Before Jim Carrey was famous, he’d transform himself into someone famous. In the new documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, about the making of Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, director Chris Smith found old footage of Carrey in the ’80s during his decade-long stretch of small-time stand-up gigs. Onstage at a comedy club, Carrey would yell, “James Dean!” He’d turn his back to the crowd for an anticipation-building beat. Then Carrey would look over his left shoulder and he’d be James Dean: a rearrangement of eyebrows and cheekbones and lips that’d make a plastic surgeon applaud.
“He looks exactly like James Dean,” says Smith. “It’s unbelievable.” But Carrey willed James Dean into existence every week for years. And then he willed himself. The broke comic wrote himself post-dated check for $10 million dollars, tucked it in his wallet, and kept on grinding. Then in 1994, he starred in three films — Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask — and in one year, became the biggest comedy star in the world. “That was way before The Secret,” notes Smith. “It seemed like it worked for him.”
Everything that happened next happened fast. A Batman movie, an Ace Ventura sequel, his first flops. Carrey the chameleon was suddenly a celebrity in his own skin. And he didn’t always like it. By 1998, he’d channel his anxiety into The Truman Show as a naive man-child who couldn’t escape a dome of cameras.
“He could have stayed making these broad, slapstick movies, but he was always pushing himself to make different things,” says Smith. The question was: Would anyone let him? Mr. Rubberface was making studios millions, and serious people didn’t take Carrey seriously. When Milos Forman, the two-time Oscar-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, began casting the role of Andy Kaufman, he didn’t want Jim Carrey. The blockbuster idiot? No way. Like Truman, Carrey would have to break out of confinement.
So Carrey did what he did best. He became Andy Kaufman, all the Andy Kaufmans, from the cartoon-voiced Foreign Man who lip-synced Mighty Mouse, to the misogynist wrestler who wound up in a neck brace, to lounge singer Tony Clifton who pushed people till they loathed him. He shot his own audition tape to prove that he knew Kaufman “as well as I can know him.” On the day Forman gave him the part, Carrey was practicing Kaufman’s mental telepathy on a Malibu beach. Thirty dolphins leapt into the air, and he felt Kaufman’s ghost tap him on the shoulder. As Carrey tells Smith, “What happened next was out of my control.”
Carrey became Kaufman full-time, like the ghost had possessed his body. For four months, Carrey disappeared—just like he’d quietly wanted to. “It was a full immersion from morning till night,” says Smith. “There was definitely some madness there.” Carrey would be Kaufman in the make-up trailer, Kaufman alone at home, Kaufman when the real-life Kaufman’s daughter came to visit the set to meet the father she’d never known. And he let Kaufman’s closest friends, writing partner Bob Zmuda and girlfriend Lynne Margulies, shoot 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, which made its way to Spike Jonze, who handed it to Smith.
Surely, the guy who made American Movie, about Wisconsin metalhead Mark Borchardt’s fixation on making the short film “Coven,” would click with “this whole world of craziness,” says Smith. “They’re all passionate people that were trying to achieve something.” Besides, as a documentarian, Smith shares a key trait with Carrey: Both plunge into other people’s lives.
“One of the things that attracted me to the project was I didn’t know that much about Jim,” says Smith. “There was a real opportunity to give context to the choices he made and his body of work.” Kaufman, however, had been a big influence on Smith. In high school, a friend showed him an old tape. It was the mid-’80s — Carrey was still doing James Dean — and here was this unibrowed oddball breaking boundaries people hadn’t even known were there until Kaufman made them laugh, or cringe, at the wreckage.
“There are things that help form and create your identity, and Andy was revolutionary,” says Smith. “At a young age, he has a huge impact on you because you realize you can do anything. There are no rules—and you can change things. It forces you to question reality.” Today, speculates Smith, Kaufman would be all over the internet. Helping the Russians sway the election? “He might have been.”
Jim & Andy is a portrait of two comedians — one alive, one resurrected — so intent on blurring the line between chaos and entertainment that they merged into one being, a maniacal chimera capable of swelling his belly and making a scene. (Carrey offhandedly calls his creation, “Andy, me, whoever.”) As Clifton, Carrey would barge into the dailies shirt-open and stomach first. He’d pass out on set clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels, convince Courtney Love, who played Lynn, to dance in her underwear at craft services, and invite the Hells Angels on to the lot and hoot, “Do whatever you want!”
And, of course, Carrey would refuse to take Forman’s direction — how could he without breaking character? — even after the filmmaker who’d literally won Academy Awards telling stories about mental asylums and unhinged genius begged him to behave. “You have to give me a chance to make a movie,” pleads Forman in Jim & Andy. Carrey/Kaufman/Clifton howls, “I need a director with backbone!”
“You had somebody who’s trying to control an environment coming up against somebody who was uncontrollable,” says Smith. It worked, eventually. Man on the Moon won Carrey a Golden Globe for Best Actor. Tellingly, one of the first things Danny DeVito, as Kaufman’s manager, says to Carrey onscreen is, “You’re insane but you might also be brilliant.” But the studio shelved the backstage footage. It worried audiences would think Carrey was “an asshole” — and there were future tickets to sell.
The irony is that today, Carrey radiates a zen calm. Once he finished Man on the Moon, he packed up Kaufman’s clothes, and his brain, and put them away. Carrey refused to get back into costume for the soundtrack’s R.E.M. video. “You would think, ‘Well how hard is it to put the makeup on and be that guy?'” says Smith. “It was so much more than that. That wasn’t really an option.”
“I don’t miss Tony,” Carrey tells Smith, in a voice so soft and sincere you almost wonder if it, too, is an act. Carrey wasn’t eager to do the documentary, but he was at peace with the intrusion. “Andy would never let you in,” says Smith. “Jim is very open and honest.” Carrey gives off the aura of a man with nothing to lose or gain, a man who wrote a check, cashed it, and then decided he wanted something more — or maybe, something less.
“I think the message of the movie is to really take a hard look at what you’re working toward,” says Smith. “Think about what it is we really want. I’m trying to absorb that lesson.”
Still, Smith is a filmmaker who’s made his career finding someone fascinating and then going with the flow. For a second opinion, turn to Forman. When he saw Jim & Andy and relived the trauma of the spitting and the tears and the ambulance rides and the time Andy, Jim, whoever burst into Spielberg’s office and demanded to meet the shark from Jaws, the director quickly wrote his former frenemy — and told Carrey he loved it.