I first noticed and identified with the notorious contrarian critic Armond White back in 2011; he hated everything about the now cult-classic Bridesmaids, and raved about the Transformers movie that came out that year: Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (I still can't believe that's the title.) I didn't agree with him, but the bold declaration and stance that White took was something I weirdly admired.
I myself am a contrarian, and I've never known exactly why. It's never to upset anyone, and it isn't to put myself on some "holier than thou" pedestal. Maybe it's because I respect and try to understand why other people are compelled to do things in a different manner. And yes, I can even understand that my previous sentence can come off as self-aggrandizing, but I had no intention of that either.
1999's Man on the Moon, is a brilliant depiction of Andy Kaufman’s legendarily unconventional contrarianism, and Milos Forman's take on his intent. Was Kaufman's subversion done in contempt of his own audience, his social/artistic aspirations, or because he earnestly thought that his body of work was funny, and he was interested in pursuing that, much to the chagrin of his audience and contemporaries?
Kaufman was someone who pursued his own interests during his youth -- ranging from playing the bongos earnestly, to writing poetry and completing an unpublished novel at sixteen years of age. This depiction is done by yet another staunch individual: Jim Carrey, a complex and nuanced take that leaves you with even more questions about Kaufman's life, his public and private persona, and his overall legacy.
The "peek behind the camera" moments during this film are some of its most captivating. This is all heightened by Paul Giamatti's excellent depiction of Bob Zmuda, Andy's manager (who may, or may not have played Tony Clifton in this film as well).
Perhaps Carrey's depiction of Kaufman is further complicated due to Kaufman's own fascination between blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This especially becomes clear during his first forays into wrestling. Kaufman was interested in Kayfabe, and the “heel vs. face” aspects of the "sport." Kayfabe is essentially reality as it is depicted in the wrestling world.
Playing against the popular women’s liberation movement during the mid to late seventies, Kaufman would wrestle “amateur” women: consisting of his sometimes girlfriend and other actresses, and ultimately, as they lost, he declared himself the intergender wrestling champion of the world. As Kaufman worked the crowd in this element, it largely consisted of him being a heel and getting a rise out of the viewers by any means necessary; which was often telling women where their place should be… in the kitchen.
As it often goes, the line between Kayfabe and reality got extremely blurred as Kaufman encountered Jerry the King Lawler in the Continental Wrestling Association based in Memphis, TN. Lawler took issue with Kaufman, and everything he was saying about women, and it ultimately led to a match where Lawler gave Kaufman a piledriver, injuring his neck. Lawler only revealed after Man on the Moon premiered that the entire fight and preceding confrontation on David Letterman’s tonight show, was a work (i.e. a Kayfabe story only). In real life, Lawler and Kaufman were good friends. To further complicate things, Jim & Andy, which came out in 2017, with footage shot by Bob Zmuda, Lawler went on to talk about how Andy was nothing but an utmost professional and a gentleman who always addressed him formally. Considering Zmuda compiled all of the behind the scenes of Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey’s blessing, it’s easy to take this with a grain of salt.
Not only does Lawler state that Kaufman was nothing but a consummate professional, Danny Devito says the exact same thing. This begs the question, what does it benefit to be an asshole to the public that loves you, but in private, be nothing but a carefully measured gentleman?
Every chance that Kaufman could get, he was condescending and demeaning to his public audience. In Man on the Moon, perhaps Carey depicts this even more so than Kaufman originally intended (specifically, when Kaufman went on Letterman for his now infamous Great Gatsby reading, as you watch the original footage it seems as though that was his only intent). Compared to the scene in the film where Carrey depicts Kaufman as having a different, original ambition, and only after hearing someone provokingly yell to “Do Latka!” does he go backstage and grab the book from Zmuda. After a long stretch of reading, he then goes back to say, (as the foreign man) “Thank you very much!” to a smattering of applause. Finally, after another breath, he continues on, reading Gatsby in his “true” affected British accent.
For the entire duration of this film, Carrey was unsurprisingly method acting (aka being an asshole to everyone onset). To be clear, Carrey “meditated for awhile, until Andy took over,” although I'm still calling that method acting. It is rather bizarre to see this depicted in Jim & Andy. He dramatically changes everything about his demeanor when he depicts Andy, or Tony Clifton. His depictions makes you wonder: at what point was Andy Kaufman method acting as Clifton, or as his public persona? Is it possible that the entirety of Andy Kaufman in the limelight was a method acting performance?
Carrey (and Zmuda’s video account) goes on to give a little insight into the process of filming for other people around him. This ranges from Milos Foreman trying to coax Jim out of his Tony and Andy depictions, to getting into in-character fights as Kaufman with the actors who depicted Kaufman’s family as well. As you can imagine, as he turns into Clifton, it gets much more heated and disrupted. Carrey went on all night binge-drinking and smoking benders (even though he never smoked), when he was preparing to play Clifton the following day.
In some truly surreal moments of that footage, there are multiple people that ask Carrey (as Clifton) what he thinks of Jim Carrey. Clifton’s response could easily be construed as desperately trying to get attention, but if that’s not the case; the answer is extremely sad. Clifton easily writes off Carrey as someone who has spent his whole life trying to have everyone around him like him, to cover up how disappointed he is in himself (paraphrased slightly).
As the film winds down, it covers Kaufman’s early, untimely death. There is not a lot of time spent dwelling on this, as he quickly dies of cancer. In the film, Kaufman is projected at the funeral where he encourages everyone to sing along and smile. It’s a beautiful and extremely memorable moment; but on all accounts, it’s merely Hollywood magic. In spite of the questioning of it, Kaufman is in fact dead; he had a small, private funeral.
It is a lovely way to end the movie on a high note, in memoriam of an extremely difficult, yet potentially sweet comedian. As much as I love this movie, I do understand that it is a piece done to show him in a better light, but the only part in the movie where this does happen is the funeral. There was no behind the camera moments where he came off as a sweet, caring and thoughtful man. Carrey’s depiction only has him attempting to get a rise out of anyone he encountered. However, based off the recent documentary, it becomes clear that at least according to DeVito and Lawler, he was a sweet and thoughtful person. This becomes extremely curious that for a biopic, why wouldn’t he be depicted more positively?
Do I still love the misunderstood, fascinating capital “A” Artist, that had his singular albeit contrarian uncompromised vision of what entertainment was to him? Or, do I see through that, and can I understand and accept that he was simply an asshole, like most of the artists I admire?
I think at this point in my life, I can understand being funny, and I can also understand that you can accomplish humor without being an asshole.
I’m at least going to try it dammit!
Jordan graduated in 2009 from Susquehanna University with a degree in Creative Writing and Film Studies where he met his wife. In spite of God's will, he published his first book PESTS with Lloyd Kaufman; the CEO of the independent stalwart Troma Entertainment. You can see him being snarky and cynical on Twitter and Instagram @settlingstatic , and you can find him being deeply, deeply nerdy on Reddit @SkywardJordan.