For nearly four years now I have been searching for A Thousand Clowns. This film seemed to be always out of my grasp, never on DVD, never on Netflix and never on TCM. That is, until a little while ago. During TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I was finally able to catch this elusive best picture nominee from 1965.
In A Thousand Clowns, Murray (Jason Robards) is out of work in New York and raising his nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). Well, that’s the boy’s name for now. It’s explained later that he was never given a name and has been free to choose his name over the years, but will have to settle on one soon. How does a boy go over ten years with no official name? It seems it just wasn’t something his mother gave him before she left, never knowing who the father was. These aren’t the most important details of the film, but it helps to understand the characters we are dealing with. They’re the kind of people with multiple clocks on the walls, but none of them set to the same time.
Anyway, Murray, who used to write for the Chuckles the Chipmunk show, is out of work and not serious about finding a job. He’s happy being free to roam New York as he pleases, usually taking Nick with him. This keeps Nick out of school enough for social workers to take notice, they want to visit their home for an interview. The fact that Murray never officially adopted Nick creates further problems. If the interview doesn’t go well, Nick may have to go live with a foster family.
During the interview, the things Murray says get to Sandra (Barbara Harris), one of the social workers, affects her in a way she never expected. Murray’s wayward lifestyle, flying by the seat of his pants suddenly makes sense to her and romance is sparked. Is it love? Fate? Or just recklessness?
What I believe propelled A Thousand Clowns into a Best Picture nomination back in 1965 were two things: the acting and a charismatic portrayal of an alternative lifestyle. Sure, uncle Murray can be seen as a lazy low life, but at least he’s man enough to support his nephew and not leave him like everyone else did. And let’s be honest, Nick isn’t a bad kid, he could be doing a lot worse.
In my opinion, A Thousand Clowns isn’t a great film, but it is an enjoyable addition to the nominations of 1965. The dialogue and characters keep it light in the shadow of a more serious subject. Though the characters may be difficult to identify with at times, they are likable and draw our sympathies. In my searching, the sixties seem to be the decade with the most outliers up for best picture and A Thousand Clowns isn’t the worst of them. And it rivals A Christmas Story for best lamp.
“Well you gotta admit, you don’t see boobies like that everyday.”
I just never got this film at all. Never liked it when I first saw it back in 1965 and didn’t care for it when I tried giving it a second chance recently on TCM. I have always thought that it is an embarrassing movie filled with obnoxious people…and Best Picture? Well, the non-nominated films of that year include: Cat Ballou, The Flight of the Phoenix, Inside Daisy Clover, A Patch of Blue among others…but, then again, I never really could stand the winner that year either, the sappy
Sound of Music. Guess 1965 was a bad year for me and Oscar!
Glad it’s not just me, Ken. 1965 is a pretty lackluster year for the Oscars, in my opinion.
It’s weird that this was so hard to find. I remember it was a big deal at the time (I was defiitely aware of it, but it was deemed too “grownup” for me back then). Sometimes the things which age badly are the things which are most trying to be “current” with what’s going on at that moment.
Good point, Anthony, I wonder how quickly some the “current” films of today will be lost to obscurity.
As the movie director says in S.O.B.: “It’s been my experience that every time I think I know ‘where it’s at,’ it’s really somewhere else.” (That movie is highly recommended, by the way.)
Interesting observation about films trying to be “current”…I have come to be slightly embarrassed as I watch many films from the mid-60’s to early 70’s with the obligatory scene at a “hip” club with gals in mini-skirts twisting or hopping around the dance floor. It now seems like such a silly attempt to assure the young audience of the time that Hollywood knew “where it was at”! Anthony, you have put into words why I now squirm uncomfortably while re-watching some of these scenes.
I’ve been rewatching The Champions, a British TV show from that period, and there’s a scene just like that (the person throwing the wild party is played by Jeremy Brett, by the way, who went on to be Sherlock Holmes).
I was cringing, as you say, when the girl who’d jumped up on the table to dance started srtipping off all her clothes. It was shot in a TV-appropriate way, but the way her garments were being tossed around the room told the tale.
So, still cringe-worthy, but it did make me think that British TV obviously had a lot more leeway than U.S. TV in that same time period.