”What happened afterward was out of my control.”
The last several weeks have been one awful celebrity revelation after another, making it difficult to imagine a time when studios kept unsavory things in the dark. In 1999, Jim Carrey had a behind-the-scenes diary made of his process becoming Andy Kaufman on the set of Man on the Moon. Forgoing the studio crew that usually makes these productions, Jim Carrey asked for Kaufman’s closest confidants, Lynne Margulies and Bob Zmuda, to take over filming. The resulting footage was withheld by Universal for almost 20 years because, in Jim Carrey’s own words, they didn’t want people to “think I was an asshole.”
Artistic motivation dictated that Carrey take his role on Man on the Moon as far as Kaufman would have. For a man who famously took it too far all the time, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When Kaufman was dying of cancer, it took a great degree of convincing before his loved ones took anything seriously. When he died on May 16, 1984, it was like a spell lifted. The presumably immortal prankster was actually gone. The somberness of the comedy legend’s death is reflected in Carrey’s commitment to recreating Kaufman for those who didn’t know the man. Judging from the acclaim Daniel Day-Lewis earned from his performances, total immersion must be the way to play a biographical figure. Accordingly, Carrey didn’t break character, either playing Kaufman, or Kaufman’s alter ego, Tony Clifton.
Daniel Day-Lewis has added a layer of mystery to the Stanislavski Method, but even he would likely argue that it has gone too far. The process dictates that actors put themselves in the place of the character to fully realize the character, yes, but that doesn’t account for the juvenile pranks Jared Leto made to play the Joker. Jim Carrey evolved from the rubber-faced antics of In Living Color to the slapstick stylings of Ace Ventura to a full-blown prestigious bio-pic, helmed by Milos Foreman. A task as daunting as playing one of your idols will make questionable decision much more palatable. So Carrey disappeared inside his projection of who Andy Kaufman was.
It’s not unfair to wonder during Chris Smith’s film if Jim Carrey is pulling another fast-one on audiences. Spike Jonze serves as a producer, the uber-serious philosophizing that Carrey puts on, and, notably, no one from Man on the Moon appears in the documentary. Judging from most of the interviews with Paul Giamatti, Judd Hirsch, and Danny DeVito, that would come as a surprise. All three actors acknowledge the lengths that Carrey is going to on camera, but when they appear later, various eye-rolling and grimacing suggest that their awe may have been mandated by the studio. One wonders what horror stories would come up from other “method” tales if Lincoln and Suicide Squad were to receive their own documentaries. However, once Smith gets Carrey to open up completely, the beating heart of Jim and Andy is found. The highlights achieved and the shortcomings felt create a parallel between both Carrey and Kaufman. This isn’t a documentary about method acting gone wrong, it’s a weaving of personalities separated by decades.
Both comedians sought solace through their fan bases but didn’t find personal satisfaction. Carrey left Man on the Moon no happier than when he found it. Afterward, he shares how the strain of being Kaufman took its toll. “I didn’t know who I was.” He also reflects–rather unhappily–about the making of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrey felt unwell during production, but rather than help his lead, Michel Gondry asked Carrey to stay broken for more authenticity. “That’s how fucked up this industry is.” People are used and abused for the final product onscreen. The mask of fame creates schisms of personality, and Jim Carrey at age 55 realizes that whereas his 37-year-old self couldn’t. As Jim and Andy nears its end, a figurative loop feels like it was closed. Maybe the sense of peace Jim Carrey gained can be shared with Andy Kaufman.