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On my first trip to Los Angeles to visit the comedian I would eventually marry, most nights were spent at The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip.  We would sit out front on the black and white checkerboard patio, which at that time looked out over all of Los Angeles.  The comics would turn in and drive down the laneway beside us, a steady stream of them, coming from far and wide to do their twenty-minute spots. 

As one car turned in, Lou, my soon-to-be husband called out, “Jim Carrey!”  I swung my video camera to his window as he rolled it down.  “The World Famous Comedy Store!” he flirted with the camera.  “I can't believe it!  I can't believe I'm really here!”

As he parked, Lou told me, “You have to watch him.  You'll love him.  He's your kind of comedy.  He's the best there is.”  Lou and Jim both started doing stand-up in the same Toronto club years earlier.  He was right.  It took about one minute.  I was smitten.  I had already seen a lot of comics but I'd never seen one able to do the things Jim could do.  This was 1988 and the world had not yet been introduced.  I was lucky.  I got a few extra years.

Six years later, Lou and I were married and living in Atlanta.  Jim called to say he was in town and had a new movie.  He wanted to know if we'd go to the premiere with him and at first I didn't want to.  My husband said, “Why not?  You love Jim!” 

I said, “That's just it - I do.  It's not like he wrote this - it's not his material.  And I won't fake laugh and what if it's not funny and we'll be sitting right beside him?”   

“Don't be ridiculous,” he said, dialing Jim back.  Then to Jim, “Where to you want to meet?” 

When we got to the hotel around the corner from where we lived, we figured out where to eat and then headed to the theatre for the premiere.  I ended up sitting by Jim, praying please, let it be funny.

I don't know if it was coincidence or not, but after the lights were dimmed, one light above Jim remained on and he said it was making him nervous.  But I think the night itself was maybe a little terrifying…it was a little picture, but a night bigger than any of us could've imagined. 

The audience, including me, laughed from beginning to end.  Really laughed until our faces and bodies were sore.  One of those movies that, like Jim onstage six years ago, you're just so glad to be watching.

As we left the theatre in that Atlanta mall, going up the escalator, someone behind us said, “Hey!  That's that guy!”

And that was it.  The last time Jim would walk amongst the people unhindered, a little bit of glory trailing, a whole lot of fame on the horizon.  The end of the freedom of anonymity.  The beginning of a dream come true.

We got back to the hotel and the phone started ringing off the hook. The numbers were coming in.  ACE VENTURA:  PET DETECTIVE was a hit.  Jim Carrey was a star.

This month, we honor him as our Artist of the Month, as he continues his adventures.  You may love him or you may hate him…few people straddle the fence that is Jim Carrey.  As for us…we love him.  And we always have.

--by Delight Underwood

 

THE WAY IT HAPPENED

Jim Carrey has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but he has received some unique tributes. At the 1998 Golden Globes, Jack Nicholson turned his back to the audience, stooped over a bit, and pretended to talk from his posterior as Carrey unforgettably did in his breakthrough role as Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. As Carrey observed, “Until Ace Ventura, no actor considered talking through his ass.” Such a distinction could be limiting to a less talented actor, but after achieving stardom, Carrey wisely gambled with his success by playing a number of diverse roles, ensuring that “talking through his ass” would not be the defining moment of his career.

It's often said that comedy is born in tragedy and, at times, in anger, and Carrey's past provided plenty of fuel for his achievements. Born January 17, 1962 in Newmarket, Ontario, his father was an accountant. At one point, however, the family “kinda hit the skids...the whole family had to work as security guards and janitors. And I just got angry.”

For a time, his family even lived in a Volkswagen camper, and Carrey was resigned to the possibility of working in factories for the rest of his life or, worse, ending up “dealing crack in the streets of Ontario.” He had aspired to a career in show business early on, and in 1972, when he was only 10 years old, he even sent his resume to The Carol Burnett Show. After dropping out of high-school, he headed out to the comedy clubs of Toronto where he started out doing celebrity impersonations, a talent he continued to perfect when he worked up the nerve to move to Los Angeles.

“At the Comedy Store, I started to get known doing impressions and stopped doing that because I saw where it was leading...I was able to excel to another level without being known as the comic impressionist.”

