Filmmaker Christopher Maloney used good ’ol reportage to make The Death of Andy Kaufman. The documentary is a lo-fi whodunit that would make heyday Woodward and Bernstein doff their hats. Playing the intermediary, Maloney follows the leads and does so with a spirit that goes beyond entertainment shtick—he truly wants to put to rest whether or not self-described “song and dance man” Andy Kaufman faked his own death and is still ticking somewhere on a New Mexican mountaintop or skirting his cares as a derelict along the Venice Beach Boardwalk. The young Sherlock is searching for the soul rather than the spectacle of a talented individual who left the stage a legend. Scraping the marrow in terms of budget, the film’s foundation is stitched with dental floss and tied to a splintered toothpick. With only beans and a will to work with, the movie makes magic sans a big crew and stockades of equipment. Tragic that the picture will only show on a few screens—robbing the potential masses of a treat.
It all starts out pretty harmless. The dropped frames from the public domain ’70s footage pulled from when Kaufman was a standout during performances pre- SNL and Taxi syndication. The material appears as if it’s been dubbed over a cassette that has seen one too many recordings. On first glance, the transferred segments and spotty sound during one-on-one interviews conducted by the director seem too homebrew. But you stick with it, thanks to the fine editing job, and somehow it goes down smooth. The opening’s a gem: a complete rendition of “Old McDonald” with fellow improv troupers. A young Kaufman is clearly the ringleader and sings the chick verse. He wears a suit and tie replete with a straw hat and white tennis shoes, lip-synching to a tee the lyrics from the vinyl record. His supporting cast isn’t much, but Kaufman carries them. As ducks, turkeys, pigs and cows—they are each self-conscious and laughing uncontrollably during their turns. Kaufman, as the chick, exudes none of that. He’s a consummate professional, and he never breaks despite the hilarity.
On a snowy day, the filmmaker visits Kaufman’s headstone and thus begins the drifter’s path into the psyche of this mischievous performer. As the never-imposing-always-substantive narrator, Maloney conjures Kaufman’s moving-target comedic style, saying, “His performances were beyond categorization.... Every part of his life, in many ways, was crafted and presented as theatre.” Kaufman reinforces this summation and avoids being pigeonholed: “I don’t see myself as anything specific,” he says in an archival interview. “I don’t like to label anybody—especially myself. I like to just go up and do what comes naturally to me, and if anybody wants to label it comedy, they can.”
The case is laid out as to whether Kaufman pulled off the greatest trick in entertainment history. Did he fake his own death? Maloney weighs the evidence. There are websites faithful to the notion that Andy Kaufman still lives and will someday resurrect for an encore. Their claims rest on some “flimsy reasons.” When Kaufman’s star was going belly-up—he’d been voted off Saturday Night Live, Taxi had been cancelled and he got booted from his meditation circle—you witness a heckler verbally jousting with Kaufman, calling him a has-been. Kaufman’s health worsened. Using the pseudonym Nathan McCoy, Kaufman checked into a Los Angeles hospital for lung cancer, where he died days later. He was only 35. Registering under an assumed name seemed peculiar. Yet, it is pretty customary for VIPs to use fake names to maintain anonymity. And lung cancer? It was said that Kaufman never smoked. But a photo from his teenage years contradicts that. What’s eerie is a feature script Kaufman co-wrote years before where Tony Clifton dies in precisely the same way. An interview with friend and hoaxter Alan Abel, who at one time successfully faked his own death (and even baited The New York Times to print an obituary), confessed that Kaufman queried him for endless days so as to master his own disappearance. Abel believes Kaufman could be stomping around somewhere writing War and Peace : “I’m leaving a little bit of the door open for the possibility that he could return.”
The film is an example of DIY moxie, taking off where the movie magnates leave off. Man on the Moon, for example, didn’t dig nearly as deep or roam as spontaneously as Maloney does here. Could be the power of the doc genre. Maloney’s steadfast pursuit to pick apart the legend and scrutinize the theories out there supporting Kaufman’s existence is done with class. He admits that the intention of this pursuit was to find Kaufman once and for all. But through the quest for a missing person, he comes out with a much higher calling. He concedes, “The more valuable expedition is the search for the heart of Andy, based on the legacy he left behind.” And if that’s the destination by which to land answers to these big questions, then the film did a sweet job.
The Film Fellowship
Cast: Andy Kaufman
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Christopher Maloney
Running time: 120 min.
Release: September 11 NY