Andy Kaufman died on May 16, 1984, after a brief battle with lung cancer. In truth, that’s about the only thing we do know about him, given the manner in which he lived. Kaufman, whether one considers him the ultimate “dada artist” or mental illness personified, was arguably the most bizarre, elusive entertainer of the latter half of the twentieth century. From the moment he first hit the stage to his final, mysterious act, not a single moment was honest, forthright, or authentic. His deception was so all-consuming, in fact, that at the time of his death, it was assumed by just about everyone that he was executing yet another elaborate hoax, and that within days, weeks, or even years, he would be back, bigger and better than ever before. In 2004, whispers circulated that he had been spotted in a host of locations, largely because of the rumor he had spread before his demise that he would come out of hiding on the twentieth anniversary of his “death”. It wasn’t inconceivable, after all, for this was a man who steadfastly refused to play anything straight. Everything was fodder for his so-called life, which itself was a series of performances; all choreographed and scripted down to the smallest detail. As his girlfriend Lynne said to him at one point, “There is no real you.” Perhaps there never was.
Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon is about the only movie that could ever be made about a man like Andy, as any attempt at conventional bio-pic would quickly get absorbed by the absurdity of it all. And could anything he told us ever really be trusted? The man who was self-consciously crafted for public consumption is the only one that even matters, and it might be said that he’s the most famous man never to exist. As such, Forman’s film is simply a series of events; a highlight reel that shows us what he did and how he did it, but never anything more. A “why”, if it must be sought, likely never existed either. If his art was anti-art, then no external meaning was present. Think of it what you will, or don’t think at all. It’s all up to the individual. Interestingly, Kaufman is not even a comedian, despite his appearance on Taxi (his most lasting legacy, much to his disgust). This is telling, because Kaufman’s acts – or “gatherings” – weren’t ever really funny. In fact, he went out of his way to be as deliberately unfunny as humanly possible. Why else would he spend an entire performance reading The Great Gatsby in a snooty accent? What other purpose could there be to taking an entire Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies? He dared you to laugh, and if you did, he pushed it even further so that you’d hate him even more for having laughed in the first place.
As played by Jim Carrey (still among his best performances), Kaufman is hyper, stubborn, and impossible to define, which is the only way to play him. Carrey has the look and mannerisms down pat, but more than mere imitation, it is a fully realized understanding of the man. Carrey also “became” Andy on set, refusing to break character even for a moment. He even became Kaufman’s alter-ego Tony Clifton, regurgitating the bile and bad singing to such ends that Carrey himself became intolerable to his fellow actors. And what of Mr. Clifton? Kaufman wasn’t the only one to portray him (there are at least two others that we know of), and as the end of the film suggests, there were still more out there willing to carry on the illusion. Or did such a man actually exist? Part of me hoped that he did, because I’ve never lost my affection for him, even after repeated viewings. He’s so aggressively untalented – even as a parody of a bad lounge singer – that I’d push for his life story, even it were a fictionalized version of an already fictional tale. Again, it speaks to Kaufman’s mad brilliance that we never know who this man is, even when we believe we know that it’s Kaufman under all that make-up. Which is the act – Clifton or Kaufman?
And so we push through the David Letterman appearances, the wrestling career (fake “nemesis” Jerry Lawler plays himself), the television disasters (consider the Saturday Night Live wannabe Fridays – or don’t, given that it managed to be even worse than the show that inspired it), and the twisted friendships. He had a stable of loyalists in his corner, but one can only imagine what passed for closeness. Thankfully, though, neither Forman nor the screenwriters push an agenda, leaving the psychobabble to lesser filmmakers. Again, why bother? It had to be inconceivable for him when he learned of his cancer, not only because he never smoked and lived a relatively healthy life (meditation, vegetarianism, and the like), but because he had to believe that the daily grind wouldn’t touch a man not standing still. He trafficked in make-believe and fantasy, so how could disease and death interfere with the show? One of the most telling moments in the movie occurs while he’s visiting the Philippines for a “miracle cure” with some backwater witch doctor. It’s pure desperation, but at that point, why not? While on the table, he witnesses the shaman’s trick (he palms gizzards and blood to act as the “sickness” that will magically be pulled from the body) and instead of disgust, he chuckles with delight. “Of course,” he seems to say, “That’s what I would have done.” With his final, painful breath, there’s admiration for a fellow con-artist. Who knows, the whole scene might have been his creation to begin with.