Carrey made such an impression on Rodney Dangerfield that the comic known for getting “no respect” hired him as his opening act for a full season of nightclub gigs. But just as he didn't want to become pegged as an impressionist, Carrey was equally wary of becoming a lounge act. In 1980, he auditioned to join the cast that succeeded the original “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players” on Saturday Night Live. Considering the disaster the 1980-81 season turned out to be, Carrey was probably lucky to have been turned down. He also began to pursue acting gigs. In 1984, he landed the role of a cartoonist in the short-lived sitcom The Duck Factory. He followed that with small parts in Once Bitten and Francis Coppola's 1985 Peggy Sue Got Married.

One of Carrey's earliest breaks came through film legend Clint Eastwood. In 1996, when Carrey co-hosted the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in honor of the squinty-eyed icon, he recalled how Eastwood cast him as deranged rock singer Johnny Squares in the 1988 Dirty Harry vehicle, The Dead Pool. After his manic audition, Carrey remembers that the star suggested we just “turn on the camera and let him go.” A year later, Eastwood invited Carrey back for a small role in Pink Cadillac.

In 1988, he also landed a role as an alien in Earth Girls Are Easy. Though the movie was indifferently received, it nonetheless introduced Carrey to Damon Wayans who would soon invite him to join the cast of In Living Color, the Fox network sketch show he produced with his brother, Keenan Ivory Wayans.

As the only white performer in an otherwise all-black cast, Carrey stood out as much for his skin tone as for his talent. When Ace Ventura, Pet Detective reached theaters in February 1994, most critics stereotyped him as the “white guy on In Living Color.”

Most critics also compared his performance as the inept Hawaiian shirt wearing investigator to Jerry Lewis.

“I am not thrilled by comparisons to him,” Lewis would say, but then the comparisons were rarely intended as compliments.

“You know the French consider Jerry Lewis the greatest screen comedian of all time,” Roger Ebert wrote, “but you don't get the joke...You are not a promising candidate to see Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” In The Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten asked readers if they were “starved for some old Jerry Lewis-style clowning? Your response to that question will probably color your reaction to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” Like Lewis, she wrote, “Carrey is not just goony, he's beyond control, like someone in need of serious sedation (or at least some firm directorial guidance),” but conceded that the film has a “wacky humor” that almost redeems it. Ebert, on the other hand, closed his review by suggesting that “Kids might like it. Real little kids.”

Whatever the consensus of the critical establishment, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective was a hit. After the film grossed more than $107 million worldwide, Carrey was established as the new king of comedy.

As if to prove the critics wrong in their belief that he was, as Baumgarten said, “more clown than actor,” Carrey immediately branched out in his next film, The Mask, released a scant five months later.

“It's the year of Jim Carrey,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone, “and the critics are still in denial.”

Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a sad sack loser who finds a mask that gives him magical powers that transform his personality and his life.

There were fewer comparisons to Jerry Lewis this time, but author Frank Krutnik, in his book, Inventing Jerry Lewis, found that “Carrey's performance assimilates Lewis's physicality and facial grimaces, but he transforms the sentimental yearning to 'be' and to 'belong' into a relentlessly menacing drive to subjugate another within his fantasy of affection.”    

One could hardly expect sophisticated humor from a movie titled Dumb and Dumber. The film, directed by Peter Farrelly from a script co-written with his brother Bobby and writer Bennett Yellin, provided a steady stream of laughs for audiences willing to meet it on its own brain addled terms. Pure silliness characterized this film which was as willing to be laughed at as it was to be laughed with.

More than ever, Carrey seemed to be channeling Jerry Lewis. With a chipped front tooth and a plastered down bowl-styled haircut, Carrey's Lloyd Christmas was a direct descendent of Lewis's The Nutty Professor before his transformation into suave lady killer Buddy Love. Co-star Jeff Daniels was an inspired choice to play Carrey's even more dim-witted accomplice.

Defending himself against the charge that films like Dumb and Dumber were making audiences as intellectually challenged as the leading characters, Carrey said, “People love to laugh, and most people can find humor in just about anything, which is great. Trying to label or categorize comedy is ridiculous. I mean, if you laugh at a fart joke, does that make you a moron? I don't think so.”

The critics generally agreed, and were surprisingly kind to Dumb and Dumber with The San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Stack finding it “inspired, irreverent, spark-driven comedy that takes you places you never thought a movie would go...even a Jim Carrey movie.” He found Carrey himself “amazingly elastic.”

Once again, the public responded enthusiastically and Dumb and Dumber became Carrey's biggest hit to date.

Next, Carrey followed in the footsteps of Frank Gorshin by taking on the role of the Riddler in Batman Forever, the third film in Warner Bros. series of Caped Crusader adventures. Under the direction of Joel Schumacher, Carrey's over the top performance dominated a high-powered cast that also included Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face and Nicole Kidman as the latest of Bruce Wayne's love interests.

