I must admit, there was another reason I liked Nell Minow's book 101 Must See Movie Moments so much, which I wrote about the other day (and which you can buy here). That's because among its 101 movies, one that she singled out was A Thousand Clowns. This is not only one of my all-time faves, but probably the least-known movie ever to have a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Even at the time it got nominated. And that has only increased through the 50 years since, not helped that until recently it was out of print, only only recently has the film been been released on DVD. Occasionally it shows up on TV (usually Turner Classic Movies), but it's rare. And it's not available on Netflix!
The 1965 movie is based on Herb Gardner's 1962 Broadway play that featured much of the same, small cast, most notably Jason Robards as Murray Burns, and Barry Gordon as his 12-year-old nephew Nick (the mature one in the family). This is the quintessential Jason Robards role, in much the same way that Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days is David Niven's quintessential role The way you think about an actor and envision him. It's a masterful portrayal of great ease, charm and depth about an idiosyncratic, independent comedy writer who has been raising his young nephew and must decide whether to conform to society or lose legal custody of the boy.
The Broadway play ran for a year, with 428 performances. Sandy Dennis won a Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play, in the role of a naive social worker-in-training that Barbara Harris plays in the movie. The cast all around is wonderful. Her uncomfortably stiff boss is played by Williams Daniels, repeating his role from Broadway -- as does Gene Saks as Chuckles the Chipmunk, the star of a kiddie show that Robard's character had once written for...before walking out on Chuckles in mid-sentence. (Sax later went on to be a major stage director, notably of of Neil Simon comedies.) And speaking of directors, the movie is directed by Fred Coe, who also came over from the play. (And Gardner did his own adaptation.) Martin Balsam joined the film cast -- but it was a notable addition, given that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Robard's put-upon agent/ brother Arnold. He's only in a few short scenes but won because of one long, brilliant monologue he gives defending being mediocre.
And in a side note, the little boy in the movie (and Broadway play) Barry Gordon grew up to become the president of the Screen Actors Guild.
The film is filled with lines that fit the story like a glove, yet leap out on their own, which I still quote to this day.
"Her philosophy of life is something just to the left of 'Whoopie.'"
"And that's my childlike opinion from the blue-blue sky."
Asked In a dark restaurant if there's anything he'd like -- "Yes, I would like a menu and a flashlight."
"My sister communicates with my brother and myself almost entirely by rumor."
The movie's production is very much out of the mid-60s, so the style might seem a bit dated for some people today. And while Gardner does a respectable job trying to open things up a bit, at heart it still largely takes place in one room. But it's the characters, story and performances that leap out and make the film so wonderful for me. And help explain why this small film that so few people have heard of or seen got nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture.
Here's the scene when the two social workers have just arrived at Murray's apartment, and he explains to them how he came to be responsible for his nephew, Nick.
Oh, okay, since this all began because of Nell Minow's book about Movie Moments, I figure I might as well include one of my favorite scenes in the film.
It comes after Robard's Murray has insulted William Daniels' easy-to-insult social worker for the last time -- Daniels storms out and tells Harris to follow. But she thinks the case should be kept open and feels it's important to stay. Left alone in the apartment with Murray and the young boy (who's upset because he understands the seriousness of things far better than his devil-may-care uncle), and realizing that she's likely out of a job, she sits there feeling awkward as the room becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Which leaves it up to Murray to be Murray. And for the wise-beyond-his-years Nick to understand what's coming next and what to do, since he's seen his uncle charm women before...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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