Back Row Thoughts – Legends Fall

It was a rough weekend for me as a movie fan. I saw three films, only one of which I loved (two new reviews coming), but most importantly, we lost two titans of cinema with the deaths of director Miloš Forman and actor R. Lee Ermey. These probably hit me more than they hit you, and I promise that I won’t be using this series just to tribute dead celebrities (because everyone does that, and there are so many dropping off these days it’s impossible to keep up), but these two in particular hold a special place in my heart.

First, there’s Forman, one of the great auteurs of film, particularly when it came to rebellious, almost iconoclastic characters. He won two Oscars for Best Director in his career, both for films that also won Best Picture: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Both are classics in their own way, but for me, I’ll always know and love Forman for one of his lesser appreciated masterworks, 1999’s Man on the Moon.

It’s not his most popular feature. It currently holds a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and apart from a Golden Globe for Jim Carrey’s performance, the film didn’t get much prestige during awards season. But for me, it’s an all-time classic.

See, I’ve been a fan of Andy Kaufman since I first heard the REM song that inspired the movie’s title. In the age of the nascent internet, I was able to see bits and pieces of his brilliance here and there, but I never got the full experience. When the movie came out, I rushed to see it, so I could get a deeper insight into the man. Not only did I get that, I was able to see a hilarious and wonderfully tragic tale of creative genius, not just from Carrey playing Kaufman, but from Forman giving Kaufman the post-mortem stage he always deserved. The supporting cast of Paul Giamatti, Danny DeVito, and possibly the last lucid moments of Courtney Love’s career (Forman also brought our her best in The People vs. Larry Flynt) bought into the madness and created something truly special.

It was only after seeing Man on the Moon that I saw Forman’s other work, and got a true appreciation for his skill with character development, which made this movie all the more fascinating to me. Last year, Netflix came out with a documentary called Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, which used behind-the-scenes footage shot by the real-life Bob Zmuda and Lynne Margulies to show just how into everything Jim Carrey got. He was never himself on set. He was either Andy Kaufman or Tony Clifton at all times, and he infuriated people, including Forman. There’s a magical scene where they have a phone call once shooting is done for the day, where Forman begs to speak to “Jim,” because “Andy” and “Tony” are driving him insane, to which Carrey offers to join the movie and do impersonations of them if it’ll help. That’s about as meta as you can possibly get. Forman wanted to give us the character of Andy Kaufman, and Carrey one-upped him to the point that Forman actually started regretting his own method. That says a lot.

On the other end of things we have the loss of R. Lee Ermey, a talented character actor who gained instant recognition as the abusive, commanding Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket. A former Marine Corps drill instructor, he was initially only supposed to be a consultant on the film, to make sure that the boot camp scenes at Parris Island were as accurate as possible. Not one to let an opportunity slip, Ermey submitted a taped performance where he dressed down extras, which convinced Kubrick to give him the role, as well as giving him license to do a few other rare things in a Kubrick film, like improvise lines and complete a scene in just a handful of takes. Ermey earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Now, Full Metal Jacket is literally my favorite film of all time. From the very first moment, as the recruits get their heads shaved to the tune of “Hello, Vietnam” by Johnnie Wright, I was all in. I laughed at Gunny’s abuse of the recruits, I wept for Pyle, I empathized with the cynical humor of Joker as a coping mechanism, and I marveled at the realistic depiction of the dehumanizing effects of war. The film is endlessly quotable, equal parts hilarious and devastating, and a true testament of Kubrick’s commitment to atmospheric realism and searing humanism.

So yeah, I truly love this film, and Gunny’s performance is a large part of it. As great as Vincent D’Onofrio and Matthew Modine were, this movie could not exist without Ermey’s stellar turn. And just as Man on the Moon got me to notice Forman’s work in a larger spectrum, so too did Full Metal Jacket ignite a fandom for Ermey. I started recognizing his voice in other films (particularly the Toy Story franchise; he had a prolific career as a voice actor), I was fascinated by his TV shows where he explained military history with credibility and passion, and I loved hearing stories from friends who got to work with him, particularly his sense of humor.

So yeah, bummer weekend. As I said, I won’t do this for other lost celebs most likely, but when two of your all-time faves go down, it’s worthy of mention. Rest easy, gentlemen.

Join the conversation in the credits below! What topics are on your mind? Did the work of Ermey and Forman inspire you? Have you finished reciting the opening monologue of Full Metal Jacket yet? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – Legends Fall

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