“A Thousand Clowns” and other ’60s films begat golden age of ’70s cinema
©by Leo Adam Biga
The other night on YouTube I watched a largely forgotten but seminal American movie from 1965 titled “A Thousand Clowns” and it reminded of two things: As a kid, that movie was way too mature and cerebral for me to fully appreciate; and it was part of a vanguard that helped usher in the New Hollywood. Those of us who regard the last Golden Age of American cinema to be the 1970s know full well that that New Wave of American film really began in the late 1950s-early 1960s, before finally becoming a full fledged movement in the late 1960s. That movement or wave marked by personal, humanistic-themed filmmaking led by auteurist directors hailing from television and film school persisted throughout the following decade. This was the period when the studios were “taken over” by the artists or so it seemed. The new freedom allowed a brash group of filmmakers to assert themselves on the American and world cinema scene. The new school directors whose work most stood out then included: Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Richard Rush, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, John Boorman, Peter Yates, Michael Cimino, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
But those hot new directors were not the only ones making waves then. Indeed, a few veteran studio directors long since having gone independent made some of their strongest works in that era, particularly John Huston (“Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Fat City,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Wiseblood”). Then there were directors who made only one or very few notable films in that time only to disappear from the world of features or never to catch the magic again. “A Thousand Clowns” director Fred Coe was one of these. He was a writer and producer who had his biggest success in TV, but he made two films right in the thick of that transition in American features that caught the wave in their own idiosyncratic ways. The first was “A Thousand Clowns,” which writer Herb Gardner adapted from his own Broadway play. The other was “Me, Natalie,” which like “Clowns” has a great reputation, but I have never seen it to judge for myself. Before the film adaptation of “Clowns,” he directed the original Broadway play, which was a commercial and critical hit. For the film Jason Robards and Barry Gordon reprised their starring roles from the stage version.
Now having viewed “Clowns” for the first time through adult eyes – decades removed from when I last saw it – it is clearly part of a continuum in American film that pushed boundaries and assimilated stylistic techniques and humanistic themes prominent in the cinematic new waves of Italy, France and Great Britain and that reflected the growing social tumult. “Clown” stars Robards as a quintessential New York City nonconformist named Murray who has raised his nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) ever since his sister abandoned him to his care. He’s a sardonic writer hedonistically living off of his imagination and irascibility. Out of work by his own choice and none too eager to rejoin the Rat Race, he lives by his own rules and seemingly without adverse consequences. His nephew is, on the surface at least, more of an adult than he is and goes along with his flights of fancy as much to humor him as anything. Even when Murray’s guardianship of the boy is threatened by this carefree lifestyle and cavalier attitude that sees him run through women, defy authority and flee responsibility, he doesn’t change. Then, in the strangely melancholic and wonderfully anarchic spirit of the story – something of a cross between the Marx Brothers, “The Producers,” “Harold and Maude” and Woody Allen – a couple from the child welfare board visits the uncle and nephew’s apartment to make an assessment. William Daniels as Albert and Barbara Harris as Sandra play the romantically involved couple. He’s an uptight case worker and she’s an emotionally fragile psychologist and they have wildly different responses to the situation. He’s appalled and annoyed by Robards’ seeming indifference to this official inquiry and the threat of the nephew being taken from the home. She, however, is charmed by the Murray and Nick’s insouciance. The professional and personal relationship between the neurotic couple devolves right before Murray’s eyes and he takes up with her that very day. That still leaves the matter of Murray needing to find a job before a hearing in a few days to determine the boy’s fate.
NOTE: Nebraska’s own Sandy Dennis played Sandra in the Broadway play and won a Tony for her efforts.
Robards is perfectly cast as Murray. He had a gift for irony and larceny. I’ve always thought of him as the Bogart among his generation of actors. Gordon, who as an adult became the long tenured head of the Screen Actors Guild, plays prococious and worldy wise without cloying cuteness – something akin to what Jodie Foster did a decade later in “The Bad News Bears” and “Taxi Driver.”
