To Make up the Difference [“A Thousand Clowns” Movie Review]

In my history there were these extraordinary guys, men and women, all immigrants, passionate people, who believed a great, humane kind of America existed–and when it didn’t, they decided to make up the difference. – Herb Gardner, author of A Thousand Clowns

Probably sooner.

Although I can’t find their comment now, I know someone recommended I watch this film. I just wanted to thank this person because this turned out to be a great movie that was easily watchable on Youtube. It was thoughtful, caring, funny and irreverent towards work in particular.

The 1965 movie, starring Jason Robards as Murray, Murray is a mid-30s man who had quit his job a few months before and doesn’t seem interested in another. Barry Gordon, plays Murray’s nephew, Nick (great name, by the way) who seems to act more conventionally adult like than Murray does.

The movie revolves around Murray’s battle to keep Nick from child services while still not getting. Because to Murray, jobs are things that make you feel numb. They make you forget yourself, where you are and even what day it is.

As Murray explains:

I gotta know what day it is. I gotta know what’s the name of the game and what the rules are without anyone else telling me. You gotta own your own days and name ’em, each one of ’em, every one of ’em, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain’t just for weekends, kiddo.

For Murray, work takes us out of ourselves and the life we live shouldn’t be confined to the weekends. To have a real and authentic life you’ve gotta live for every moment, every day and every year. And not just the weekends.

And if there was anything that endeared me about Murray, it was his authenticity.

No matter the conversation, Murray is always ready with a quip, a joke, a solid one-liner about someone or something. Sadly, there’s a certain sense of division between him and most people who try to talk to him. Though it’s true that most people want to boss Murray around and tell him what to do with his life, he even does this to Nick.

Murray’s philosophy can be summed up when he picks up the phone once: “Good news or money? No. Goodbye!”

This is how Murray tends to treat other people and he even treats the social workers like this. Making them fumble as they try to get out of Murray what Nick’s living conditions are like. Nick tries to keep Murray under wraps and contained but Murray won’t have any of it. Instead, Murray keeps cracking wise to figures who could easily take Nick away.

This irresponsibility on Murray’s part is one of the larger downsides to his “libertine self-indulgence” as one of the social workers says. He has a kind heart and he obviously loves Nick a lot, but he just can’t connect to anything that doesn’t sincerely interest him. And even when it should (like when Nick is possibly going to be taken away) Murray still can’t seem to get in shape.

On another note, the acting in this movie is more often than not phenomenal and many of the scenes are captivating. You may be able to tell that this movie was adapted from a play because of how talk-centric it is. And if those sorts of movies aren’t your thing then you’re unlikely to find much here. But for myself, and as someone who deeply enjoys philosophical movies, it was a pretty interesting time capsule. Especially for the non-conformist of the 60s.

One of the other problems with Murray is summed up well in a review by blogger by Marco Trevisiol:

On one hand he’s full of roguish charm and wit while on the other he is immature and irresponsible. While one can emphasise with his dissatisfaction with the society he lives in, he doesn’t have anything of substance to replace or challenge it. In his bohemian attitude and perspective one can see shades of the youth/hippie anti-establishment movement that was just around the corner for American society but at this point in time he isn’t part of a growing social trend; he’s an individual fighting vainly against the conventional thinking of how one should live one’s life.

Given all of the great acting, lines, interesting things to get out of this movie and the fact as Trevisiol writes, “…it was well enough received critically to be nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture and winning one for Martin Balsam as Best Supporting Actor…”. it may surprise you that you’ve never heard of this movie before.

I don’t have the answers for why this movie isn’t as popular as it should be. I could speculate that it just didn’t get enough attention from audiences. Maybe the critical reception was great but the audience just didn’t click with it, or only clicked with it long enough for the critics to like it. Maybe the message of the film left a bad taste in people’s mouth at the time.

Whatever the reason, the film has its flaws in spite of all of these good things. Some of the cuts between shots are a bit jagged and there’s a very unbelievable romance that happens. Said romance just seems to downplay a lot of the other themes or distract from them. And in the end it doesn’t even serve much plot use.

And like I said, for some folks this movie might be a bit over talkative. But given that I enjoy my films philosophical or thought-provoking at times, this didn’t really bother me. I’m not sure whether I’d appreciate it as a play more often but I hope I get the chance to find that out someday.

As for Murray himself, I found the character generally likable. His good traits were excessively good and his bad traits were sometimes frustratingly bad. When Murray was on point, he was usually talking about the state of the world, work and conformity. But he can also be fairly annoying to other characters and even the viewer when he constantly sidesteps the problems in his life to enjoy whatever momentary pleasure happens to be available to him.

Work in the movie is often shown to make people who aren’t very nice, worse. And for the ones who are able to love? They tend not to be able to do it at all. There are also those who are just born to work because they either have a natural gift for lying or a natural gift for making money for themselves. In any case, Murray’s authenticity seems wildly out of place with the state of work, both then and now.

The central conflict of the social services and Murray is handled well. Especially as Murray constantly highlights how the social services would likely make Nick into some sort of drone.

This leads to one of the best quotes of the movie:

I just want him [Nick] to stay with me until I can be sure he won’t turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are. I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument. I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.

It’s not clear exactly what “chair” in this case but the easiest reading is something that’s non-living.

Though we could broaden that to something that’s wooden, fake, something to be sat on and used, etc. Something that’s not valuable for its own sake but just as a tool for others. And so on and so on. We could probably keep extrapolating but either way Murray’s view is right on the money.

And when it comes to work, Murray saw the people gather to run to work as an “event”. Something disgusting and to be reviled with. The “Hell is other people” mantra is strong with Murray’s character but that’s part of what makes him an endearing character as well. He’s constantly cynical about people’s intentions but especially with the authority figures that try to suppress his pleasures and fun.

A Thousand Clowns isn’t necessarily a must-watch for the anti-work advocate but it’s a great one nonetheless. Full of endearing actors, an overall solid story and lovable characters. The ending, I will warn you, may not be quite what you want, but I like to see it as ambiguous one.

I saw more than a little bit of myself in Murray, I imagine many of you shall as well.

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4 thoughts on “To Make up the Difference [“A Thousand Clowns” Movie Review]

  1. very well written and interesting review. I disagree with the opinion that the romance is unbelievable and a flaw. In fact, it demonstrates that Murray is not a one dimensional grouch and cynic. This is one of best acted ensemble movies I have ever seen.

    • Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your perspective and kind words about my review. I can see your point about 3 dimensions though for me it just seemed sudden and underdeveloped.

      Thanks again!

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