Saturday, September 04, 2010

Joaquin, Are Ya Goofin' On Tony?

One of my more anticipated flicks for this coming fall season is Casey Affleck's directorial debut I'm Still Here. For those of you who have been living under the proverbial rock for the last few years (or who just don't give a damn), Affleck has spent that time chronicling the sudden career change of his brother in law Joaquin Phoenix from sensitive, brooding actor to rap star/self-destruction artist.  The film purports to offer an in-depth examination of Phoenix's supposed lost years...except for the fact that most pundits have been crying fraud since near the beginning of this whole escapade.  Shortly after Phoenix began appearing in his newly bearded and weight-padded guise (with his brother in law constantly in tow, camera in hand), word began to spread that the whole thing was a publicity stunt.

If this was true, Phoenix did his best to dispel the rumors with his now semi-legendary appearance with David Letterman.  Ostensibly appearing to promote his then new project Two Lovers (recommended, by the way), the sunglasses-wearing former heartthrob barely mentioned the film, briefly discussed his retirement from acting, and acted generally evasive for the entirety of his segment.  Letterman has usually received kudos for frying Phoenix alive, but Joaquin actually served up a fairly stinging repudiation of Dave's condescending manner (albeit in a much less palatable manner).

After that appearance, Phoenix continued on his tour of small clubs, rapping to often befuddled audiences, while Affleck continued to shoot his every move.  But the general hubbub over his bizarre behavior seemed to die out fairly quickly.  The general consensus was that the stunt was cute for a minute, but that it had now grown self indulgent and tiring.

Which leads me to ask: could Andy Kaufman have survived in the modern world?  And is Joaquin Phoenix actually the long lost son of Tony Clifton?

During his all too brief stay in this friendly, friendly world, Kaufman’s trompe le monde attitude turned failure and self-destruction into high art.  Bored with the success of his Foreign Man character (which he later modified for his Taxi's iconic Latka Gravas), Kaufman slowly began to amp up the antagonistic parts of his stand-up act.  During college tours, he would stick it to rowdy audiences in search of his easily marketable impressions by reading long sections of The Great Gatsby to them.  For an extended period , he indulged his love for the dialectic moral aspects of pro wrestling (and his lust for rubbing up against women) by declaring himself the Intergender Wrestling Champion, grappling with willing female antagonists during his act and on talk shows and culminating in his infamous feud with Memphis's King of Wrestling, Jerry Lawler. (For more on this period, check out this excellent compilation of real applications from women who sought to wrestle Andy:

But Tony Clifton was his crowning creation, an opportunity for Kaufman's id to run wild. While Andy's benign moon face and childlike glee tempered many of his more confrontational bits, Tony Clifton's massive boiler, roadkill hairpiece, sagging jowls and nasal twang worked just as well to alienate audiences.  Kaufman would often have Clifton open for him, baiting the audience with his horribly off-key standards and sub-borscht belt riffs.  Seeing Kaufman's antics afterward was a relief.  The joke, of course, was that Kaufman and Clifton were the same person.  Kaufman would appear as Clifton in public, denying any knowledge of his supposed alter ego; he even famously wrote Clifton appearances into his Taxi contract, mystifying cast mates by appearing in full Clifton regalia on those shooting days and annoying the hell out of everyone.  But eventually, word of his true identity leaked out, so Kaufman's partner in crime Bob Zmuda began to portray Clifton, often appearing on stage with his pal to further spook the skeptics.  Back then, the general public had no idea who Zmuda was, so the ruse worked.

The apex of the Clifton character was to be a feature film (The Tony Clifton Story) which would tell the tale of his illustrious and depraved life.  The climax of the film was to feature a pullback shot in which Kaufman would appear as himself to explain that Clifton later died of lung cancer at Cedars Sinai hospital.  The film was never produced, as (in a darkly ironic twist) the generally clean living Kaufman later died of lung cancer at…Cedars Sinai hospital.

So look at the stories of Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Could Kaufman have pulled off Tony Clifton for any amount of time in today’s mystery-deprived world?  Would he have been dismissed as a sham within a day or so of Clifton’s first appearance?  Is Phoenix actually paying tribute to Kaufman/Clifton with this latest venture?  Or has the former heartthrob stepped all the way through the looking glass and truly embraced his new career?  It’s possibly instructive to note that one of Kaufman’s defining mass media appearances was his confrontation with Jerry Lawler (following the King’s supposed breaking of Kaufman’s neck) on…Late Night with David Letterman. 

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