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Madness in his Method: Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman

  Andy Kaufman (1949-84) is often described as one of a kind, thanks to his dedication to character comedy that blurred the lines between performance and real life in such a way that people are still trying to understand him decades later. He emerged apparently fully-formed as an act from the comedy clubs and was original enough with his "Foreign Man" persona and Elvis Presley impersonation to immediately catch on, winning television gigs where his "you either get it or you don't" humour was popular with the hip crowd who definitely wanted to be in on the jokes, if indeed they were jokes. Yet as popularity soared, with a role on hit sitcom Taxi bringing him to millions worldwide, he seemed determined to sabotage that success, and behaved in increasingly erratic ways.

When he died from a rare form of lung cancer, he was thirty-five years old and such was his particular styling that not everyone believed he was dead, fully expecting his illness to have been a put-on that he was going to make a comeback from: many believed this for some years after he left us, though it's apparent now, so long after the fact, that he genuinely did die as life played the ultimate prank on him which he could not think up an answer to. Nevertheless, he was such a personality, that he has exerted a fascination for comedy fans who seek out what record of his act remains - you could watch one hundred and fourteen episodes of Taxi, but he did not write that, he simply performed it with reputedly extremely mixed feelings about his role of Latka Gravas, which asked him to put on the Foreign Man voice as shtick.

However, what if Kaufman did live on, for the space of one more movie? He had dabbled in film during his career, despite not being wholly suited to it; his biggest project had been a starring role in science fiction comedy Heartbeeps, a sentimental robot tale that was a disaster at the box office and would have put paid to any more offers even if he had not had died. But in 1999, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, fresh off the success of Tim Burton's Ed Wood and Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, had created the screenplay for another biopic, that of Kaufman, and the casting call attracted names such as Nicolas Cage or John Cusack for the lead. But the man who felt he could embody the spirit of the comedian was another comedian, Jim Carrey, an avowed Kaufman fan with a singular approach.

As with those other Alexander and Karaszewski scripts, Man on the Moon (named after the R.E.M. song about Andy) became a cult movie, though not everyone was convinced it truly captured its subject as intended. It followed him in a fairly linear manner, from his early childhood putting on fake television shows in his bedroom to his nightclub success to the television breakthrough and beyond until his sad decline, indicating that he was amusing himself more than any audience as if he were still that little boy who was playing in front of an imaginary crowd back home in Great Neck, New York. Although the film endorsed the notion of Kaufman as a genius, it seemed less interested in the questions which arose of where the performance ended and the actual person began, taking it as read that Andy was always "on".

At its heart was Carrey, who was doing his own blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, and if he did not garner laughs in the same way as his idol, it was not through want of trying. He was most comfortable as Andy at his most antagonistic, as if any kind of strong reaction, especially anger, was sufficient to satisfy him, with the scenes where he got into wrestling matches against women and eventually professional fighter Jerry Lawler in a public (but staged) feud and riled up the crowd among the best in the picture. When Kaufman and his partner in crime Bob Zmuda (played by Paul Giamatti) angled for ever more disruption in their Las Vegas showbiz monster Tony Clifton persona, it was less amusing because it made you realise that no matter how talented Kaufman was, he would have been a right pain in the arse when he got fixated on one of his acts.

According to Man on the Moon, Andy had a very simplified view of the world that ironically made him a very complex man. He could play the childlike hero of his own narrative, as the Foreign Man or Elvis approaches would deliver, even Mighty Mouse, or the antithesis of that, a cartoonish bad guy who had no more depth than the average wind-up merchant, yet as long as those reactions were flooding in, he was content it was all going well. It was when audiences grew tired of his games playing that he faltered, and it is intriguing to wonder where his career would have developed had he not been diagnosed with the terminal illness: would he merely have ended up a forgotten nightclub comedian once again, that guy who was famous from the television who was a passing fad? He certainly was not the same kind of artist as Carrey.

That was not how Carrey saw it, and once he had won the lead in Forman's biopic he applied himself with undue faith to what he felt was the spirit of Kaufman, meaning he spent the entire shoot in character. For him, this was more than playing a role, it was actually becoming the man himself as he would be in 1998 when the film was created (it was released in 1999), and Kaufman's former girlfriend Lynne Margulies followed him around Universal Studios as he went deep into the method, all to concoct a featurette for the electronic press kit to be given to media outlets looking for footage of behind the scenes and interviews to plug the film with. What she recorded was so unflattering that as Carrey admitted, Universal refused to release it because they did not want the public and his fans believing he was "an asshole".

Therefore the footage lay in the vault until director Chris Smith, whose most celebrated work remained the amateur filmmaking documentary American Movie, and therefore was a very fine choice to assemble what had been collected into a proper narrative, was selected to whip all those clips of Carrey being an asshole into the end result. That was Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which secured an interview with the star to link all this together and offer an insight into where his mind was at when he was making Man on the Moon. Lauded in some places as a fascinating examination of the creative process, in other places the response was more, is Jim Carrey all right in the head? He opened up as far as he could about what he wanted from the role and how he felt prompted by the ghost of Andy, but at times he did not appear to be all there.

Once the documentary had entered its latter stages and Carrey was offering up the opinion that we, including him, were avatars in a computer game, you wondered if he had over-partaken of a certain James Cameron box office champ, not something you would ever be concerned about with Andy - in fact, judging by the interview he had been overly affected by his lead in media satire The Truman Show. Andy was eccentric in his own particular way, but that had not led him to insanity, it had led him to a carefully crafted comic persona, more than one in fact, which had served him up with success and failure alike. Carrey had been one of the biggest movie stars of the nineties with an incredible run of multi-million-dollar hits starting with sleeper blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and ending with... well, Man on the Moon, which signalled his decline as a draw.

This raised all sorts of questions about where the impulse to be different characters to entertain stemmed from, but Smith was not able to answer with anything but conjecture when one of his subjects was, er, unavailable and the other was off in his own little world where he seemed increasingly isolated. There were plenty of clips of Kaufman so we could see how accurate Carrey's embodiment had been, and it was a remarkably sustained performance, yet the footage of him, say, dressed as Tony Clifton and barging into Steven Spielberg's offices to demand to see the shark from Jaws, or reducing crew members to tears, or driving the quietly tolerant Forman to distraction, did not exactly speak to a healthy working environment. The thing was, Man on the Moon was a good film, but it was not really any kind of masterpiece, and if Carrey had resorted to more conventional techniques it would not have been any the worse for it. What we were left with was a light insight into a complicated entertainer, and this documentary, a concerning look into a troubled mind looking for connections and explanations for his success and place in celebrity.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018