 

 

In the opinion of Variety, Carrey's “showy turn as the Riddler is similar in its frenetic energy level to The Mask and overshadows Jones, who aside from a wild cackle has little to do and lets his gruesome makeup do all the acting.” 

With its day-glow color scheme and frenetic action, Batman Forever succeeded as entertainment, but it also highlighted the weakness of this particular franchise. As was the case in the first two films, the villains completely overshadowed the hero, this time played by Val Kilmer who donned Batman's cape and cowl after a disillusioned Michael Keaton bowed out.

Carrey followed this series entry with a sequel to his first hit. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls offered few surprises, but Variety found the pet detective's second-go-round “as fresh, brash and outrageous as the original...” The show-biz bible was also accurate in predicting that the sequel would “easily surpass the first outing's $100 million worldwide box office gross from the domestic market alone.”

With five consecutive hits under his belt, Carrey was now in a position to demand $20 million for his next film. Released in summer 1996, The Cable Guy also gave the star an opportunity to play a character that was not merely funny but disturbed. The Cable Guy of the title is a stalker at heart, a man having more in common with such Robert DeNiro protagonists as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy) than Ace Ventura.

In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert anticipated the film's box-office failure by observing that “We want to like Jim Carrey. A movie that makes us dislike him is a strategic mistake.”   

Liar, Liar the next year, found him back on familiar ground with more satisfying results. Reuniting with Ace Ventura director Tom Shadyac, the film cast Carrey as a slick Los Angeles lawyer whose son makes a birthday wish - that his father tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, for one full day. The wish is granted, of course, and though Liar, Liar is a formulaic comedy with a predictably heartwarming “message” at its center, Janet Maslin of The New York Times noted that it is transformed by Carrey into “an uproarious one-man free-for-all.”

As The San Francisco Chronicle observed, Liar, Liar is a “one joke movie, but it's a good joke.”

A more ambitious project was 1998's The Truman Show. Carrey took a paycut to star in the Peter Weir directed film that challenged our perceptions of reality and offered a perceptive and amusing commentary on our modern media saturated lives. Carrey plays Truman Burbank whose life, unbeknownst to him, is the subject of a popular 'round the clock TV show.

In Variety, Todd McCarthy observed that “Carrey delivers an impressively disciplined performance that is always engaging and fully expresses the conformist and potentially rebellious inner desires of his character.” 

The film's domestic box-office take of $125 million proved that audiences were willing to accept Carrey even in a role that did not call on his trademark slapstick heavy antics. Carrey was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with its Golden Globe for best actor-drama for his performance, but the Oscar nod that many were predicting did not materialize. He was philosophical about the snub. “I want to be the greatest actor that ever lived, frankly. I'd love that. But I don't need to be. I just want to be here. That's it.”

The Oscar talk was revived with his next film, 1999's Man on the Moon, an unconventional biopic of the late Andy Kaufman, the controversial comic as famous for making audiences laugh as he was for alienating them by reading, cover to cover, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on stage, and also enraging them by wrestling women.

“He's like the patron saint to comedians,” Carrey said of Kaufman. “He's one of those guys that kicks the door down.”

Taking its title from the melancholy REM song in Kaufman's honor, Man on the Moon represented Carrey's greatest acting challenge to date. He didn't look like Kaufman, yet captured his spirit and personality so well that, in retrospect, many viewers will find it hard to see anyone but Kaufman when remembering the film in their mind's eye.

“I never worked with Jim Carrey,” director Milos Forman said. “I worked either with Andy Kaufman or I worked with Latka or with Tony Clifton or Elvis Presley or Foreign Man. I never met Jim Carrey on the set.”

In praising Carrey's “electrifying homage,” and the film itself as “a formidable piece of work,” New York Times critic Janet Maslin also pointed out the film's chief flaw, namely its failure to answer the question, “Who was Andy Kaufman and how did he get that way?” Anyone unfamiliar with Kaufman, or those who remember him but found his antics distasteful, may agree with Variety's Todd McCarthy who felt the film “never comes close to making the case that its subject is worthy of the viewer's interest, that he was never anything but a weird footnote in showbiz history.”

Man on the Moon made less money during its total run than most of Carrey's films did on their opening weekend, but as he said, “If I'm not taking a career risk, I'm not happy. If I'm scared, then I know I'm being challenged.” In portraying Andy Kaufman, Carrey was presented with a challenge, and met it brilliantly.

