During filming of Milos Foreman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon starring Jim Carrey, no one saw Jim Carrey. From day one of production, Jim Carrey wasn’t in his trailer, he wasn’t on set, and he wasn’t at home. In one of the most extreme instances of method acting on record, an actor in the prime of his career disappeared and cult comedian Andy Kaufman rose from the dead in his place.
Chris Smith’s Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond has just been released on Netflix; a documentary flitting between Carrey’s present day narration, a selection of clips of his emulation of Kaufman, and segments of the 1999 biopic in production. The film in question was aptly named after the R.E.M. hit ‘Man On The Moon’. The song was written about Kaufman and alludes to the conspiracy theories that he, a master of comedic trickery, faked his own death in an elaborate prank; akin to rumours of Stanley Kubrick’s direction of a fabricated moon landing. The documentary is a much better watch than the film it chronicles. Man On The Moon doesn’t quite capture the electric brilliance of Kaufman, merely depicting notable eccentricities, controversies and his untimely death of lung cancer at 35. However, it’s still worth a watch to learn about the man, and Carrey’s performance is undeniably brilliant, bringing him universal acclaim and his second Golden Globe. At one point in Jim and Andy, Danny DeVito, co-star of the biopic and old friend of Kaufman’s, exclaims with widened eyes “This is so bizarre. It’s really great. He’s exactly the way Andy was. Exactly.”
Although not a household name in the UK, Andy Kaufman holds a legacy of Dadaist comedic genius in the States, regardless of the fact that Kaufman himself would never admit to working as a comedian – more a ‘song-and-dance man’. Defiantly anti-establishment, Kaufman was fed up with what the entertainment world had to offer, so created a brand of funny that wasn’t like any other. He didn’t tell jokes, he didn’t use slapstick – sometimes he stood silently for 20 seconds before breaking into a lip-synced performance of Mighty Mouse’s part in the Mighty Mouse theme song – but it really made people laugh. A large part of Kaufman’s genius was his ability to create mass confusion in his audience as to whether he really was joking or not. So when Jim Carrey was offered the role, something inside him switched – he would not only provide a perfect emulation of Andy, but he would take on this grandiose comedic method and really bring Andy back to life by refusing to break character.
An astute deduction made by Carrey in Jim & Andy is that the film could have been better received if they were able to include clips of the production process, forming some sort of Gonzo dramatization, but Universal’s concerns that they didn’t want his reputation to be sundered by the public deducting that ‘Jim was an asshole’ are not unreasonable. You get a very good picture of how venomous the crew became towards Carrey as the production of Man On The Moon progressed; beginning with uncertain laughter and ending with some of them completely ignoring the star of their film when he waves and says hello behind the scenes. Other examples of Kaufman’s work include his alter-ego Tony Clifton, a loathsome misogynist lounge singer, whom Andy Kaufman never once in his life admitting to being the same person as. If a show wanted to book Andy as Tony, he had to hire Tony outright. So in the creation of Man On The Moon, there was Jim, there was Andy, and there was Tony. A nightmare production ensues.
Tony crashes buggies into the sets, taunts the other cast members and doesn’t even come close to breaking character once. A particularly black comedic moment comes when Tony tells the camera he’s going to give an impression of Jackie Kennedy while sitting in the back of a convertible, then screams ‘Oh Christ’ as he jumps out of the car in feigned horror. Milos Foreman constantly despairs as director, having to call Carrey in his personal time to be consoled by ‘real Jim’, who tells him that he could decide to fire Andy and Tony from his production and that he could do as best an impression as he can. Carrey walks on a very fine line but Forman knew that keeping Andy and Tony around enriched the film with a palpable authenticity and devotion to its source. Yes – Jim Carrey can be very, very annoying, but it wouldn’t have worked without him.
Emotionally confusing yet intense moments come when you see Jim (as Andy) meet Andy’s real family, and they treat him as though he really were their deceased son. From an outside perspective this seems frustratingly incoherent, but when watching this take place you somehow accept it and let it pull at the heartstrings. Carrey’s stone-faced defence that Kaufman possessed him doesn’t quite hold up, but he does give some worthwhile insight into the banality of celebrity culture and how he came to understand this under Andy’s influence. For someone who didn’t previously know anything about the subject of both films, I’m very glad to have been introduced to Andy Kaufman. Decidedly insane but wickedly clever, his works are a benchmark for innovative comedy and provocative art.
Video courtesy of: Netflix