This week’s most prominent new release is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, featuring what actor Daniel Day-Lewis claims will be his final performance. Day-Lewis is famous for an approach to role-playing so immersive that it blurs the line between art and athletics: he might prepare for a part by experiencing his subject’s living conditions (he “learned to live off the land” to play a Native American tribesman in The Last of the Mohicans) or stay in character between takes (during production of My Left Foot, for which he won an Oscar, he insisted on remaining in his character’s wheelchair and being spoon-fed by the crew). For Phantom Thread, in which he plays a fashion designer in 1950s Britain, Day-Lewis sewed a Balenciaga dress from scratch.
Some might think Day-Lewis’s fanaticism elevates acting to previously unimaginable heights, but I think it’s preposterous. An actor who refuses to break character at the expense of his colleagues crosses the line from artistry to abusiveness. Chris Smith’s direct-to-Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond reinforces my conviction. Smith considers many things (identity, celebrity, self- fulfillment), yet Jim & Andy mainly explores the limitations and pitfalls of method acting.
Twenty years ago Jim Carrey was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. From Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) through Liar, Liar (1997), his films grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. The Truman Show (1998), in which he plays the unsuspecting subject of a 24-7 reality TV program, won him critical acclaim as well, and with Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999) Carrey landed his dream role: Andy Kaufman, the provocative comedian who became a TV star on Taxi and Saturday Night Live before dying of cancer in 1984. At this point Carrey wielded so much power that he convinced Universal Pictures, the studio financing Man on the Moon, to let Kaufman’s girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, and writing partner, Bob Zmuda, produce the film’s electronic press kit. Their footage reflected so poorly on Carrey that Universal never used it, but now Smith has combined it with a new interview in which Carrey remembers the experience of playing Kaufman.
Before shooting began, Carrey tried to communicate with people telepathically; eventually, he recalls, “Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Sit down, I’ll be doing my movie.’ ” From that point forward Carrey refused to break character. The role itself called for excess—Kaufman, more of a performance artist than a comedian, was utterly committed to his elaborate comic schemes (such as wrestling women onstage, despite intense vitriol from audiences).
When Carrey first shows up on set, his fellow cast members are delighted by his method approach. (“It’s really weird! It’s totally surreal!” exclaims Paul Giamatti, a truly great actor, who played Zmuda.) But their amusement curdles into annoyance and then outright unpleasantness once the script calls for Carrey to become Tony Clifton, the louche lounge-singer character that Kaufman (or, as a gag, Zmuda) would spring on unsuspecting audiences. Carrey says that becoming Clifton was liberating—he could tap into his antagonistic side without fear of consequence—and at one point the actor, disguised as Clifton, barges into Steven Spielberg’s production office and demands a meeting. Forman, his patience worn thin, begs Carrey to stop, but Carrey, as Kaufman, replies, “We could fire [Kaufman and Clifton] and I could do a pretty good impression of both of them.” The exhausted director pleads, “I don’t want to stop it, I just want to talk to Jim.”
Playing Kaufman as Tony Clifton turns out to be a strenuous, psychologically taxing endeavor that visibly damages Carrey’s well-being. He takes up smoking, looks haggard, and berates himself constantly. When Zmuda asks Carrey if he dreams as himself, Kaufman, or Clifton, Carrey admits that he sometimes sees all three wrestling each other. The actor’s self-abuse is most conspicuous when, playing Clifton, he levels uncomfortably intimate insults at himself. “All that smiling all the time, you can tell it’s not real,” Clifton observes of Carrey in what feels more like a therapy session than a comedy routine. Because of the overlap between Carrey’s various personas, Jim & Andy is filled with lines that have two or three meanings; the documentary is an unlikely exercise in metaphorical speaking.
As Carrey explains, his unresolved issues only compounded his confusion. His stratospheric success distracted him from dealing with the trauma of his father’s death in 1994. Carrey confesses that, when Kaufman’s illegitimate daughter visited the set of Man on the Moon, he spoke with her in character for more than an hour. Was Carrey helping her deal with her loss or addressing his own? In these scenes and others Jim & Andy becomes a candid dissection of a celebrity’s insecurities and anxieties, filtered through an interrogation of the acting process.
Chris Smith has made a number of features, but most people remember him for his 1999 documentary American Movie, about the quest of Wisconsin indie filmmaker Mark Borchardt to complete a direct-to-video horror movie despite his own incompetence. Jim & Andy deals with a famous actor instead of an unknown director, but it makes a similar point: people can succeed professionally despite their personal problems, but success doesn’t make those problems go away. Carrey admits to Smith that after production wrapped on Man on the Moon, he didn’t know who he was. “It felt so good being Andy because you were free from yourself,” he recalls thinking. “You were on vacation from Jim Carrey.”
One of the most powerful metaphors of Jim & Andy is that life itself is a kind of performance. When Carrey embarks on becoming Kaufman, he seems to believe that his intense process will win him the respect he deserves. But when Smith asks Carrey what finally cured him of trying to gain people’s approval, Carrey responds, “Standing there with everything anybody else had ever dreamed about having, and being unhappy.” In the archival footage Carrey is young, fresh-faced, confident, and high on his own success. But the actor interviewed for Jim & Andy looks more like a combat veteran, with sunken eyes and a bushy gray beard. The Jim Carrey of 2017 seems mellower, at peace with his own doubts and conflicts. It’s more impressive than any performance I’ve ever seen.