It is difficult for a contemporary viewer to understand why Fred Coe’s 1965 comedy “A Thousand Clowns” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, an honor that put it in the company of “The Sound of Music”, “Doctor Zhivago”, “Darling”, and “Ship of Fools”. Those other four films are considered classics, while “A Thousand Clowns” is little more than a tired embarrassment.
“A Thousand Clowns” was adapted from Herb Gardner’s Broadway comedy about a snarky, unemployed TV gag writer (Jason Robards) who reluctantly abandons his slacker lifestyle and seeks a job in order to maintain custody of his 12-year-old nephew. As a playwright, Gardner was a poor man’s Neil Simon: heavy on the New York-style wisecracks, light on the character development, uneven on the pathos distribution and unable to wind up his work into a satisfying whole. In Gardner’s world, a 12-year-old walks and talks like a late-middle-aged Borscht Belt comic while child welfare professionals exist solely to slow burnÂ on the receiving end of smart-ass putdowns.
Robards originated his role in the Broadway production, but Coe hoped to cast Steve McQueen for the film. McQueen became unavailable which is just as well, since comedy was never his forte but Robards seemed to forget that he was taking Coe’s direction for the cinema and not the theater. His performance is loud, playing-to-the-audience brash, and his version of nonconformist behavior is obnoxiously unfunny.
Barbara Harris made her big screen debut here as a psychiatrist, but her bland performance and inability to milk laughs from Gardner’s jokes only confirms why big screen stardom eluded her. Oscar trivia buffs will immediately associate “A Thousand Clowns” with Martin Balsam’s Best Supporting Actor Award yet his performance as Robards’ talent agent brother is merely adequate and he is mostly on the receiving end of Robards’ caustic commentary.
One thing that “A Thousand Clowns” has going for it is a wealth of tourist-friendly glimpses of mid-1960s Manhattan, including a rare glimpse of Lincoln Center while it was under construction. New Yorkers of a certain age and nostalgia tolerance may appreciate the vintage Gotham views. But beyond the scenery, “A Thousand Clowns” is a dud.