'Within Jim, there is a complete tragedy'

Carrey is perfectly cast as Andy Kaufman, comic genius and Hollywood outsider
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The Independent Culture

A couple of months ago, Jim Carrey appeared on the American chat show Tonight With Conan O'Brien as part of the promotional whirl surrounding his latest film, Man On The Moon. The interview hurtled towards one crucial question: in the wake of his puzzling failure to get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance in The Truman Show, how would he feel if the same thing happened again? Carrey, as is his way, smiled a very broad smile. "Well," he said, faux-arrogantly, "they can't make the same mistake twice."

But they did. Though Man On The Moon performed disappointingly at the US box office, there's little doubt that Carrey's performance is magnificent: he portrays Kaufman's reckless quest to be the USA's premier cultural irritant with all of the comedian's almost autistic strangeness, but tracks his passage to an early death from cancer with a deeply human touch. He worked at it, too - having spent several months putting in alarmingly diligent research, for the 87 days of shooting, he grandly insisted on being addressed as "Andy". The result has been a flurry of praise: prior to the film's release, the US press was awash with words like "channeling", and frenzied talk of "the first postmodern movie star performance".

Skim the details of Carrey's background and upbringing, and he begins to look like someone forever destined to be an outsider. Born in 1962 in Ontario and raised in a succession of Canadian towns, he fulfilled that age-old stereotype: the awkward, unpopular child given a route to acceptance via simple clowning. But it isn't simply the approval of his childhood peers that explains his comic sense. When Carrey was 13, his father lost his job as an accountant and the family were forced into complete penury.

For a time, they lived out of a VW Camper van; soon after, they moved into a tent, pitched in the garden of a house belonging to Carrey's eldest sister. "All I remember being then was furious that the world had done this to my father," Carrey said in 1998. "It was a lot of rage, a lot of homicidal plans. Lying in my bed at night and figuring out who I'm going to get back for this."

Julien Temple, who directed Carrey in the 1989 movie-musical Earth Girls Are Easy, sees all this as crucial to an understanding of Carrey's manic, goggle-eyed style. "Within Jim, there is a complete tragedy," says Temple, who paid him $50, 000 for his performance. "He's not afraid to use the things that have wounded him in his childhood. The only way out was to laugh: it struck me that he was aware what the world had done to him, and he had a very, very funny riposte. He had no respect for any kind of authority."

But it's exactly that kind of respect that facilitates an actor's passage towards acceptance by the Establishment. Tom Hanks is a brilliant example: he fought his way out of knockabout vehicles such as Big and Turner And Hooch by turning himself into the Ideal American Male - witness his roles in Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. Even in Philadelphia, which tiptoed into the potentially explosive subject of AIDS, he ensured that his character's illness became a very American kind of tragedy.

Hanks has long been mentioned in talk relating to Carrey, as some kind of role model for the latter to follow. It happened once again during a recent Vanity Fair interview, but Carrey visibly bristled. "Tom does get great stuff," he said, as all actors must, "but every time he goes out now, he's rock-solid America man, and I kind of want to see him go nuts. He's now Mount Rushmore for people, and I don't want to be that. I just see so much irony and weirdness in the world that I can't shut up. I can't not say something."

Carrey's ostracisation by the US movie elite is hardly career-threatening: his standard fee per film is now said to be $25 million. Neither does it seem likely that his recurrent snubbing will push him into uncomfortably arty-farty projects: his next three movies are Me, Myself And Irene, made by the same people responsible for Dumb And Dumber, a family comedy entitled How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and a possible re-make of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Monochrome examinations of terminal decline set in communist Eastern Europe are clearly a long way off.

That said, Carrey has had to tighten his grasp of dramatic discipline. Somewhere in the American TV archives is a 1992 TV movie entitled Doing Time On Maple Drive in which Carrey plays a young alcoholic. He's reportedly very impressive in it the role, and there's no doubt that, current projects notwithstanding, he's sending out signals that he'd like to edge back in that direction - if he's allowed.

His latest publicity shot suggests as much. It's a shadowy, slightly out-of-focus picture, in which Carrey appears to be experiencing a moment of deep philosophical insight. A short-lived relationship with his Man On The Moon co-star Courtney Love seems to have changed him: his hair, once trimmed into the kind of side-parted respectability beloved of children's TV presenters, is suddenly long; he's also looking unusually stubbly.

"I am an actor," he seems to be saying. "Feel my pain." But is Hollywood listening?

'Man On The Moon' (15) openson Friday