Man on the Moon (film)
Man on the Moon is a 1999 American biographical comedy-drama film about the late American entertainer Andy Kaufman, starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman. The film was directed by Miloš Forman and also features Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, and Paul Giamatti.
|Man on the Moon|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Miloš Forman|
|Cinematography||Anastas N. Michos|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$47.4 million|
The story traces Kaufman's steps from childhood through the comedy clubs and television appearances that made him famous, including his memorable appearances on Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, Fridays, and his role as Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi, which was popular among viewers but disruptive for Kaufman's co-stars. The film pays particular attention to the various inside jokes, scams, put-ons, and happenings for which Kaufman was famous, most significantly his long-running feud with wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler and his portrayal of the bawdy lounge singer Tony Clifton.
Although the film was unsuccessful commercially and received mixed reviews, Carrey received critical acclaim for his performance and won a Golden Globe, his second in a row after his award for The Truman Show. His nomination was in the Musical/Comedy category, and he remarked in his acceptance speech that he thought the film was a drama at heart.
The documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond was released in 2017 and chronicles Carrey's performance as Kaufman in the film, a performance he maintained during much of the film's production.
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Andy Kaufman appears in black and white as his foreign character Latka Gravas, thanking the audience for coming to his movie but declaring that the movie is bad and that because he has cut out all of the "baloney," this is actually the end of the film, not the beginning. He plays a phonograph record alongside the credits before slamming its lid down. After the screen goes black, Kaufman comes back and, in a more normal voice, claims he was trying "to get rid of the people who don't understand me and don't even want to try; actually, the movie is really great!" He proceeds to show the story of his life on a film projector, starting with his childhood home in Great Neck, New York, circa 1957.
Kaufman is a struggling performer whose act fails in nightclubs because, while the audience wants comedy, he sings children's songs and refuses to tell conventional jokes. As the audience begins to believe that Kaufman may have no real talent, his peculiar "foreign man" puts on a rhinestone jacket and does a dead-on Elvis impersonation. The audience bursts into applause, realizing Kaufman had tricked them.
He catches the eye of talent agent George Shapiro, who signs Kaufman as a client and immediately lands him a network TV series, Taxi, much to Kaufman's dismay, since he dislikes sitcoms. Because of the money, visibility, and a promise that he can do his own television special, Kaufman accepts the role, turning his foreign man into a mechanic named Latka Gravas. Secretly he hates doing the show and expresses a desire to quit.
Invited to catch a different act at a nightclub, Shapiro witnesses a performance by a rude, loud-mouthed lounge singer, Tony Clifton, whom Kaufman wants to guest-star on Taxi. Clifton's bad attitude is matched by his horrible appearance and demeanor. But backstage, when he meets Shapiro in person, Clifton takes off his sunglasses and reveals that he is actually Kaufman. Clifton is a "villain character" created by Kaufman and his creative partner, Bob Zmuda. Once again, the gag is on the audience.
Kaufman's fame increases with his Saturday Night Live appearances, but he has problems with his newfound fame. When he travels to college campuses, audiences dislike his strange sense of humor and demand that he perform as Latka, so he deliberately antagonizes them by reading The Great Gatsby aloud from start to finish. Kaufman shows up on the Taxi set as Clifton and proceeds to cause chaos until he is removed from the studio lot.
To Shapiro's relief, he is booked at a Nevada casino, where Tony Clifton does a horrible rendition of "I've Gotta Be Me" with showgirls, and then the actual Andy Kaufman appears on stage simultaneously with Clifton. The audience is at first delighted and then angry when "Clifton" drives Andy away; it turns out that Bob Zmuda is playing Clifton. Shapiro reproaches Kaufman and Zmuda for alienating people with jokes only they appreciate, and Kaufman protests that he never knows exactly how to entertain an audience "short of faking my own death or setting the theater on fire."
Kaufman decides to become a professional wrestler — but to emphasize the "villain" angle, he will wrestle only women (hired actresses) and then berate them after winning, declaring himself "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion." He becomes smitten with one woman he wrestles, Lynne Margulies, and they begin a romantic relationship.
Problems arise when an appearance on a live TV comedy show, ABC's Fridays, turns into a fiasco when Kaufman refuses to speak his lines. Also, the wrestling Kaufman enjoys getting a rise out of the crowds and feuds publicly with Jerry Lawler, a male professional wrestler, who challenges Kaufman to a "real wrestling match", which Kaufman accepts. Lawler easily overpowers and seriously injures Kaufman, resulting in the comedian wearing a neck brace. Lawler and an injured Kaufman appear on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, ostensibly to call a truce, but Lawler insults Kaufman, who throws coffee at the wrestler and spews a vicious tirade of epithets. It is later revealed that Kaufman and Lawler were in fact good friends and staged the entire feud, but Kaufman pays a price when he is banned from Saturday Night Live by a vote of audience members, weary of his wrestling antics. Shapiro advises Kaufman and Lawler not to work together again, and later calls Kaufman to inform him that Taxi has been canceled.
