It’s been almost a week since I pressed play on Netflix’s original documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, and this unusually captivating film – partly about Jim Carrey, and partly about the late American comedian Andy Kaufman – is still on the stage in my mind, performing shtick and rambling into the microphone. Its full title is the long-winded Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, which is supposed to reflect a sense of the comedians’ idiosyncratic approach – mostly Kaufman’s.
The ‘person’ representing the film in my head is the one mentioned at the end of the title: a lounge lizard who wears thick prescription glasses and a leisure suit, and is a combination of both Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey – as well as a play-actor who (bear with me) has little or nothing to do with either of them. Clifton is a wise-cracking, foul-mannered character created by Kaufman, who evolved into a kind of elaborate piece of performance art.
He is a wild and irreverent alter-ego – in this sense, like Borat or Dame Edna Everage. But because Kaufman, a lover of elaborate hoaxers, vehemently denied playing him and at times appeared on stage next to another person in Clifton get-up, Tony could live on long after the death of his creator, who died from lung cancer in 1984. Kaufman once told Merv Griffin that the ‘confusion’ started because he began impersonating the ‘real’ Clifton after he met him in Las Vegas.
Jim Carrey leapt like a frog from a dynamite pond into the character of Kaufman, and his character-within-a-character, Clifton, for director Milos Forman’s 1999 Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. It is now clear that the real movie, as Carrey himself puts it in Jim & Andy, was “happening behind the camera.” Since the biopic’s release the actor has been sitting on a trove of behind-the-scenes footage of him partaking of various shenanigans while keeping in character(s). The studio did not want to release it because they feared it would make him “look like an asshole.”
The Great Beyond might have too much Jim Carrey, or not enough Andy Kaufman. Either way, its imperfections are part of its strength.
Because this footage, combined with a wide-ranging interview with Carrey, forms the backbone of director Chris Smith’s documentary, it is perhaps not a surprise that his film focuses more on Jim than Andy. The narrowness and simplicity of the structure has pros and cons, one of the pros being that it affords great space for Carrey to ruminate. He makes interesting connections, indicating an affinity with the man he played, and viewing performance art through a curious contemporary lens.
Carrey discusses how his greatest film, 1998’s The Truman Show, is “constantly reaffirming itself as a teaching.” He says it is “not just show business, it’s Wall Street, it’s anywhere.” This “it” relates to performance, and the question of whether there is a difference between the nature of performance and life itself.
Andy Warhol famously embraced the art in the ordinary, revealing them to be one and the same. Andy Kaufman similarly took away distinctions placed on acting and performance, robbing them of conventional constructs (which he viewed, perhaps, as limitations) while at the same time challenging audiences with the mundane. Thus his famous Mighty Mouse performances, and his live reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety.
The Truman Show contemplated how performance can be defined purely by the audience (the people watching Truman on television) and not at all by the performer (given Truman had no idea he was being watched). You could slap that with a Shakespeare quote – ‘the world’s a stage’ – and be done with it, but implications are profound: arguably part of every word we say aloud; every social interaction we participate in; every glance or look in the mirror. And that’s before we consider what these performances, small or large, say about ourselves. Or the extent to which a moment belongs to a character, and a character to a moment
Questions like these have been chipped away at recently in some rich and interesting films, including the quasi-documentary Casting JonBenet – the Australian director Kitty Greens’ study of how people shape and share the dramas and tragedies of other lives. Also the desperately sad German comedy Toni Erdmann, which contemplated alter-egos as a means of freeing oneself from personal baggage.
There is an Erdmann-like moment revealed in Jim & Andy, captured in the old Man on the Moon footage, when Tony Clifton attends a party at the Playboy Mansion. Everybody knew the kooky Jim Carrey was in thick of making the film, using method acting techniques, so nobody batted an eyelid when he showed up as Clifton – in fact they were delighted to be witnessing him performing.
And then…the real Jim Carrey arrives to say hello. It was a ruse at the host’s expense. All this time they thought they were engaged with the superstar, when it was just some dude in costume and makeup. Carrey recalls that Hugh Hefner’s face “just went ashen…white as a ghost.” The actor who played Clifton was promptly escorted off the property.
This is, the more you think about it, a preposterous situation. People were ecstatic when that ridiculous creation arrived, then later they were furious. And for what? In a sense the only thing that really changed was context – though for some this was everything. It’s moments like these that keep Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond bouncing around my mind. It might have too much Jim Carrey, or not enough Andy Kaufman. Either way, its imperfections are part of its strength.