Oscar Vault Monday – A Thousand Clowns, 1965 (dir. Fred Coe)

This is a film that I think has really fallen between the cracks of history, despite its Best Picture nomination. I first saw it when I was going through a Jason Robards phase (which, incidentally, is actually just called life). I think part of the problem, now anyways, is that it is not on DVD, meaning the only way to see it is if you can catch it on TCM or find it somewhere on the internet. If you can, though, I think you will fallen just as much in love with it as I did. Despite a Golden Globe nomination, Jason Robards was NOT nominated for Best Actor for his performance. Also, Fred Coe, though nominated as producer, was NOT nominated for Best Director. In fact, two of the films up for Best Picture, this and Ship of Fools, were not nominated for Best Director. Instead, the two nominations went to Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes and William Wyler for The Collector (this was his last of a whopping TWELVE Best Director nominations, the most of any director. Billy Wilder is the only director to even come close, with eight nominations. He also received Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that year as well.) A Thousand Clowns was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one: Best Score – Treatment or Adaptation (this is a category that is really confusing and I suggest you read the Wikipedia page to learn alllll about how many different score categories there have been over the years), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Martin Balsam (won) and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were DarlingDoctor Zhivago, Ship of Fools and winner The Sound of Music.

Fred Coe didn’t direct that many films, but he did produce a lot of shows and films on television. In fact, he is often credited as being responsible for launching the careers of such greats as Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn. Also, people called him Pappy. Basically, this man ruled. I’m not sure why he opted to film this adaptation himself. The stage musical did quite well on Broadway three years earlier. Also of note, Judy Holliday wrote the lyrics for the film’s theme song. This was her last screen credit, as she died of breast cancer in June of 1965.

One of the main themes of this film is what constitutes family. This is explored both through the relationship between unconventional television writer Murray Burns (Jason Robards) and his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon), the illegitimate son of Murray’s sister,  who seven years earlier left the boy with him and hasn’t been heard from since. I always find stories about illegitimate children interesting to look at now, because society has changed so much (or I’d like to think it has) and the idea (and even the legality of) illegitimacy is so different now. Another film I love on this subject is Blossoms in the Dust, which tells the true story of  Edna Gladney (played by Greer Garson), who fought for the rights of adopted children and also tried to remove the stigma from the word “illegitimate.” Anyone who sees the way these two interact would understand that this is a family, conventions be damned!

Like I said earlier, Jason Robards was not nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Murray in this film, but he was nominated for a Golden Globe; he lost to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, who would later win the Oscar as well. Robards is one of my favorite actors and I cannot praise his talents enough. I think he is more known for his dramatic roles (he won back to back Best Supporting Actor Oscars for  All the President’s Men and Julia in the 1970s). Really, if you are a fan of Robards, try to find this movie because his unexpectedly comic turn is a real delight. I love the character because he embodies the free-spirited sixties that we usually attribute to the Summer of Love and the hippies, but he wasn’t created in the 1960s, showing that really this spirit was much earlier – more like the beatniks and singer-songwriter poets of Greenwich Village (like those seen in Bell, Book and Candle). Murray doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would rebel from the system, but he does and in little ways that only make sense to him and that only really affect his life. He doesn’t make grand statements; he just lives his life as he sees fit.

Martin Balsam plays Murray’s straight-laced agent/brother Arnold, who does not buy in to Murray’s freewheelin’ ideas. Arnold plays by the rules and feels that by doing that he has become, “the best possible Arnold Burns.” I think Balsam is probably in this film for only about ten minutes, most of which are towards the end where he gives his “play by the rules” speech. Regardless, Balsam walked away with Oscar gold for Best Supporting Actor, beating out Ian Bannen in The Flight of the Phoenix, Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago, Michael Dunn in Ship of Fools and Frank Finlay in Othello. This is an era in Hollywood where one really great monologue could win you an Oscar (see, also: Beatrice Straight in Network). I wish that were still the case because best is best, regardless of screen time. Sadly, other than Dame Judi Dench’s win for Shakespeare in Love and Viola Davis’ nod for Doubt, that is not the case anymore.

The role of social worker Dr. Sandra Markowitz was originated on Broadway by Sandy Dennis (who won a Tony for her work, and would later go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). I’m not sure why Dennis was unable to reprise the role in the film, but Barbara Harris – in her film debut – does an excellent job with the role. I’m not sure that I’m a fan of this character though. It’s a trope you see often, the strong woman doctor who is intelligent and schooled, but still needs a man, still gets seduced always, still bends herself to support a man. It’s tricky and I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable confronting this type of woman from the past. Heck, we still get this kind of character in film today. Actually, I still see this kind of woman in my every day life. I guess I’ll just never really understand the psychology behind this way of living.

I love William Daniels so much. I grew up with Knight Rider and Boy Meets World and the more I see of his work from before those two shows the more I am delighted by his talent. He’s wonderfully funny as the straight-man to Robards’s unconventional Murray. They have great comic chemistry together.

Barry Gordon gives one of my favorite “precocious child” performances as Murray’s nephew Nick in this film. It’s a shame he didn’t manage to snag an Oscar nod himself. Gordon has appeared in more than 90 television shows and films in a career that has spanned six decades. He also holds the record as the longest-serving president of the Screen Actors Guild, a position he held from 1988 to 1995.

Gene Saks gives a great, over-the-top performance as Leo “Chuckles the Chipmunk” Herman, Murray’s television boss. He’s exactly the kind of hack that personifies everything Murray hates about modern society. Saks was also a very talented theatre and film director, he has been nominated for seven Tony awards, winning three. He also directed three of the late-60s most memorable comedies: The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park and Cactus Flower.

I just had to mention this lamp because it’s up there with the leg lamp in A Christmas Story and that weird tongue lamp in La città delle donne in the hall of bizarre lamps on film.


I’m still not sure how I feel about the end of this film. Is it saying that conforming is something you have to do in order to raise children? Is it saying that because it thinks that is bullshit, but at the time that’s all you could do? I’m not really sure. And I’m not sure if Murray’s spirit is going to survive being thrust back into the rat race, which makes this ending bittersweet despite its upbeat veneer.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 10, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I enjoyed your though provoking review of this great classic film (and play). What I respected the most was your pondering parts of it that weren’t easy to understand instead of trying to force a half-thought-out opinion on the reader. I think that the reason Jason Robards and Barry Gordon were not nominated for academy awards, was because they’re acting is so good it seems effortless and also a bit over the top as their characters dictated which for some reason, lessons Hollywood’s ability to appreciate them. It’s as if, Robards and Gordon were just having a good time, while Balsam was giving a subtle nuanced and more serious performance which they appreciate. As for Murray’s return to “conformity” at the end, I think he is relieved that Nick has grown up and proud that he did a good job with him, which bolsters his confidence as well as allowing him to voluntarily play society’s game without a gun to his head which by his nature he’d have to fight to the death. He is returning on his own terms. I was fortunate to see this film in the theatre at Nick’s age as a second feature and what a bonus it was….

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