When President Calvin Coolidge, known as Silent Cal, died in 1933 , Dorothy Parker, the famous female wit asked: How can they tell?
Presidents can be nonentities. And often are. So why not actors?
Jim Carrey is no Coolidge. Yet seems to be saying a similar thing about himself. Just prior to the appearance of his new Netflicks documentary Jim and Andy—the Great Beyond (2017), about the making of Man on the Moon(1999), the sometimes sinister mimic (see the Mask or my personal favorite TV being what it is, the Cable Guy) — told everyone at the Toronto film festival, “There is no me.”
Ponder. It was total immersion—as if the essence of Kaufmann were the fluid in a tank where Carrey floated.
Was it shtick? A gimmick? A comic turn? Was he serious? Or seriously deranged?
In an odd world, actors are notoriously given to strange poses. As such, it was perhaps an unintentionally revealing admission from an actor, especially one who disappears into his roles as Methodically as Stanislavsky on speed.
It also begs the question, if he doesn’t exist why then are we watching his movies?
Man on the Moon was the biopic of Andy Kaufman, an American comedian so original he changed the parameters of comedy. So first a few words about Kaufman, one of the most original comedians ever to draw a breath.
Kaufman became famous a cast member of Saturday Night Live and then as the star of Taxi, the late 1970s sitcom set in Manhattan. He was known for his exact impression of Elvis, for reading The Great Gatsby to audiences, for taking an entire audience out for cookies and milk after a performance.
His gigs were synonymous with Meta comedy – making running jokes about jokes, pretending to be serious when he was involved in a routine, being serious when people thought he was kidding. His longest running gag was portraying himself in real life: a male wrestler who wrestled only women.
(See the REM song, Man on the Moon and the line: “Mr. Andy Kaufman and the wrestling match yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”)
What is Meta comedy? Well, the genre can be broken down into simple set-ups and pay-offs. Like this: An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The bartender turns to them, takes one look, and says, “What is this—some kind of joke?”
Kaufman’s routines made fun of making fun, of our expectations, of our prejudices. He turned reality on its head. But he was—and this is important—very funny with a kind of underlying empathy that was inseparable from his routines.
The original film was excellent. Carrey won a Golden Globe. But this is an example where the documentary may be even better than the film. It certainly sheds enormous light on the creative process and in that light is a delectable companion for Hearts of Darkness about making Apocalypse Now.
Carey readily admits that this was his greatest role. In Chris Smith’s film we see the carrey (which were filmed by Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies and his writing partner Bob Zmuda) of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon. In the 1999 biopic Carrey not only plays but becomes Kaufman (and his vile alter-ego Tony Clifton) throughout filming.
In other words, the Dumb and Dumber star goes full method – and the results are interesting if somewhat irritating to watch. He regularly torments professional wrestler Jerry Lawler—Kaufman’s pretend nemesis. He frustrates Forman with his insistence on staying in character—something that Kaufman did not do offstage. And yes, he even drives vehicles with a paper bag over his head.
Carrey is odd. He says he once induced his family to celebrate Halloween by masquerading as a band of axe-murderers. During filming Man on the Moon, Carrey nearly drove cast and director Forman crazy by staying in character as Kaufman throughout the three-month shoot.
Says Carrey: “I was psychotic at times…I don’t feel like I made the film at all. I feel like Andy made the film.”
In the course of his media tour at the Toronto festival, Carrey’s ramblings made it hard to know whether he was acting or believing what he was saying. It called to mind a similar odd performance by Joaquin Phoenix some years ago. Smiling and laughing his way up the red carpet while waving to fans, he seemed like a man happy to be “present” and fully enjoying his return to the spotlight.
He also delighted in teasing journalists with vaguely oracular pronouncements such as “We don’t matter,” “I’m not here,” and “This world is not our world.”
The documentary suggests that while Andy Kaufman remains one of the most puzzling figures in entertainment history, Carrey also has his bizarre side.
His experience playing Kaufman served as a gateway to a profoundly personal revelation: “I think it was an existential journey,” Carrey told the press. “By playing those characters of Andy and [his obnoxious lounge singer alter-ego] Tony (Clifton) so completely I realized that at the end of it when I was trying to get back to Jim and it wasn’t so easy, it was like, ‘Oh, wow, if I can lose Jim so completely, who’s Jim?’”
