This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 1, 1998. Partner content is not updated.For a while, it was easy to dismiss Jim Carrey. Sure, he became the first actor to crash the $20-million (U.S.) bracket for a single movie. And, yes, his work racked up more than half a billion dollars at the box office in just three years.
For a while, it was easy to dismiss Jim Carrey. Sure, he became the first actor to crash the $20-million (U.S.) bracket for a single movie. And, yes, his work racked up more than half a billion dollars at the box office in just three years. But it was kid's stuff, right? He was the freak with the rubber face, not an actor so much as a human special effect. He was the sophomoric goof who made his butt cheeks do the talking in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The karaoke banshee who wailed Somebody to Love in The Cable Guy as if he were bungee-jumping with his vocal chords. We had Jim Carrey figured out. He was Mr. Slapstick Superstar - a Gen-X Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke on acid, Robin Williams with less body hair. . . . But wait a minute. Carrey has made a serious movie. Well, not entirely serious, but a movie for grown-ups. The Canadian who has been blamed for the dumbing down of American cinema - the man who put the dumb in Dumb & Dumber - happens to be starring in the smartest movie of the summer.
The Truman Show is the most ingenious fantasy that Hollywood has hatched in ages, a work so original that trying to find a precedent for it produces a dizzying array of reference points - Network wire-crossed with Brave New World, Forrest Gump meets Dr. Strangelove, It's a Wonderful Life infected by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Lucidly directed by Australian film-maker Peter Weir (Witness, Fearless), The Truman Show has a wild premise that requires some explanation. But by the time this $95-million film opens on June 5, Paramount Pictures will have spent more promoting it than the studio spent launching Titanic. Presumably, the audience will get the picture.
Carrey plays a happy-go-lucky naïf named Truman Burbank who has spent his entire life as the unwitting star of the most popular TV show on the planet. He lives in Seahaven, a coastal community that is, in fact, a gigantic soundstage under a climate-controlled dome, a set riddled with thousands of hidden cameras. Truman is the only one unaware of what's going on - unaware that everyone in town, from his wife to his co-workers, is an actor, or an extra, and that every moment of his life is being broadcast in real time as a 24-hour TV show. He spends his most private moments making faces in the mirror, without realizing there is a camera behind it. Then one day, he begins to suspect, and soon his Leave It to Beaver paradise is starting to look more like The Twilight Zone. "Maybe I'm losing my mind," he ventures, "but it feels like the whole world revolves around me. Everyone seems to be in on it." As Truman tries to escape, the show's producers plot to stop him, risking his life in the process. And with the whole world watching, the action hurtles towards the ultimate Final Episode.
A satirical fantasy with a chilling undertow, The Truman Show arrives with uncanny timing. It is about our appetite for the Shared Viewing Experience, and for watching the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it in microcosm - whether it is Titanic or the final episode of Seinfeld. The movie is also about fame, surveillance, the power of the media, and the zombification of American culture. But, at the same time, it could be a portrait of Jim Carrey. Like Truman, he is the man in the mirror - a former impressionist whose career sent him spinning through the looking glass and out the other side. By now, the 36-year-old actor knows a thing or two about the vertigo of fame and the unreality of being constantly watched. Ever since his 1994 hat trick, three blockbuster hits in one year (The Mask, Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber), he has lived the better part of his life on a movie set, watching the world revolve around him. He has a divorce and a separation to show for it. And he can barely step out of his house without running into the long lens of the paparazzi.
"The analogies in this movie are sick," Carrey told Maclean's with evident relish in a recent interview. "They just come from every angle - the idea that you have no control over it any more, which I basically don't. I have a certain amount. But there's a whole army of people out there who are talking about me that I've never spoken to or met." Weir recalls that when he first visited Carrey's lavish home in the Brentwood district of Los Angeles, "he made a joke of waving me around through his lovely house and said, 'There's not much difference between me and Truman.' It's the cliché - the prisoner of success. The difference is that Jim Carrey made a choice."
A child of Toronto's outer suburbs - born in Newmarket and raised in Burlington - Carrey dropped out of high school to help support his family sweeping floors in a factory. Now, he is the highest-paid comic actor in history, and the biggest Canadian movie star since Mary Pickford. Four of his last five movies have grossed more than $140 million. And what is astounding is that he scored such mainstream success by refusing to play it safe. In 1987, he dumped a hugely successful career as an impressionist to throw himself into a kamikaze style of improvised stand-up. With The Cable Guy, he was the first actor to make $20 million for a movie, then blithely gambled the studio's faith - and his fans' affection - on an outrageous portrayal of a mean-spirited, slack-jawed psychopath with a lisp. The movie turned out to be his only box-office disappointment, but it still turned a small profit.