After a show at a comedy club, Kaufman calls together Lynne, Zmuda, and Shapiro to disclose that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and may die soon. They aren't sure whether to believe this, thinking it could be yet another stunt, with Zmuda actually believing a fake death would be a fantastic prank. With little time to live, Kaufman gets a booking at Carnegie Hall, his dream venue. The performance is a memorable success, culminating with Kaufman inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies. His health deteriorates. Desperate, he heads to the Philippines to seek a medical miracle through psychic surgery only to find it a hoax, laughing at the irony. He dies soon after. At his funeral, friends and loved ones sing along to "This Friendly World" with a video of Kaufman.
- Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman / Tony Clifton
- Danny DeVito as George Shapiro
- Courtney Love as Lynne Margulies
- Paul Giamatti as Bob Zmuda / Tony Clifton
- Gerry Becker as Stanley Kaufman
- Leslie Lyles as Janice Kaufman
- George Shapiro as Mr. Besserman
- Richard Belzer as himself
- Melanie Vesey as Carol Kaufman
- Michael Kelly as Michael Kaufman
- Vincent Schiavelli as Maynard Smith
- Peter Bonerz as Ed Weinberger
- Michael Villani as Merv Griffin
- Bob Zmuda as Jack Burns
Several members of the cast of Taxi, including Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Carol Kane, and Jeff Conaway, make cameo appearances in the film, playing themselves. Notably absent was Tony Danza, who at the time of filming was performing in A View from the Bridge on Broadway. Danny DeVito, who was also in the cast of Taxi, co-starred in the film and did not appear as himself.
Many of Kaufman's other real-life friends and co-stars also appear in the film (although not all as themselves), including Zmuda, Shapiro, Margulies, David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, TV personality Lance Russell, The Improv founder Budd Friedman, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and actors Vincent Schiavelli and Chad Whitson. Michael Richards is played by Norm Macdonald in a recreation of the Fridays show skit. According to Jerry Lawler's autobiography It's Good to be the King ... sometimes, WCW wrestler Glenn Gilbertti, better known to wrestling fans as Disco Inferno, was considered for the role of Lawler.
Man on the Moon was shot in Los Angeles in the winter of 1998. According to Courtney Love, Jim Carrey, when playing Kaufman's Tony Clifton character in the film, would stuff his clothing with Limburger cheese on the set, something Kaufman had done in his performances of the character.
A documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, that chronicles the production of the film using behind the scenes footage was released in November 2017.
The soundtrack for the film was written by rock band R.E.M., whose 1992 song "Man on the Moon" (originally written in honor of Kaufman) gave the film its title. The soundtrack also included the Grammy-nominated song "The Great Beyond", which remains the band's highest-charting single in the United Kingdom.
The film makes a few changes to Kaufman's life story. As Kaufman explains in the prologue, "All the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes."
The famous Carnegie Hall "milk and cookies" performance, portrayed in the film as one of his last performances after being diagnosed with cancer, had in fact occurred in 1979, five years before Kaufman's death. Also, the film is deliberately ambiguous over whether it portrays his death as genuine, or the hoax that some fans believe it to be.
The film implies that Carol Kane was a member of the Taxi cast during the show's first season, which in real life was 1978–79. In actuality, Kane did not make her first appearance on the series until the episode "Guess Who's Coming for Brefnish", which first aired on ABC in January 1980 during the show's second season. The film implies that Taxi was canceled only once. However, the show went on for one more season on NBC.
Other inaccuracies include scenes based around SNL, specifically the first episode's host. Also, the scene where Lorne Michaels asks the home viewing audience to vote Kaufman off the show happened in 1982, two years after Michaels left the show as executive producer and Dick Ebersol took over.
After its release, the film attracted some criticism over various events in Kaufman's life that were left out. Max Allan Collins maintained that the filmmakers did not understand Kaufman, and that the film "does not give Kaufman the credit for his genius, that he had a complete intellectual grasp of what he was up to and a showman's instincts for how to play an audience." Significantly, these critics included Kaufman's own father Stanley, who was displeased that little of Andy's early life (before show business) and early career was portrayed.
Sam Simon, executive producer on Taxi, stated in a 2013 interview with Marc Maron for the WTF with Marc Maron podcast that the portrayal of Andy on the show was "a complete fiction," that Kaufman was "completely professional" and that he "told you Tony Clifton was him." Simon also stated that sources for these stories were mostly from Bob Zmuda and a "little bit of press and hype," but conceded that Kaufman would have "loved" Zmuda's version of events.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 63% based on 118 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Jim Carrey is eerily dead-on in his portrayal of Andy Kaufman, which helps to elevate Man on the Moon above the script's formulaic biopic cliches." On Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned a score of 58 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B–" on an A+ to F scale.
Man on the Moon ended a string of Jim Carrey films that had very successful opening weekends, and grossed just $47 million against a budget of $82 million. Although the film received mixed reviews from critics, they were near unanimous in their praise for Jim Carrey's portrayal of Andy Kaufman. Carrey won a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film was nominated for Best Musical or Comedy as well.
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