gags. With Myers's mojo working overtime, the comedy, like an overeager adolescent, is consummated before the movie's over.
Maclean's June 14, 1999