Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neglected Gem #72: Funnyman (1967)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, which cleaned up at the Academy Awards this past weekend, is about an underappreciated actor’s struggle to break through a creative and personal block and redeem himself in his own eyes and those of his friends, colleagues, his audience, and his muse. Gonzalez Inerritu and his co-screenwriters, Nicolas Giacogone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, inflate their subject into a commentary on the current state of Western culture and a teasing reality-vs.-illusion game about the extent of the hero’s madness, dressed up in a sustained technical feat that must have demanded crack, to-the-second timing from everyone involved. John Korty’s obscure 1967 movie Funnyman, starring Peter Bonerz as an actor working in improvisational revue theater in San Francisco, offers the chance to see the same basic idea treated more modestly, in a casual, off-the-cuff manner. It makes for an interesting contrast, though that’s hardly the only reason to see Funnyman, if you ever have the chance. (Never released to home video, the movie recently turned up briefly on YouTube, and was included in a rare Korty retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

Korty, whose feature film credits range from the offbeat 1983 animated fantasy Twice Upon a Time—a troubled production that has spawned competing versions that come with different dialogue tracks—to such low-grade follies as the Jack Lemmon-Geneviève Bujold disaster Alex and the Gypsy (1976) and Oliver’s Story (1978), an ill-fated sequel to Love Story, is probably best-known today for his work on such prestige TV-movies as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Go Ask Alice (1973), and Farewell to Manzanar (1976). But in the 1960s, he was one of a small group of notable American independent filmmakers who laid the groundwork for what, a quarter of a century later, became the full-blown, self-sustaining indie film movement. (He also served as a role model for younger, up-and-coming West Coast figures such as Francis Coppola and George Lucas, who also saw themselves as low-budget “personal” moviemakers until life intervened.)

Bob Newhart and Peter Bonerz
Korty has had the messy kind of career that’s common among talented directors who’ve had to support themselves without ever enjoying a breakout hit, and the plight of the artist who has to balance his search for the right subject and material with his search for his next rent check is central to Funnyman, an improvisational movie about improvisation. For Bonerz’s character, the loose-limbed comic self-awareness that the work demands is both a tool and a trap. Bonerz—a member of the improv troupe The Committee who later achieved a measure of sitcom immortality as Jerry the dentist on The Bob Newhart Show—gives a still-fresh, prescient performance as the kind of compulsive parodist whose existential creative malaise takes the form of always being too hip for the room. (When an earnest fellow lectures him on the nature of his craft, he makes a pained show of listening respectfully before asking, “Is the boffola related to the guffaw?”)

The actor is prized by his agent, who recognizes that he has all the qualities of a “pro” except for one: he can’t force himself to do the schmoozing and genuflecting to get ahead. There are some wonderful scenes between Bonerz and Budd Steinhilber as a filmmaker working on animated insecticide commercials for which Bonerz has been hired to do voice work; the two of them have the rapport of a couple of guys momentarily trapped in the same foxhole. Bonerz’s actor can’t cut to the heart of what’s really eating him until a woman (Carole Androsky) he’s taken home after a show compliments him on the wonderful “spontaneity” of his improv performances. Almost choking on the word, he challenges her: “Do you know how many times I’ve played that doctor? About 1,200 times.” Bonerz is finally moved to book the theater and put on a one-man show; facing his creative frustration head-on, he challenges himself to put up or shut up. The outcome is less clear-cut than it is in Birdman; Korty, whose own creative failing may be an excess of modesty combined with an excess of honesty, doesn’t want to write his hero off as a fraud but also can’t pretend that one hot night onstage is going to solve his crisis. So after the curtain falls, the movie wanders indecisively for another twenty minutes, unsure how to wrap itself up. Today, though, even the wandering has a special nostalgic appeal, because the movie doesn’t feel like a lot of ‘60s movies, and its West Coast theatrical bohemia is a different world than most of what got captured on film circa 1967; it could be Evergreen Review: The Movie. And the hero’s dissatisfaction and creative frustration gain special resonance from the fact that Peter Bonerz’s performance has everything it would need to turn him into a star, except for that most unpredictable element—an audience.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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