He added: “And a kind of a separation happened and it’s been going in that direction ever since. More of a unity consciousness rather than individuality. I don’t feel so much like an individual anymore. At the end of it you go, ‘Jim Carrey’s a character too. He’s actually been playing me.’ Once that realization happens, there’s kind of a rack focus, Steven Spielberg-style, you just go, ‘OK, I’m not at stake here, there is no me.’ I spent my whole life looking for anchors, for the perfect phrase, or the perfect thing to add to myself, and the fact is, there’s no boat to anchor. And once you know that, all of this stuff is OK.”
An extraordinarily gifted painter and performer, Carrey has long been an advertisement for identity crisis. Meanwhile, one of the biggest stars ever, hasn’t had a hit film in well over a decade and for the past several years has devoted himself to the art of painting. He erased the wildly popular movie star (once earning $20 million per film) to create a new, more interesting, version of himself. After all who ever said that Hollywood stars are– by definition—interesting? They are not. Take it from me.
“I go down all kinds of crazy paths,” Carrey admitted. “Many people get into this thing of not wanting to lose your place in the ‘statusphere.’..I truly believe if you’ve made it and become a big thing that you owe it to people to get out of their faces, go away, and learn something else.”
It isn’t hard to think of celebrities who should heed this advice.
Today, Jim Carrey says he believe that only fragments of his old self remain and that he is engaged in an ongoing process of transcending whoever he might have been.
“There is no me,” he claims.
A long-time follower of spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle— Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.—Carrey exudes an air of serene indifference. “I don’t care” is his standard response to existential questions. According to Jim, neither we nor our individual pursuits in life have any meaning.
“I don’t think we matter. And to the extent that we just give ourselves a purpose, if anything matters at all, maybe it’s the alleviation of suffering. But that only matters to us – it doesn’t matter to the universe. And we are the universe, so you’re free of this thing.”
Back to the film. One of the more fascinating facts to emerge from “Beyond” was that during the making of Man On The Moon, Carrey only briefly allowed himself to step outside of his self-imposed Andy Kaufman alter ego on occasional weekends with his then two-year-old daughter, Jane.
“The fact is you don’t exist. You’re nothing but ideas. We take all those ideas and cobble them together and make sort of a personality charm bracelet, an ID bracelet we wear in life. But that’s not who we are, because we’re nothing. And it’s such a fucking relief.”
Another telling moments in the documentary comes when Carrey discusses how he felt “empty” at the height of his success. His career soared while making comedies such as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Liar, Liar” prior to shifting his focus to more serious fare, most notably “Man on the Moon” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
But it was during this time that he began struggling with depression. His mother had suffered from the illness to the point where she was bed-ridden and Carrey’s comedy genius evolved while trying desperately to make his mother laugh. Young Jim also dealt with the sadness that came from watching his father Percy lose his job as an accountant which forced the family to move into a trailer park. Recalled Carrey of those darker moments in his life:
“The character of Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask was modeled after my father who felt stifled and worthless and devalued for so much of his life. Still, if I hadn’t witnessed that kind of process and lived with that situation, I probably wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I’ve been able to do in life. So I have to say that a lot of my life has been about coming to terms with a lot of the difficult things I went through with my family. And my comedy has been about turning around the unhappiness and seeing all the absurd humour in life.”
“And that’s basically why comedians are born: Generally, sick moms…. I know so many other comedians who have had sick moms…You want to make them laugh, you want to make them feel better…I spent years at my mother’s bedside trying to make her feel happy. Sure it’s sad when you think about it but in another sense it was also a beautiful thing, too.”
Carrey was so determined to become a success that as a budding stand-comedian he even wrote himself a cheque for $10 million that he swore he would be able to cash one day and give to his father. His father, who also had a bizarre sense of humour, did live long enough to see his son become a major movie star, prior to his death in 1994. At his funeral, Jim tossed the big cheque into his father’s grave.
Those memories no longer haunt Carrey, however. Today, clean-shaven and eyes twinkling with that familiar manic zeal, Jim has found peace of mind.
Revealed Carrey: “I have no depression in my life whatsoever. I don’t have meds, I don’t have supplements, I don’t have anything. I’ve got a couple of fish oils a day and the rest of it is just good diet and a little bit of exercise and understanding that I don’t exist.”
He may not trust his own existence – or his perception of himself – but Carrey is fully involved in his painting and sculpting, new forms of expression for a man regarded as a comic genius who is seeking to find a new path. As far as acting goes, he says:
“I don’t care. I just want interesting things to happen. There’s no pressure whatsoever. I truly am kind of needless in the universe. I”m just doing. Because doing is happening.”