There was little challenging about 2000's Me, Myself, and Irene, Carrey's reunion with the Farrelly brothers of Dumb and Dumber fame. Roger Ebert found it to be “a labored and sour comedy...as offensive as most of their work, which would be fine if it redeemed itself with humor. It doesn't.” But Variety observed that the film finds Carrey “in time-tested manic form, for which mainstream audiences will surely be grateful.”

Later that year, Carrey took on the title role in Ron Howard's live action feature version of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Who better to play a cartoon character than Jim Carrey?

Although the film would make a whopping $345 million worldwide, it seems unlikely to enjoy the staying power of the 1966 animated TV special in which Boris Karloff played the Grinch. Unrecognizable under grotesque green makeup, Carrey gives one of his least satisfying performances. “In the right situations,” critic Stephen Holden writes, “Mr. Carry may be a comic genius. But here his ferocity is largely misdirected.” As for the film itself, “It's just not much fun,” as Roger Ebert observed. Still, audiences flocked to The Grinch, making it one of Carrey's biggest hits.

A much better film, The Majestic, emerged as one of the star's biggest bombs. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, the man responsible for the cult classic The Shawshank Redemption, the sometimes somber film cast Carrey as a blacklisted screenwriter in 1950's Hollywood who wakes up one morning in a small town with no memory of his identity or his past who nonetheless is a familiar presence to everyone he meets. It is the manager of the local movie theater (after which the film is named) who identifies him as a war hero who has returned from the dead to his hometown after an absence of nine years.

The Majestic brought to mind the films of Frank Capra, and in Roger Ebert's view, “that's as it should be...In an age of Rambo patriotism, it is good to be reminded of Capra patriotism - to remember that America is not just about fighting and winning, but about defending our freedoms.” But in Variety, Todd McCarthy dismissed the film as “ a thick slice of bogus inspirational cheese...”

Like The Shawshank Redemption, which owes its now sterling reputation to cable and home video, The Majestic is film that may discover an appreciative audience with time. 

On the other hand, Bruce Almighty found its audience immediately upon its release in time for the start of the 2003 summer movie season. Who among us, except the most hardened atheist, could not identify with the film's hero? Bruce Nolan is always asking questions of God and blaming Him for every misfortune that comes his way. In the kind of miracle that only occurs in the movies, God (played by none other than Morgan Freeman) responds and gives our hero almighty powers to see how life looks from the other side of the divine fence. Both hilarious and inspirational, Bruce Almighty gives us Jim Carrey at his comic best.

Carrey next starred in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, based on an original (and Oscar winning) screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.  Like most Kaufman scripts, it was both imaginative and provocative. Think about it: if you could erase all memories of a past love affair, would you do it? Kate Winslet's character chooses to undergo a radical procedure that does just that, and Carrey, as her old boyfriend, does the same but not without regret. The film, for which Kaufman's screenplay was awarded an Oscar, earned Carrey some of his strongest reviews to date. “He has an everyman appeal,” Roger Ebert wrote, “and here he dials down his natural energy to give us a man who is so lonely and needy that a fragment of memory is better than none at all.”

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers observed that “Jim Carrey has never done anything this deeply felt,” adding that he “burrows far inside the emotionally withdrawn Joel until we see the soul worth saving.”  

Carrey followed this career highlight with the disappointing fantasy Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and an amusing but uninspired remake of Fun With Dick and Jane. He then tackled his most uncharacteristic role to date, that of a man who reads a novel and becomes convinced that the author wrote it about him. The Number 23 was judged to be a “psychologically murky thriller” by Variety. As for Carrey, The Los Angeles Times found him “neutered with about as much personality as a fireplug.” A poster showing the star's unsmiling face bathed in shadow made it clear that this was not a comedy. Certainly, the film's box-office performance was no laughing matter for the producers. The Number 23 disappeared from theaters almost as soon as it arrived.

Carrey's upcoming projects suggest he is content to stay with the tried and true genre in which he first gained fame, at least for awhile. Horton Hears a Who, scheduled for a 2008 release,is another Dr. Seuss adaptation, and A Christmas Carol, due at yuletide 2009, will find Carrey assuming the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  But there are sure to be surprises, as well.

“There's new territory, there's new places to go, new things to explore,” he said. “Maybe it will take three films to find another character that is really totally original, but I've got a lifetime, so why waste it just repeating myself.”

--by Brian W. Fairbanks

 



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