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Cinema: The Odd Fellows

6 minute read
Jeffrey Ressner

Oddballs are Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s specialty. Five years ago, the screenwriting partners turned the life of cross-dressing B-movie director Ed Wood into a critically acclaimed film starring Johnny Depp. Next they wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt, a Capraesque portrait of the porno kingpin who won a First Amendment case before the Supreme Court, with Woody Harrelson in the title role. But even for these masters of the “anti-biopic,” which they describe as a movie biography of someone who doesn’t really deserve one, telling the story of comedian Andy Kaufman presented a challenge.

If they remember him at all, most people think of Kaufman as the bashful foreign mechanic on the sitcom Taxi whose salutation “Tenk you veddy much” became a national catchphrase. But a small cult of hard-core fans reveres Kaufman as a performance artist who upended stand-up comedy to explore his inner child. He wrestled women for laughs, created a thuggish alter ego named Tony Clifton and never let on where the prankster stopped and the real person began. When he died of cancer in 1984, at 35, even close friends suspected a hoax.

After months of tracking rumors and talking to Kaufman’s family and friends, Alexander and Karaszewski had no clue who the real Andy was or how to structure a screenplay about him. It was only after one of Kaufman’s girlfriends told them “there is no real Andy” that they found the key to their movie–the comic with multiple personalities was actually an invisible man. With that notion as their guide, they wrote Man on the Moon, a movie nearly as ambiguous as Kaufman himself.

Jim Carrey’s uncanny portrayal of Kaufman may be the film’s main draw, but it is Alexander and Karaszewski’s re-creation of Kaufman’s life, enigmatic and unapologetic, that best captures his anarchic spirit. “Sure, Jim’s performance channeled the guy, but it’s all part of a whole,” explains Danny DeVito, who not only produced and co-stars in Man on the Moon but also appeared with Kaufman on Taxi. “Without a good script, everybody knows you’ll wind up empty-handed. They nailed him, baby.”

The screenwriters concede that they massaged some facts for dramatic effect. To offset the downbeat reality of Andy’s premature death, for example, they took a successful Carnegie Hall show from early in Kaufman’s career and recast it as his last hurrah before succumbing to cancer. Several girlfriends were combined into a composite character, played by Courtney Love, and a few other liberties were taken as well. But Kaufman’s life remains familiar to those who best know it. “Facts, schmacts, they made him honest,” says Bill Zehme, who spent six years researching Kaufman for his comprehensive new book Lost in the Funhouse (Delacorte; 368 pages; $25.95). “Scott and Larry did impressive research, learned exactly how Andy’s life really happened, then threw everything in a Mixmaster and poured out something essentially true.”

Though both writers are in their late 30s and happily married, each with two kids, they are a study in contrasts. In their spartan Beverly Hills office, the reed-thin Alexander works at his neatly organized desk while the beefy Karaszewski lies on a nearby sofa, surrounded by a mess of scattered papers, barking out lines of brash dialogue. Both are cocky yet self-deprecating and say that writing about offbeat subjects gives them a sense of creative liberation and inspiration. “We’ve embraced all these weird true stories because they’ve allowed us so much freedom,” says Karaszewski.

Their upcoming projects include writing a script about the Marx Brothers that will focus on the comedians’ early wild years in vaudeville, and producing films about the flamboyant pianist Liberace, First Brother Billy Carter, and Roland Stewart, the ubiquitous fan with the rainbow-colored Afro wig who appeared at nearly every televised sporting event in the 1980s before he snapped violently and was arrested after a shootout with police. As Alexander explains, “We behave like gentlemen at the studio, but we try to write punk-rock material.”

A biopic about the screenwriting duo would probably fade in with obligatory teenage scenes of skinny Scott growing up in Los Angeles and larger Larry in South Bend, Ind., both obsessively making Super-8mm movies. Cut to the late ’70s, when these film geeks become roommates at the University of Southern California after discovering a mutual love for trashy horror flicks like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs. Now jump-cut to 1990, when they sell an original comedy about a bad seed called Problem Child but become dejected by the unfunny film that is made. To cheer themselves up, they write a spec script about the worst auteur in cinema history, Ed Wood. Batman director Tim Burton reads it and signs on, and when the movie garners critical praise, the guys decide to stick with their new formula. “Most biopic pitches you hear in Hollywood are about ‘The first person to blah-blah-blah,'” says Columbia’s executive vice president of production, Michael Costigan, who oversaw The People vs. Larry Flynt. “But Scott and Larry are not concerned about a particular person’s achievements as much as they are about their subject’s passion, especially when it has a slanted angle.”

Not all those angles have worked out. A comedy they hoped to produce last year about pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey fell apart during the development process. A film about disco icons the Village People derailed when they couldn’t obtain creative control. An homage to the kid-show character H.R. Pufnstuf came close to being produced several times but still hasn’t been made. And then there are the dozens of off-center biopic ideas that people are continually bringing them–baseball manager Billy Martin, TV preacher Gene Scott, sideshow freak Johnny Eck, pin-up girl Bettie Page.

Once they’ve finished writing the Marx Brothers script for DeVito’s Jersey Films production company, however, Alexander and Karaszewski say they’ll hold off on show-business bios for a while. Indeed, next year will see the release of their joint directorial debut, a comedy starring Norm Macdonald as a downtrodden chauffeur. They’ve also written a live-action version of the TV cartoon series The Jetsons. Meanwhile, Carrey liked their Kaufman script so much he brought them in to adapt Henry’s List of Wrongs, an unpublished novel about a ruthless businessman seeking forgiveness. Not a biopic in the bunch, which is O.K. with Alexander and Karaszewski. It’s time, they feel, to make up some lives of their own.

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