Bright Lights Film Journal

Andy Kaufman, Tony Clifton, Mr. Ripley, and the Elisions of Identity

I had an opportunity to see a double feature a couple of years ago on a British Airways flight to Madrid. The size of the screen certainly reduced any desire to give a shit about screen ratio. I was inclined to dismiss the mere thought of watching a film on a screen smaller than the screen of my computer. Yet the little screen wouldn’t back down. It took me ten minutes to figure out the channels, the volume, and the right movie. Most of that time was spent on the latter, since I thought I would only have time to watch one.

The Man on the Moon (1999) or The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)?

Neither Matt Damon nor Jim Carrey interested me as actors, and the directors, Milos Forman and Anthony Minghella, ignited little passion either, although ‘s track record seemed more formidable. There was another, higher hurdle with this particular Forman vehicle. The subject matter: Andy Kaufman, a man I had never found funny as Latka or on Saturday Night Live, or doing his wrestling shtick. But it was precisely my distaste for him, combined with having seen more of his career than I had wanted to, that ultimately fueled my interest in Man on the Moon. That is, I wanted to find out what made him funny to other people, although under any other circumstance save being trapped seven to eight hours in the air and unable to sleep, I would never have watched either film.

What I didn’t realize was that my view that his comedy seemed humorless was correct but not in the way I wanted it to be. I understood that he was pushing the envelope of humorless material to see exactly when people would break down and accept it as humor. But knowing this put me on his side, precisely where I didn’t want to be. Perhaps because I understood his attitude toward the mass audience and that playing the audience for bunch of goofs was precisely the kind of action with which I could sympathize.

Man on the Moon, however, had all the standard biopic emotions and dramas to which I couldn’t relate aesthetically. As was true for the actors in Chaplin and The Hurricane, also seen on flights to Europe, Jim Carrey exhibited strong acting ability in closely impersonating Kaufman, yet the film completely failed to intimate either the complexity of the person or remotely hint at his having a worthy tragic flaw. On a more celebrated scale, I found the same immobility at the centers of Gandhi (1982) and Malcolm X (1992), whence the directors reckoned on the real events to substitute for authentic drama. The romanticized scope of the biography disguises the lack of a cinematic objective correlative to the hero’s greatness or the mystery of the personality.

The reviews of Man on the Moon hammered the point about not revealing what made Kaufman tick. In effect, Forman allowed him to remain an enigma while ingeniously exploiting the intentional fallacy. The quirky introduction and ending of Man on the Moon with Kaufman seemingly returning from the dead to direct his movie … this was exactly what Forman couldn’t sustain. The film becomes overwhelmingly an anti-Andy Kaufman-like project. The paradox arises that Forman adopts the traditional explanatory movie biography, as in the ones mentioned above. We might as well be watching A&E’s Biography. The career and salient events are rehashed, elements of the personality are flattened or enhanced according to what makes the person less a prick, and the overall view is sentimentalized. We might as well be discussing whether Kaufman really hurt his neck and whether the incident on Letterman’s show was staged. [Editor’s note: It was.] You leave the film with exactly what you arrived with.

Well, almost all. Despite having seen many of the feature events in Kaufman’s career, I had never heard of Tony Clifton, his supposed alter ego, the grossly unfunny lounge comic who voiced the misogyny that crept into other portions of Andy’s routines. (Or were all his routines merely a sustained howl against those who wanted to see him perform?) As amazed as I was to learn about him, Tony Clifton fit the general pattern of Kaufman’s anti-comedy. Yet, I know that I couldn’t have seen so much of his routines without having found Kaufman interesting at some level.

Watching Kaufman played seamlessly played by Jim Carrey, I became physically more discomfited in the airplane seat, slightly insomniac, and developed an increasingly negative theory about his life and work. His comedic career masked an inability to create humor. The film argues that Andy wanted to be unfunny, was purposely unfunny. To quote him: I don’t make jokes. My premise bothered me because it smacked of past pejorative judgments against Pop Art. And I realized his genius paralleled Andy Warhol’s, who also knew how to outrun emotional and creative vacuity. There’s only one catch. They’re the only ones who could get away with it. Kaufman was the Andy Warhol of Comedy and, as it happened, would outlast and exhaust his audience’s disapproval.

Getting away with something like this takes a psychological toll. The person must hide further and further into himself, creating a labyrinth of emotional and creative dead ends. Tony Clifton compensated for Kaufman not being a jokemeister or simply a traditional comedian – although one might wonder whether comedy has to be Shecky Greene versus Andy Kaufman. But even Tony Clifton would succumb and had to defy audience taste and expectations for funny material. He became Kaufman’s way to exude bile toward audiences who would never find Andy funny – not that anyone was supposed to find him funny, but that’s another end run to avoid paying the piper. Or am I falling into the biopic trap by perceiving Kaufman as the perfect personality to be doomed by showbiz success? Thus, Kaufman’s life becomes the living cliché he seems dedicated to avoid. As soon as he acquires success, he falls apart. The Saturday Night Live call-in vote to get him to stay or leave seems Kaufman’s internal prompting to self-destruct. In the biopic for an entertainer – even for Biography and MSNBC’s Headliners and Legends – the cliché seems the only dramatic possibility.

