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According to Jim Carrey’s version, Universal seized and shelved material filmed for the EPK of Man on the Moon, Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic of Andy Kaufman, “Because we didn’t want people to think Jim’s an asshole.” Now, almost 20 years later, that on-set footage, shot by Kaufman’s former girlfriend, Lynn Margulies, and his frequent partner in comedic anarchy, Bob Zmuda, sees the light in documentarian Chris Smith’s multilayered exploration of celebrity, performance, identity, and the blurred boundaries between art and life, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.
On a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the biblically bearded Carrey described his life right now as, “So beautiful, especially when I’m absent from it.” That Kaufman-esque notion seems in sync with Carrey’s observation that being famous often involves creating a persona and then either letting it take over or killing it off.
In the revealing present-day interview that Smith (American Movie) threads through this probing feature, Carrey offers a number of variations on that theme, confessing that every movie he’s done has been a manifestation of who he was at the time it was filmed. He explains that Peter Weir cast him in The Truman Show because he was “in the bubble,” but at the end of that film, he emulated the decisive step of his character by finding the exit door to escape the dome. That was just a year before he did Man on the Moon, for which he remained in character — either as Kaufman or as the late comic’s alter ego, the obnoxious lounge act Tony Clifton — for the duration of the shoot.
Carrey recalls his early exposure in Canada to Kaufman’s highly idiosyncratic brand of comedy, much of it designed to keep the audience disoriented; he claims a connection was in place even before he broke into the comedy field himself.
Carrey made his own audition tape for Forman when the role came up, doing Kaufman’s iconic “Foreign Man” character and lip-syncing “Here I come to save the day” from the Mighty Mouse cartoon show theme. When he was confirmed for the part, Carrey claims with New Age sincerity that Kaufman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Sit down, I’ll be doing my movie.” He later adds: “I know that guy. I know him as well as I can know him.”
The EPK footage shows Carrey answering only to the names Andy or Tony, depending on who was on set that day, and co-stars Danny DeVito, Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti (the latter two cast as Margulies and Zmuda) generally accommodating him. Carrey’s driver on the production confirms that he remained in-character all the way home after wrapping each day and from pickup time each morning. And Forman concedes that being denied direct dealings with “Jim” could be frustrating — even intimidating in the case of boorish Tony — but he never attempted to interfere with Carrey’s methods.
Kaufman’s immediate family also showed up on set to commune, through Carrey, with the comic — he died of lung cancer in 1984. Those visits reportedly included the daughter born out of wedlock during Kaufman’s youth, who never got to meet her father and only learned his identity once he had acquired widespread fame on the ABC sitcom Taxi. His sweet, child-like character on that show, Latka Gravas, evolved out of the Foreign Man.
As evidenced by the full title of Smith’s film, Tony Clifton makes a number of appearances. He provokes exasperated eye rolls from the likes of Judd Hirsch, and prompts security concerns when he wanders on the Universal lot to Amblin’s offices, demanding to see Steven Spielberg. It’s easy to understand the appeal for a physical comic like Carrey of the abrasive character, with his prosthetic jowls, his paunchy bulk squeezed into a tacky frill-front Vegas outfit and his tendency to get messy and hurl abuse. There are echoes of this subversive hoax comedy in Carrey’s famous “drunk” appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show around the time of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
But comedy of discomfort was also an essential part of Kaufman’s shtick as himself, notably when he antagonized the women’s movement by making sexist statements while proclaiming himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Opinions vary on whether there was genuine hostility between him and famed wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, resulting in a piledriver injury during an on-air fight, though it seems clear that Carrey-as-Andy was in earnest with his constant goading of Lawler on the Man in the Moon set.
While all this might sound merely like a method-acting stunt taken to extremes, Carrey looks back on the experience with what appears to be honest belief in its butterfly effect on his subsequent life and career choices.
The immersion factor is illustrated again in a lovely anecdote Carrey shares from when he met with director Michel Gondry while going through a painful breakup, a year before shooting started on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (There are distinct echoes of the brain-bending work of Gondry, as well as that film’s screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and this film’s producer, Spike Jonze, in Smith’s doc.) Mimicking Gondry’s French accent, Carrey recalls him exclaiming, “Oh my God, you are so beautiful! You are so broken! Please don’t get well!”
It’s difficult to know at times whether Carrey is playing with us or legitimate with his talk of a benign Mr. Hyde side emerging to take control of his personality. But when he wistfully observes, “Andy came back to make his movie,” he’s oddly convincing, making this an original, unexpectedly affecting tribute to two distinctive comic performers.
Production company: Vice Documentary Films
Director: Chris Smith
Producers: Spike Jonze, Danny Gabai, Brendan Fitzgerald
Executive producers: Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, Tony Clifton, Michael Kronish, Jim Czarnecki, Nicole Montez
Director of photography: Brantley Gutierrez
Editor: Barry Poltermann
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: WME, Cinetic Media