“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”–
I am sharing my El Perico story on the remainder of the Cinemateca series at Film Streams, Every two years Latin America motion pictures take center stage during the Cinemateca series that Film Streams hosts with OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 2016 Cinemateca series held at the Ruth Sokolof Theater at 1340 Mike Fahey Street in North Downtown has a few weeks left. Tuesday nights showcase adult-themed features, including tonight’s showing of “Viva” from Cuba. Sample free food and refreshments related to the country of origin before the show and stick around for the post-screening panel.
NOTE: Tonight’s (Tuesday, September 13) showing of “Viva: is sold out.
NOTE: The Guatemalan film “Ixcanul” that showed earlier in the series is having a special return engagement screening on Friday, September 30.
Check out the Cinemateca schedule at–
Cinemateca series trains lens on diverse films and themes
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
This year’s sampling of Latin American motion pictures in the biennial Cinemateca series at Film Streams is heavy on fiction, though a much anticipated documentary is also featured.
Cinemateca’s been part of Film Streams since the North Downtown art cinema’s 2008 start. This fifth collaboration with the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha includes five feature films for adult audiences and two features for families.
Each adult-themed feature has a single Tuesday night screening at 7, followed by a panel discussion.
Pre-show tapas from local Latino eateries will be served.
The family pics have multiple screening dates and times.
The 2016 curated series presents films from the United States, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Guatemala. The current series already screened the urban Spanish black comedy My Big Night and the indigenous Guatemalan drama Ixcanul.
The remaining schedule is:
OLLAS interim director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado called this 2015 Cuban-Irish co-production “a very beautiful movie,” adding, “I’ve seen Viva twice already but I can’t wait to see it again.” Hector Medina stars as Havana drag club hairdresser Jesus, whose performing dream gets sidetracked when his estranged father shows up. “Viva is a film of multiple story-lines anybody can latch onto, whether the drag culture in Havana, the dynamics of a father and son or the socio-economics of Cuban society in flux. It’s among the best films to come out of Cuba.”
Medina will be Cinemateca’s special guest at the screening.
This 2015 Argentine drama is based on the true story of a seemingly typical middle class family operating a large, violent kidnapping ring. Benjamin-Alvarado said, “I like movies based on true stories and I want to see El Clan because it’s going to be wild.”
When originally released in 1984 this documentary about the vital Puerto Rican and Dominican inhabitants of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood received little fanfare. But since the film’s rediscovery and restoration it’s become an archival treasure and talking point because it captures what the area was like before gentrification displaced minority residents. “It’s kind of this cautionary tale about what’s lost when communities are gentrified,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
September 8,10, 11 and 15
Boy & the World
This silent, hand-drawn 2013 animated film from Brazil follows a rural boy searching for his father in the big city.
September 18 and 22
A privileged boy who gets lost in a Havana slum is befriended by his poor counterpart in this 2011 Cuban live-action film. Benjamin-Alvarado’s colleague at UNO, Steven Torres, said, “Jonathan and I really enjoyed the film. We wanted to bring it to Film Streams before but we couldn’t find a version with English subtitles and the exhibition rights were restricted. We finally worked things out with the director to screen the film with English subtitles. It’s an interesting film from many different standpoints because these two kids come to terms dealing with one another and working together to find solutions as they try to reconcile their very different backgrounds.”
There is free admission to all Habanastation screenings.
Torres said Cinemateca is intentionally diverse “We always try to include films from different countries and provide a variety of film traditions and genres to tap into different audiences. We try to think in inclusive term with films that might be aesthetically pleasing but might also have some content that could lead to interesting discussion.”
Benjamin-Alvarado said a vetting process winnows more than 100 prospective titles to the final seven. Even when there’s consensus, films are not always available due to rights- licensing issues. He said this year organizers were able to book their top choices. “We have quality films across the board. We think it’s a pretty special series. The audience is going to be in for a treat with each of the films.”
For cinephile Benjamin-Alvarado, Cinemateca represents Film Streams’s “ability to bring to the community the universality of the human experience.” He said, “It may be in a disparate location under very interesting conditions, yet it really breaks down to the essence of who we are as humans. Cinemateca offers people opportunities to explore connections to our shared humanity. These films offer glimpses into different cultures and situations that spark conversation. It’s a celebration of the filmmaking and an exploration into the lives of people we wouldn’t otherwise experience. We find they’re so much like us.” That reflective mirror, he said is “the beauty of film.”
He loves that Cinemateca is a showcase for “the Spanish language” and for “the quality of (Latin American) filmmaking that continues to grow and expand.”