His single, prolonged attempt at straight comedy, appearing as the eccentric Latka in Taxi, merely confirmed his bitter feeling for his audience. Screw everyone who wanted to see him “do Latka,” and he would screw them by reading the entire Great Gatsby in a refined accent. Being the quintessential postmodern comedian, though, should have entailed his being aware of audience predilections to want what it likes. In fact, his playing to the wrestling crowd and explicitly mocking the wrestling rituals (by trying to wrestle women) added to the dung he was heaping upon his public.

Many might consider all postmodernism dung heaping, that is, an attempt to prove to the audience that it is not capable of a certain level of appreciation or perception. What this perception’s level is might not be totally clear, but it certainly rests in the entertainer’s judgment that nothing is authentic or that anything authentic can be exposed as fraudulent. For Kaufman this translates into his apparent specialty of creating multiple illusions.

First and foremost (and riskiest), the illusion that he was a comedian.

Staking everything on this was very bold for an unfunny man. Subsequent illusions – his loves (sexual needs), his friendships, his business partnerships, his injuries and death – all followed naturally. Maybe this is why I feel little emotion for him or for, at least, the man portrayed in the movie about him. He didn’t die so much as he had never existed, or nothing Andy Kaufman was existed enough for me to lament his passing.

His life, perhaps, represents the inability to create tragedy. All life becomes a parody of itself and nothing has substantial value. At least, this is what life appears to be for those of us raised on television: why seriously invest in something so easily debunked or made redundant so quickly. And nothing exemplifies this better than the fact that the one thing Kaufman apparently believed in was Transcendental Meditation. Why this? Why not! In a world of the perfectly absurd, TM would do as the spiritual absurdity to negate the absurd. He had to believe in something, I suppose, but even he (and Forman) doesn’t want to dwell on it.

Man on the Moon‘s stance on Kaufman’s life never appears. Then, again, how could it criticize him when Kaufman essentially fashioned an uncriticizable act? Forman couldn’t say he wasn’t funny or his life was overvalued because he was never trying to be funny. The limits of biopic do not allow such criticism of its subject/sacred cow á la Malcolm X or Gandhi. Kaufman’s seemingly gratuitous death sanctified him as much as assassination sanctified the aforesaid men.

Nothing encouraged my feeling that Andy Kaufman was the quintessential man of his generation more than watching The Talented Mr. Ripley immediately after Man on the Moon. Ripley, like Kaufman, was at his best not being himself. His compulsion to fit in somehow stemmed from a personal void – Forman’s film completely ignores any exploration of Andy’s motivation – or from a personality enhanced by its cannibalizing other personalities. Tony Clifton chewed and spit out (or left undigested) regular comedy routines. As Kaufman’s career revenged itself on the audience, Ripley’s penchant for playing wealthy socialites was his revenge on a society that, he believed, had no use for him. Thus, The Talented Mr. Ripley acted as a creative critique of Kaufmanism.

Anthony Minghella portrays Ripley as society’s victim, the victim of fifites society. Like another cinematic sociopath, Strangers on a Train‘s Bruno Antony, he starts from an elementary laziness. They choose to be dreamers, projectors, and players at high society. Ripley adds con artist to his repertoire. He believes he can fit in, learn to function in that elite group, and finally be accepted as one of them. He knows the concepts by which this society works and fashions his con artistry around those concepts until he cannot tell who he himself really is. He becomes the creation of himself and lost within that creation. When he’s found out and cornered, voluntarily or not, only then does he kill. He moves on to become someone else to fool the next socialites willing to be fooled. The suggestion at the end of the film is that as long as he desires to be anything other than himself, he will murder indefinitely.

Andy Kaufman had admirers willing to accept anything he did as an act of genius. Yet he would even try their patience and lose support. Taxi eventually was cancelled, and he lost the Saturday Night Live vote. He needed to create other comedic illusions. The wrestling matches stirred up a new audience.

But one can only play the public so long. It seems almost too pat that he had to die at the age of thirty-eight and that his dying and/or death would be seen as another Kaufman stunt. I found this the most believable part of the film – I could believe he would try this. There was Elvis before him (Andy was a primeval Elvis impersonator), and even JFK, and even JC. A twisted logic might compel me to say that his career had nowhere else to go. The ultimate humor of exhaustion. More, if his dying and resurrection are an act, it’s as unfunny as the Mighty Mouse song and his previous manifestations of humor.