Monday, October 12, 2015

Reeling Backward: "A Thousand Clowns" (1965)

There have been 520 films nominated for the Academy Award for best picture (as of this writing), and you would think every one of them is a cherished classic. After all, how many movies that don't get a best picture nod still go on to attain immortal status? If the best picture nominees are, broadly speaking, the best of the best, it seems intuitive that they would be remembered the best as well.

And yet, there are many films that received this distinguished honor that I have never even heard of, let alone seen. I've been making it a point to try to watch all the best picture winners -- by my count, there are nine remaining, the most recent being 1968's "Oliver!". Trying to get to all those that have merely been nominated seems a task worthy enough for a bucket list.

Let's start with "A Thousand Clowns," nominated for 1965. It's the tale of Murray Burns, a burnt-out television comedy writer who quit his job on the "Chuckles the Chipmunk" show in a fit five months ago and seems disinclined to rejoin ordered society. The unofficial ward of his 12-year-old nephew Nick, the iconoclastic Murray is threatened with having the boy taken away by child services unless he agrees to return to work and respectability.

Murray is played by the great Jason Robards, one of those actors made so iconic by his middle-age film roles that it's sometimes hard to even conceive of him as a young man. That's probably because he only got into acting after a naval stint during World War II, starting on the stage and working his way up to Broadway -- where his eight Tony nominations remain a record -- only making his feature film debut when he was sidling up to 40.

Robards starred in the Broadway production of the play by Herb Gardner, which ran for two years, so it was only natural for director Fred Coe to tap him for the film adaptation. It's a vibrant, scene-dominating performance. But interestingly, Robards did not get an Oscar nod himself. Gardner did for his screenplay, as did Don Walker for his music -- a schizophrenic mix of musical snatches, single instruments and random marches.

Martin Balsam, the wonderful character actor known for numerous sidekick roles, from "Psycho" to "Cape Fear" (both the original and remake), won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for playing Murray's brother, Arnold. He actually only has two substantive scenes in the entire movie totaling perhaps 12 minutes, but his rebuttal speech to Murray, defending his status as a well-to-do businessman toeing the line in the middle of the stream, is undoubtedly what earned his award.

He beat out the likes of Tom Courtenay as the dastardly Strelnikov in "Doctor Zhivago" and Ian Bannen as an uppity Scotsman in "The Flight of the Phoenix."

William Daniels has a fun, small role as Albert Amundson, the persnickety child welfare official sent to interview Murray after he predictably fails to respond to any of their letters or phone calls. He's brought along a junior assistant, one Dr. Sandra Markowitz, who is soon revealed to be a recent graduate and also Albert's fiancee. Over the course of the rambling interview, Sandra (Barbara Harris) becomes so disillusioned that she actually refuses to leave with Albert, resulting in the loss of her job and pending marriage.

Murray is not a particularly likable guy, and by that I mean he's kind of a self-important turd. Not only does he think a normal life of work and stability isn't right for him, he's contemptuous of those who do (in his mind) conform to societal dictates. He has a habit of interrupting people while they're talking with deliberately distracting non-sequiturs, trying to leave them confused and uncomfortable. He's quite successful at this.

In a lot of ways he makes me think of a grown-up Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of "Catcher in the Rye," who is endlessly obsessed with how much of a phony everybody but him is. Like a lot of underemployed folks predisposed to philosophizing, Murray is excellent at discerning the faults and foibles of others but does not care to point his high-caliber powers of observation at himself.

In a not particularly convincing turn of events, Sandra camps out at Murray's cramped, disheveled apartment -- which is repeatedly referred to as a "one-room apartment," even as characters walk through doors to other rooms. The two also are clearly inferred to have had sex, in a scene in which Sandra wakes up nude and Murray hands her her clothes behind a partition. Things would soon change with the death of Hollywood's production code, but for 1965 it's still a pretty ballsy scene.

They spend a magical day cruising around New York City, doing quirky things like bidding bon voyage to a departing passenger ship, pretending like they know somebody on board. At the end they are in love, and Sandra urges Murray to clean up his life the same way she's going to clean up his apartment for him.

(For unemployed people, Sandra and Murray appear to have plenty of money for a horde of flowers, new drapes, a new suit and briefcase, trips to the Statue of Liberty, etc. I always hate it in movies when characters are described as destitute and then they can seemingly pay for anything they want without any worries.)

Nick is an interesting kid. Played precociously by Barry Gordon, he's turning into a miniature Murray, cynic and wiseacre, who acts as his wingman and collaborator in making other people feel like fools. Nick isn't even his real name, as his mother (Murray and Arnold's sister) dropped him off as a tyke without even bothering to give him a legal moniker. So Nick awards himself a new name every now and then. Near the end of the film he decides to abandon Nick because, he says, it's a short person's name and he doesn't want to call attention to his stature.

Murray relents and goes to listen to some job offers Arnold has set up, which of course he haughtily refuses -- even slinking out of a lunch while some producer is in mid-pitch. Strangely, the job he has in mind is for Murray to just appear on television as himself, talking about whatever he wants. This would seem to be his dream gig, a venue in which he could tell the world they're a bunch of deluded clowns and get paid handsomely for it.

Instead, Murray agrees to meet with his old boss, Leo Herman (Gene Saks), a pathetic middle-aged man who puts on a furry suit to play Chuckles the Chipmunk for an idiotic kids' show in the Howdy Doody mold. Chuckles seems to exist mostly to sell merchandise, including some potato chips that are described as the worst-tasting in the world.

Leo is taken down by Nick, who tries to be polite for Murray's sake, but finally is honest when asked by Leo if he thinks his shtick is funny. It's the most effective moment of the film, probably because it's a (mostly) innocent kid speaking truth to power, rather than a resentful grown man who regards everyone else as chumps.

I wasn't particularly impressed with "A Thousand Clowns." Its message is muddled -- work is bad? Those who conform have withered souls? -- and its messenger often seems mean-spirited and cowardly. Maybe there's a reason some Oscar nominees are forgotten.

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