Review: A Thousand Clowns (1965)

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ATC

While I’m no expert on the history of the Academy Awards, I’d dare say it would be hard to find a film that was nominated for Best Picture within the last 45 years that’s been as forgotten as 1965’s ‘A Thousand Clowns’ has. Based on a highly-regarded 1962 play, 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.

And yet despite its critical success and pedigree it’s so ignored today it hasn’t even been released on DVD. Why is this? Perhaps it’s in part because the original play itself hasn’t endured with recent revivals seeing it being perceived as dated.

But the great irony is that as a film, ATC was probably ahead of its time. It was a sign of some of the themes that would dominate Hollywood movies by the decade’s close.

The story centres around Murray (Jason Robards) who has effectively dropped out of society because of his distaste for the conformity and dishonesty of the ‘rat race’.  He takes care of and shares a good relationship with his eccentric but intelligent 12 year-old abandoned nephew Nick but that is all threatened when Child Welfare representatives threaten to take him to a foster family. Murray is then faced with a dilemma: either get his old job back and sell out on his principles or lose Nick.

As is made clear from the pre-credits sequence, there’s nothing that Murray despises more than having a conventional 9-to-5 steady job , with life becoming dominated by deadening routine and having to compromise ideals and views on others and society to become a ‘success’. For someone who prides himself as an individual, being at the behest of bosses and making compromises to ‘climb the ladder’ is a fate worse than death.

This explains why he undermines welfare agency representatives Sandra (Barbara Harris) and particularly Albert (William Daniels) when they check up on him. Albert represents everything Murray resents; a by-the-numbers man devoid of passion and individuality governed by routine. With the help of Nick he seeks to totally undermine his smooth, superior exterior and regimented processes and turns him to a dishevelled, agitated mess.

The central character of Murray is a fascinating one. 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.

And it’s this attitude that underlines his relationship with Nick. It isn’t a conventional father/son type relationship; indeed of the two Nick often comes across as more mature. It’s more a friendly camaraderie with Murray wanting to see him develop into a genuine individual not afraid to say what he truly thinks, even if it offends others. When Nick does display this ability in the closing scenes of the film, Murray’s reaction is the equivalent of a father seeing his son winning an academic award.

ATC really comes into its own in the final 30 minutes with firstly a marvellously written and acted scene between brothers Murray and Arnold (Martin Balsam). Arnold is the antithesis of Murray and is able to argue convincingly and passionately that he has nothing to be ashamed about for the life he has chosen. Equally compelling is a concluding scene where Leo (Gene Saks), a dismal children’s comedian, arrives to Murray’s place trying to entice him back to his old job as his gag writer. 

There are weaknesses in the film with a major one being the romance between Murray and Sandra. It might have been plausible in the setting of the theatre but in the more realistic setting of film it feels contrived and never convinces for a second. The film also doesn’t really succeed in ‘opening out’ from its theatrical base. While the location footage of New York is great to view, the segments come across as padding, especially rather gooey scenes with Murray and Sandra gallivanting around NY.

But weaknesses are easily outnumbered by the film’s strengths. It’s particularly impressive that the likes of Leo and Albert – who could’ve easily been caricatured villains – are given depth and in their own way are quite sympathetic. All the performances are first-class, especially Barry Gordon as Nick who gives one of the more impressive child acting performances.

Unlike other Best Picture nominees of 1965 such as ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago’ it’s unlikely that ATC will ever get a deluxe DVD treatment with deleted scenes and multiple commentary tracks. But at the very least it deserves to be on DVD and it deserves to be seen by a modern audience.

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: To Make up the Difference ["A Thousand Clowns" Movie Review] - Abolish Work

  2. I saw ATC in the spring of 1966 when I was still in college. I liked Murray then because of his wit and insights. And I admired his sense of defiant independence – which to a 20-year-old, of course is admirable. I’m sure I would have enjoyed being around a real Murray. When I was 20 years old.

    But now, I see Murray as a not-quite Peter Pan.

    I say not quite, because Peter Pan knew he was Peter Pan. Murray never figured out he was Peter Pan.

    He didn’t want to grow up. He convinced himself that wasn’t his problem – it was everyone else’s problem. As if it was somehow not Murray’s responsibility to remember what day it is. As if, unlike little Nick, he could put off forever not choosing the name he would be known by. As if he equated growing up with giving up – to become another Chuckles. As if he was afraid of being unable to think of anything to say. As if all that would be everyone else’s fault.

    Sometimes wit doesn’t quite cover up sad.

    Me? I became the best possible John Fembup. And I don’t apologize for it.

  3. Thanks for the comment and interesting insights John, especially from someone who saw it at the time. Hope you return to our site to see how 10 years plus worth of reviews.

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