I was sat next to group of four teenagers when I watched The Truman Show in the cinema in Winchester when it was released in 1998. As the film was starting, one of them leaned across to his friends and whispered, “This is a comedy, isn’t it?”
Jim Carrey was no overnight success. He’d been slogging away in minor roles for fourteen years until he hit the big time with the zany but, in my opinion, unfunny antics of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. His performance in that film did, however, cause critics to compare him to that other rubber-faced clown of the 1950s and 60s, Jerry Lewis. The Mask soon followed, with the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber (with Carrey and Jeff Daniels as probably the best comedy double-act of the 1990s) hot on its heels. The Truman Show did have its fair share of humour but, in his first dramatic role, Jim Carrey gave an emotionally charged performance of surprising depth and sensitivity as Truman Burbank, a man happy in the world he is living until a succession of small events begin to shatter his perfect life and challenge the reality of his own existence.
It’s an idea that could have come straight from the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose marvellous novels and short stories played with perceptions of reality and what it is to be human. The most obvious comparison, though, can be traced back to Patrick McGoohan’s groundbreaking and hallucinatory TV series The Prisoner, which is still jaw-droppingly brilliant almost fifty years after it was first aired to an unsuspecting public in 1967. Viewers at the time were expecting something akin to Danger Man, McGoohan’s gritty and hugely popular series about a secret agent. But McGoohan and his script editor George Markstein had different ideas and their vision of a man trapped in a village where there is no escape divided the viewing public into those who loved it and those who hated it. Many viewers were confounded by its surreal premise, but at the tender age of 13, I loved it, although I didn’t fully understand what it was getting at and it was only when I watched it again many years later that I came to appreciate what a masterpiece of paranoia and helplessness it was. It’s a series that will be watched by generations to come and is best seen on the beautifully restored Blu-ray edition.
Whilst they are both prisoners, the difference between McGoohan’s No. 6 and Carrey’s Truman Burbank is that No. 6 knows why he is trapped in The Village, whilst Truman is unaware that he has been trapped on Seahaven Island for his entire life. Truman Burbank, you see, believes he is a normal man with a normal job, but he is in fact the star of a global TV phenomenon that has been beaming his life story around the world to billions of viewers since his conception.
|Original UK poster|
The brainchild and producer of this façade is Christof, played by the ever dependable Ed Harris, who has his base of operations in a fake moon in the Seahaven night sky. Along with a large team of technicians, he controls the daily lives of the residents (all actors) and the events that revolve around the unwitting star. Christof can be seen as a benign version of Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984, only wanting what’s best for his star (usually the best camera angle or emotional reunion), or as a tyrant, controlling the lives of those around him – even willing to let Truman drown at sea rather than allowing him the opportunity to escape to freedom.
Directed by Peter Weir, who created a huge impact with Australian cinema audiences with Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, and scripted by Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed the equally excellent Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show is a thoughtful and incise film about the power of media manipulation and product placement and its light touch disguises a darker and more paranoid undertow. It’s also a film that gets better and better with subsequent viewings.
Jim Carrey wasn’t the first comedy actor to move successfully into drama. Jerry Lewis would move effortlessly into dramatic roles as the disgruntled TV host in Martin Scorcese’s brilliant study of the trappings of celebrity, The King of Comedy (1982) and as Oliver Platt’s overbearing father in Peter Chelsolm’s jet black comedy drama Funny Bones (1995). In 1989, Peter Weir also provided Robin Williams with his first dramatic role, as the unconventional English teacher John Keating, in Dead Poets Society. Jim Carrey would go on to give other impressive dramatic performances, most notably in Frank Darabont’s The Majestic (2001) as a blacklisted amnesiac Hollywood film writer in 1951 on the run from HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee), and especially as a man trying to retrieve the memories of his girlfriend in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s mindbendingly awesome Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). He can also be seen in Alexandros Avranas’ upcoming crime thriller True Crimes, written by Kevin MacDonald’s long-time collaborator, Jeremy Brock.
The Truman Show was, by far, the most original movie of that year, loved by critics and audiences alike, and I was dumbstruck when the Oscars came around to find that it and its director, writer and two stars, Jim Carrey and Ed Harris, did not received a single nomination. But that doesn’t really surprise me about Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock, the man who invented a lot of the modern cinematic techniques we see today, never received an Oscar for best director for any of his films throughout his long and illustrious career. When you consider that Rocky won the Oscar for best picture in 1976, ahead of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Sidney Lumet’s Network and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, all vastly superior films, you know that there was something wrong and the voting panel must have all been suffering with some kind of mental illness. Martin Scorsese was shamefully ignored by the Academy for years, as was Steven Spielberg. Then again, American audiences were not ready for many of the films released during the golden age of Hollywood. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) were all flops at the American box office when they were released, although they were embraced by European audiences who were obviously more intelligent. But thanks to cinema’s nemesis, television, they gained a new, younger audience, through late night screenings who recognised them for the classics they so obviously are and they are now, thankfully, rightly regarded as such.
Like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show will be watched by generations to come. And rightly so, because it’s a wonderfully constructed, beautifully acted, thoughtful and original cinematic marvel. It’s also Peter Weir’s masterpiece.