Murray’s staid agent brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), frantically lines up interviews for him but Murray can’t or won’t sell-out and ends the day still unemployed. This causes Sandra to lay down an ultimatum: find a job or lose me. There’s a great scene between the brothers when an exasperated but loving Arnold explains to Murray why they are so different. Arnold needs the security that comes with showing up for work everyday. He’s settled for the consumerist American Dream, even if it is a fraud, and he’s willing to play by the rules to remain a sheep and to be comfortable. He has a family to support, after all. By contrast, Murray’s search for whimsy in a system designed to crush individuality and his penchant for calling out the hypocrisy around him leaves him fighting windmills that cannot be harnessed. Arnold admires and pities Murray;s inability or refusal to compromise. Murray feels anger and sorrow that Arnold long ago lost his freedom. In the end, Murray sacrifices his independence for the sake of the kid and the girlfriend and perhaps his own peace of mind by going back to work for Leo, the manic, egomaniacal host-producer of a children’s TV show, brilliantly played by Gene Saks. The ending bothers fans of the stage version, who feel the film makes it seem that Murray too has sold his soul to become just another sheep. But my take is that Murray’s simply adjusted his attitude, much like his hat, to appear to be a conformist on the outside when he’ll really always remain a free spirit and independent agent on the inside. It’s what you do for love, in this case his love for the boy and for the woman.
Director Coe opens up “A Thousand Clowns” by variously following Murray, Nick and Sandra cavorting about the city, their spontaneous play in stark contrast to the regimented patterns of workers moving in lockstep to and from work. These moments represent their escapes, if only fleeting, from harsh reality. These scenes give the film a kinetic, pure cinema look and feel that also emphasizes the whole theme of moving against the tide. My take away from the story is that Gardner views the constructs of 9 to 5 civilization as a game in which the House (corporations, society, government) is always going to “win” and the best antidote to staying sane and happy in this rigid, stacked paradigm is to see it for what it is and have a good time winking at it. Murray is not so much a rebel then as a survivor who gives as good as he gets on his own terms. He will always be an outlier with a barbed comment or silly joke or impulse to do something spontaneous. It’s his way of saying; I am here, I am alive. I own my own thoughts and behaviors. And I don’t give a damn what you may think of me. While it’s message may be muddled for some, I think it’s basically just saying; No matter what, be yourself. We all make compromises, but be true to yourself.
All of this is played out against the subtext of what was happening at the time in society with the civil rights and black power movements, the birth of women’s lib, the Vietnam War, the counterculture revolution led by rock, the growing drug culture and consumerism run amok. Things were on simmer in the early and mid’60s and would come to a full boil by the end of the decade. The film is a mood capsule for the dissatisfaction people were feeling without ever overtly referring to any of these things. But it’s all there between the lines.
“Clowns” came smack dab in the middle of a flood of films starting to redefine American cinema in the 1960s:
The Manchurian Candidate
David and Lisa
A Hard Day’s Night
Nothing But a Man
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
In Cold Blood
Bonnie and Clyde
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Five Easy Pieces
Harold and Maude
The French Connection
The Last Picture Show
These and many other films brought a new freedom and excitement to bear that opened up American cinema more than at any time since the pre-code silent and early sound era. The best of these new films variously introduced new levels of naturalism, expressionism and impressionism to the screen. It was an anything goes time informed by the cinema of the world. America made its own indelible contributions to this rich cinema stew. “Clowns” rarely gets mentioned in appraisals or retrospectives of ’60s and ’70s film. It’s not nearly as well known as many of the films in the above list. While it’s not a great film – Coe doesn’t quite get the visuals aspects of the story right in my opinion and I think he doesn’t make full use of the dynamics between Murray and Nick – it’s a very good and important film. I can’t wait to discover more of these gems that have got lost in the shuffle.
Here is a link to a superb tribute essay written about Herb Gardner and “A Thousand Clowns”–