Now, Carrey is gambling again by attempting his first major movie role that does not rely on clowning theatrics. "You know what it's like?" he asks. "It's like stripping away all the tricks. The tricks always work, and that's fantastic, because they're original tricks, but it is still sleight of hand. And I think the true magic is incorporating that into a lifelike character." Then he adds, with the sincerity of man who is no stranger to therapy or New Age spiritualism: "A lot of my movies have been ways for people to escape life. This is a way for them to identify with life. The scary thing is that because you're letting little glimpses of your true self come out, if it's rejected it's actually you that's being rejected and not your character. It's a risky thing."
Carrey says he would rather take the risk than be "the guy who goes, 'How can I safely hold onto my money bracket?' I mean, that's never been what it's about for me. They call me the $20-million man and all that stuff but that's tired. I'm not going to be stuck in a rut." By doing The Truman Show, he adds, "I'm not forsaking what people love about me. I love that part of myself that becomes that outlandish character once in a while. I'm just opening it up and showing them more. But I want to go back and do screwball comedies." In conversation, Carrey shows no signs of the manic subversion that pops out on-screen, or on TV talk shows. Aside from the odd joke, he is not "on." He seems earnest, good-natured, polite - a typical Canadian in other words, a man Esquire magazine once said had the "overly pleasant . . . presence of a male flight attendant." But Carrey says he feels no need to be "on" all the time. "I don't have any trouble being real with people. I've never felt a pressure to be insane - except when I go on a TV show or something." And no, he does not feel obliged to be funny just because he is talking to a journalist. "Where does it stop?" he asks."I used to do a Christmas show every year for my family, an hour or so in the living room. That was up to about the age of 15, and then I went, 'You know what? This is going to be my living, and I'm going to do it all the time. So I'd rather talk about your carburetor. Or hear you guys talk about your snowmobiling races or whatever.'"
When Weir first met Carrey in 1995 to talk about The Truman Show, he saw a down-to-earth quality that he didn't expect. "I got a helluva lot out of the first meeting, things I hadn't seen on-screen," the director recalls. "He's a very thoughtful man, full of energy and charm. And Jim's thorough in his preparation, so what appears to be spontaneous has really been carefully thought through and worked over."
Before casting Carrey, Weir had seen just one of his movies, the antic Ace Ventura. "It impressed me immensely," he says. "He had a kind of boy-man thing, some quality that I think children have recognized in him. They can imagine growing up to be like him. He's not like other adults." In a typical Jim Carrey movie, "the character he plays is the story," adds Weir. But with The Truman Show, for once Carrey's performance serves the story instead of the other way around. He is still playing a man in arrested development, a kind of overgrown child star who has spent his life insulated from the real world. But there are no toilet jokes, no rubber-face contortions, just a few discreet gags in front of a bathroom mirror.
"I don't know why," says Carrey, "but after the first couple of meetings with Peter, I started drawing on the bathroom mirror with a bar of soap. I have these wall-to-wall mirrors in my house - big surprise! - and I got completely carried away, creating all these characters - a pirate with a patch on one eye, Marie Antoinette, an astronaut - until the whole mirror was covered."
Weir filmed hours of Truman sketching faces around his reflection. "We could have made a whole movie of him drawing on the mirror," says the director, who chose to include just a few scenes. Because Truman doesn't know there is a camera hidden behind the glass, he adds, "the humor had to be unself-conscious - he wasn't performing, as far as he knew, for any audience." For Carrey, meanwhile, the mirror became the key to the role. "With Truman," says the actor, "it's those moments in the mirror, and those moments of quietness when you see the depth of the character. We all walk outside and put on the personality that we want people to think we are. But the mirror doesn't lie." Of course, as a former impressionist, Carrey has paid some serious dues in front of the mirror. As a teenager growing up in Burlington, he would spend hours making faces in the bathroom. His mother eventually warned him that he would meet the devil. If he did, he certainly came away with a lucrative deal.
James Eugene Carrey is the youngest of four children born to Kathleen and Percy Carrey, both now deceased. Kathleen was a homemaker who spent much of her life suffering from undiagnosed pain. Percy abandoned his dream of playing saxophone in jazz bands to settle into what looked like a safe job as an accountant. But when Jim was 14, his father was fired, and the whole family - including Jim, his brother, John, and his sisters, Pat and Rita - went to work as janitors and security guards at Titan Wheels, a factory that produced steel rims for tires in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. David Creighton, who was Jim's Grade 10 English teacher at Aldershot High School in Burlington, remembers a respectful boy who was so exhausted from working that "he didn't have any energy to horse around." But Creighton, now retired, also recalls that Jim was "just the most lovable individual. I was impressed with his tremendous spirit - so much life, unconquerable." Jim once did some impersonations for Creighton, who was working on the school's Christmas variety show. "I was thunderstruck that a Grade 10 kid had such an incredible gift for catching personalities."