Fillm Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson said Cinemateca “has been one of our most enduring and fulfilling community partnerships.” She added, “OLLAS not only gets our mission and how to help fulfill it by programming interesting and diverse selections and complementing discussions, they have actually helped to shape the way we program.”
For showtimes and tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
‘Downsizing’ may elevate filmmaker to new heights; ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ your guide to his cinema universe
‘Downsizing’ may elevate filmmaker to new heights
‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ your guide to his cinema universe
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
The epic tragicomic tale told in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” (2017) tackles big ideas having to do with pressing world crises and universal, age-old human conflicts. The story’s imagined solution to ever depleted world resources is downsizing human beings to a fraction of normal size, thus decreasing mankind’s footprint on planet Earth. Only the reduction experience doesn’t quite go the way that Paul, the Everyman hero played by Matt Damon, envisioned. We go down the rabbit hole of this dark wonderland with Matt into a mind-blowing, soul-stirring, heart-breaking and ultimately inspiring odyssey that traverses everything from geo-political intrigue to classism and racism to human trafficking to love. The adventure takes us into new worlds that may or may not be the salvation of civilization but that just may be, for better or worse, the new dawn of man. Payne and his collaborators have traveled the globe to make an ambitious film shooting in multiple countries and starring an international cast. It promises to be a cinematic experience filled with spectacle, pathos and satire, yet never losing touch with human intimacy. As we know by now, every Payne film is about a physical, emotional, intellectual journey that tests its protagonists with some crucible they must endure in order to reach a new place, literally or metaphorically speaking. The stakes for the journey Paul takes in “Downsizing” are higher than for any journey in Payne’s other films because, unbeknownst to Paul, humanity’s future rests on his actions.
Payne and his film will get lots of attention when it releases mid-t0-late 2017. I think it will be the most talked about American film of the year. If it does resonate strongly enough with audiences it could very well catapult the filmmaker into a new category alongside such names as Tarantino, Scorsese, Cameron, Soderbergh and Nolan. Like their critically acclaimed movies that also become box office hits, Payne’s “Downsizing” may be his first film to not only reach the $100 million gross mark but to pull in well in excess of that number. It may also mark the film that finally wins him a Best Director Oscar. For someone like me who has closely covered Payne for a generation, there is much to anticipate and to report on in the coming year. After writing about the film last winter-spring and not much at all the last few months, I will be ramping up my coverage the remainder of this year through all of next year.
If you admire Payne’s films and want to know what goes into making them, then you will want to follow my reporting. You will also want to get a copy of my book”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” It is updated and current through Payne’s “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” projects. This passion project and labor of love is a must-read for movie buffs and fans. It is your companion guide to understanding his cinema universe. As an author-journalist-blogger, I often write about film and in 2012 I turned my in-depth reporting about Payne into this book. It is the most comprehensive study of his cinema career and work to be found anywhere. Its collection of articles and essays is based on interviews I conducted with Payne and with many of his key collaborators. My new edition is releasing this fall through River Junction Press in Omaha and features expanded and enhanced content, including a Discussion Guide with Index. It makes a great resource for film buffs, critics, filmmakers, educators and students as well as more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.
“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” takes you deep inside the creative process of one of the world’s leading cinema artists and follows the arc of his filmmaking journey over a 20-year span, when he went from brash indie newcomer to mature, consummate veteran. Along the way, he’s made a handful of the best reviewed American films of the past two decades and his movies have garnered many top honors at festivals and at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
Available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle and at select book stores and gift shops.
I will be selling and signing copies of my new edition before and after my 7 p.m. book talk at the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library, 1111 Jones Street, in the Old Market on Wednesday, September 21.
The book sells for $25.95, plus tax.
My informal presentation will offer insights into the Oscar-winning writer-director’s creative process gleaned from 20 years of interviewing and covering the filmmaker. I will also take questions from the audience.
Strong praise for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” – Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)
I hope to see you at the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library. You can let us know you’re coming by linking to the Facebook event page and clicking GOING–
If you can’t make this event, you’ll have more chances to get a copy signed by me during the fall. Look for announcements about future book talks-signings on my social media platforms:
Please remember that “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” makes a great gift for the film and book lover in your life.
It’s a must-get book for Nebraskans who want to know how this celebrated native son has arrived at rarefied heights and in the company of legends. Nebraskans love the fact that through all of Payne’s remarkable success, he has remained rooted to this place. His story will only get larger from here on out and this book is the foundation for appreciating how he has grown and what he has achieved in his first 20 years as a feature filmmaker.
There is much more to come from him and much more to be said about his work. But for now “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is the definitive word on his creative ourney and output.