Memory is a funny thing. Things that we recall with absolute clarity may be entire fabrications crafted by our brains trying to put random pieces together. It’s how you can remember exactly how a carpet looked in the first house you ever lived in, even though all photographic evidence points to the fact that the house had hardwood floors. And yet, there are certain memories that, fabricated or not, leave an impact, and help shape things for the future.
One such memory that resonates greatly with me revolves around a comedian. I remember sitting with my father, watching television, and how he told me that I needed to watch this particular funny man. Eyes glued to the TV, I remember watching a relatively odd person walk out, and stand next to a record player. The Mighty Mouse theme song started playing, and the man continued to stand there awkwardly. It wasn’t until the line “Here I come to save the day” began that the man sprang into motion, delivering a perfect and epic lip synch. As soon as that line ended, the comedian returned to his awkward persona.
That is how I remember my first introduction to Andy Kaufman, the subject of today’s movie.
Man on the Moon (1999)
The film begins at the end. Or, at least, it purports to. In true Kaufman fashion, the movie plays with expectations and reality. For anyone uninitiated with Kaufman, this may have been off-putting. For those that know his history, seeing Kaufman (Jim Carrey) explain that this is the end of the film, and start the credits, just meshes with what we’ve come to look for. Kaufman spent his career playing with expectations, generally subverting them, and this film does a good job of showing us his path.
The true story moves from Kaufman’s roots, from making “television shows” in his childhood home, to struggling on the comedy circuit because he wasn’t there to tell jokes, but to try and provide a different kind of entertainment, often using children’s songs. Of course, as the audience starts to turn against him, Kaufman’s pitch perfect Elvis impression comes out, all bookended by his “foreign man” persona. One thing leads to another, Kaufman gets noticed, cast on Taxi, has gigs on Saturday Night Live, and watches his star continue to rise, even as he feels that, creatively, he’s being limited. This is proven, at least in Kaufman’s eyes, when he is invited to college campuses, and the audiences expect to see the characters he’s become famous for, leading him to read The Great Gatsby in its entirety.
The movie not only touches on Kaufman’s feelings towards sitcoms and what he felt was the appropriation of his “foreign man” character, but his interaction with the character of Tony Clifton. Completely the opposite of Kaufman’s standard persona in just about every way, Clifton was loud, brash, and rude to the point of offense. And, in true Kaufman fashion, he consistently denied that he was Clifton, even going out of his way to arrange that someone else portray the character, so that he could be seen talking to Tony.
Something that even non-Kaufman fans know about from his life is his feud with Jerry Lawler, and his efforts to become a professional wrestler. Even through this, Kaufman never really took it seriously, instead admiring the theatricality of professional wrestling, and he proceeds to only wrestle women. Eventually, the “feud” with Lawler comes to a head, and the two have a match, resulting in Kaufman suffering an injury (the injury was real. The length of time Kaufman nursed it to drag out the joke wasn’t).
The movie eventually winds down, showing Kaufman as he struggled through his failing health, even including an attempt to receive health from a faith healer. The movie even makes sure to include a scene from one year after Kaufman’s death, with Tony Clifton appearing on stage at a benefit. It was this moment, along with the general impression of Kaufman’s performance style that has, and still does, lead to people speculating that the entire death was an elaborate fake-out. Even 30 years later, there are people who will swear that they’ve been invited to talk personally with Kaufman, under the stipulation that they only mention who they were talking to, and no further details.
The movie does a good job of showing both Kaufman’s genius and his troubled side. Jim Carrey does a fantastic job embodying the legendary comedian, and, according to reports, embraced Kaufman’s habits of showing up to work completely in character already, and only interacting as said character. Paul Giamatti takes on the role of Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s longtime friend and partner. In fact, in many, but not all, of the cases where Kaufman was present during a Clifton performance, Zmuda was the man behind the jowls. The way that Giamatti inhabits Zmuda’s skin is powerful, presenting him as exactly the right kind of person to not only deal with, but help flourish, the sort of madness that Kaufman embodied.
Yes, the movie plays with aspects of Kaufman’s life, either minimizing them completely, or making them to be much bigger to better suit dramatic purposes. People that were not in certain moments are given starring roles, and others are eliminated, all to help the dramatic arc (and, in some critics eyes, to make those other characters more influential on Kaufman himself). And yet, in many ways, this would be the kind of biopic that Kaufman would have wanted for himself. He was always willing to recreate the truth of his life to better suit his goals.
And really, any performer willing to take his audience out for milk and cookies, regardless of when it happens in their career, deserves to have their story told in a way that seems almost like how they themselves would tell it.