Hot, Dada, and Still Dead

What really happened.
Dec. 23 1999 3:30 AM

Hot, Dada, and Still Dead

Man on the Moon puts a happy face on the life and times of Andy Kaufman.

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In its most marked deviation from real life, Man on the Moon provides Kaufman with a kind of feel-good comeback. Earlier in the film, Andy's manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), frustrated with his client's self-indulgent performances, tells him that he has to decide whether he's out to entertain the audience or himself. (In life, Shapiro was similarly frustrated.) After being diagnosed with cancer, Carrey's Kaufman decides to do a show at Carnegie Hall. The event is the definition of a crowd pleaser, replete with appearances by the Rockettes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Santa Claus (the act isn't entirely without bite; there's also a very funny moment involving a heart attack). And at the end of the evening Kaufman takes the entire audience out for milk and cookies. This all happened in real life--although the Rockettes weren't the real Rockettes and neither was the choir. But the performance took place in 1979, well before Kaufman got sick.

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B y time-shifting this feel-good scene forward, Man on the Moon relieves the true story of Kaufman's depressing decline. In the film, for example, his wrestling days come to an abrupt end after he and Lawler erupt into a brawl while appearing on Late Night With David Letterman. But in life, the rematches would continue. As Lost in the Funhouse notes, Kaufman actually joined Lawler on the professional circuit and traveled across the country in a kind of "touring carnival." Zehme writes, "Nobody paid much attention." The man who had once come up with a "has-been corner" skit, in which, as Zmuda recalls, forgotten performers "would be sent out to flounder in front of an audience ... in an attempt to regain some of their vanished fame," was on his way to becoming a has-been himself. Tellingly, the "has-been corner" routine is not in the movie.

As for Andy's illness, the film is true to the record when it suggests that people didn't believe that he was really sick with lung cancer. After Carrey's Kaufman tells Zmuda the news, he responds that they can really make something out of this gag. Kaufman was a nonsmoker, which naturally made people doubt him. (In the film, as in life, Kaufman goes to the Philippines to visit a healer who pretends to remove diseased-looking entrails--actually, concealed animal parts--from Kaufman's body. Carrey's Kaufman immediately understands the put-on and laughs. But as Lynne Margulies told Zehme, "[Andy] actually seemed to be getting better at first. He believed it was magic.")

What the movie neglects to mention is that Kaufman had often talked about how he would like to pull off his own death. And there are still those who believe that Kaufman, like his hero, Elvis, is out there somewhere. In the epilogue to Andy Kaufman Revealed! Zmuda writes--perhaps in an effort to ratchet up the mystery factor--"I've often been asked, 'Had Andy lived, what would he be doing?' The answer is obvious: I truly believe he would have faked his death."

The film's own mild flirtation with mystery comes in the final scene: A year after Kaufman's funeral, Tony Clifton performs in a club, doing a rather spirited rendition of--what else--"I Will Survive." We're expecting a trick, but we're also pretty sure that the singer is Zmuda, who sometimes played Clifton when Andy was alive. However, the camera scans the crowd until it lands on Zmuda, who's watching the spectacle along with everyone else. This "Tony Clifton Live" performance did actually take place except Zmuda was, of course, Clifton. And the occasion? A cancer benefit.

Jared Hohlt is an editor at New York magazine.