Phantom Andy

Dec 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

One of the most demanding movie genres is the biographical film. Mixing fact with fiction, it ruthlessly condenses a messy life into a streamlined narrative that will make audiences feel that they know what made that person tick.

In their biopics, Ed Wood (1994) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski focused on their subjects' contradictory natures. Wood and Flynt saw themselves very differently from the perceptions of them by the outside world: Wood thought himself a Hollywood auteur, yet made films admired only for their naive awfulness; Flynt, publisher of Hustler, is a self-professed "smut peddler" who casts himself in the noble role of First Amendment avenger.

Now in Man on the Moon, Alexander and Karaszewski have tackled the comedic king of contradiction, Andy Kaufman (1949-84). They found a subject who truly couldn't be pinned down.

"One of the beauties of Kaufman is the fact that he's an enigma," says Karaszewski. "You never can get a grasp on him. He was a guy who wasn't happy unless he was wearing a mask, and when he took off that mask, there's just another mask underneath. He did that not only onstage but offstage as well. A very key moment in the research for us was when we were interviewing Lynne Margulies (Andy's girlfriend during his last years). We said, 'We're looking for the real Andy Kaufman,' and she said, 'There is no real Andy Kaufman.'"

Alexander and Karaszewski tried to encapsulate this paradox by making a "Kaufmanesque" biopic, one that would filter Andy's life through his peculiar sensibility. This meant they had the freedom to manipulate facts, including the chronology of his life. For instance, they viewed Kaufman's famous 1979 Carnegie Hall performance (where he took the audience out for milk and cookies afterward) as a creative climax, so they put it at the end of Man on the Moon, making it appear as though Kaufman staged the extravaganza after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

"The opening of the movie," Alexander explains, "is Andy looking at the audience and saying, 'The movie's all lies. They got things out of order.' We wanted to make the movie that Andy would have made, and Andy was about tricking the audience and lying to their faces."

Man on the Moon presents extensive examples of Kaufman's particular brand of confrontational comedy, but never tries to explain his outrageous behavior.

"The fact that we're not explaining him is sort of the point of the movie," asserts Alexander, "and the movie doesn't have easy answers because Andy didn't have easy answers. Andy was a hell of a sweet guy — he was a jerk. He was incredibly mild-mannered — he had a horrible temper. He was a vegetarian — he loved bacon. It would cheapen Andy to pretend that we could explain him. We want the audience to come away saying, 'He's really interesting; he's got a lot of sides and no one will ever know who he really was.'"

One thing their Andy shares with the real one is the assertion that he's not a comedian. In Man on the Moon, Kaufman refers to himself as "a song-and-dance man," which Alexander says means he wasn't "interested in cheap laughs."

So this innovative stand-up, who became enormously popular as the sweet-natured garage mechanic Latka Gravas on the television sitcom "Taxi" (1978-83), spent his career perpetrating hoaxes and trying to turn the audience against him.

"He was a performance artist who became incredibly famous," explains Karaszewski, "and he exploited his fame. He's got 40 million people loving him every week, yet he doesn't feel connected to this show. So when he goes out (to do live performances) and they say, 'Do Latka! Do Latka!,' he comes back and reads them The Great Gatsby. He tries to punish his audience in a weird way, and push them and push them and push them, and see how far he can do that."

What Kaufman did best, says Alexander, "was deconstructing the entertainment medium on TV and onstage." This included making the audience aware of the performance mechanism itself. Appearing in 1982 on the live television show "Fridays," Kaufman broke the fourth wall by refusing to play along with a lame drug-joke sketch, turning the cast members and crew against him in a raucous on-air revolt.

But Andy Kaufman drew the most controversy when he performed as an antagonistic wrestler whose misogynistic rants would prompt infuriated female audience members into wrestling him onstage. His eventual bout with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler made headlines when Kaufman was believed to be seriously injured.

"One of the brilliant things about Kaufman's ability to screw with your mind," says Karaszewski, "is that Andy went into one of the most suspect professions you can get into and made us all believe that it was real."

"When Andy did it," continues Alexander, "people bought it because he wouldn't wink and he wouldn't go, 'Just kidding.' It never occurred to them that it was just a performance."