Dave Maddison was Carrey's partner prankster when the two played on the same football team for three years in the early 1970s. "He was a master of faces even back then," says Maddison, now 36 and a Burlington welder. "He liked dislocating his bottom jaw - he could really open his mouth." Sometimes, when the coach turned his back, everyone would crack up watching Carrey's faces. "The coach always knew who it was because there was only one Jim Carrey - he was known for it." But another student at Aldershot found it difficult to have a conversation with him. "People'd be talking to him and he'd be pulling faces - you know that stupid lizard impression he does," recalls Robin Calder, a 37-year-old Burlington bartender. "I didn't find him funny."
Carrey, a former A student, had trouble balancing homework with shift work, and quit school at 16. "It was a horrendous time of life," he says. "I hated everything and everyone." His morale improved when the family quit the factory and drifted around like gypsies in a Volkswagen van, living in campgrounds. "We became laughing happy people again," he recalled in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, "people who had food fights every Sunday. The first time my brother brought his fiancée to dinner, she got, like, half a pound of butter stuffed down her bra."
Carrey, meanwhile, served as the family's comic relief from an early age. "My mother was the child of alcoholic parents, who were fodder for a lot of my comedy routines," he told Maclean's. "When they'd leave after a holiday get-together, after making my parents uncomfortable, I'd do about 20 minutes imitating them and then the whole family would crack up and fall on the floor and it would be OK." Carrey also performed to cheer up his chronically bedridden mother. "She was kind of sick," he says. "It started out as how she got attention. We all need something to draw focus to ourselves, and she was a 'sick person.' She had a lot of stuff that manifested and became real stuff, but I think she needed attention that she didn't get when she was a kid."
Carrey considers himself much closer in temperament to his father. "I'm a nice guy like my dad," he says. "He was the kind of great guy who'd give you the shirt off his back. I'm a little tougher than he was - he put himself last all the time. But the basis of my personality is my father. He was crazy. He was so nuts. I would invite him down to Vegas to see me open for Rodney Dangerfield and invite him backstage. Rodney loved him so much. They would sit there like a couple of old vaudeville guys goin' at it - one-liners, one after the other. It was wonderful to watch. I think my father got to live out his dream through me."
It was Percy who pushed his son to perform. Jim made his stage debut in 1977 at 15 in a basement comedy club, the first of what would become the Yuk Yuk's chain. Yuk Yuk's founder Mark Breslin still remembers it. "He was patently awful," he says. "He did these really stock impressions of Jerry Lewis and Kermit the Frog and Jimmy Stewart. I went to the side of the stage, put the hook around his neck and yanked. Jim was so humiliated that he didn't come back for two years." Adds Breslin: "Of course, I had no idea that this 15-year-old in a powder-blue leisure suit was going to become the world's biggest movie star."
By the time Carrey got up the nerve to come back to Yuk Yuk's in 1979, his act was polished. "It had jokes, it had pacing, it had craft," recalls Breslin. "His energy was outrageous, but the material was fairly mainstream except for a couple of pieces - he did a Muppet Elvis as a weird thalidomide case. I remember remarking that he pandered way too much to the audience. Whenever he couldn't get a laugh, he'd just fall down. And he'd say, 'But it works - people laugh.' And I didn't have an answer for that."
In less than two years, Carrey was headlining at Yuk Yuk's. And by the time he moved to Los Angeles at 19, his act was hot. Impressing celebrity patrons at the fabled Comedy Store, he landed opening-act spots on tours with Dangerfield, and singer Linda Ronstadt, with whom he had a brief affair. Then, in 1983, NBC hired him to star as a cartoon animator in a sitcom called The Duck Factory. Flush with imminent success, Carrey invited his parents to live with him in L.A. But the show lasted only 13 episodes, and the young actor sank into depression. Tortured by nightmares, he could not handle the stress of supporting his parents. So he sent them back to Toronto, but continued to send them money until he went broke.
Carrey suspended his stand-up career to paint, sculpt and study acting. In 1986, he married Melissa Womer, an aspiring actress who used to wait on tables at the Comedy Store. The next year, Carrey returned to the stage in a new incarnation - he had dropped his impressionist act. "I had everybody telling me it was great," he says. "I was bucking to be the best impressionist around. But I saw where it was leading, and it didn't make me happy. I went, 'Well, either I make the safe choice or I go for what's truly going to fulfil me, which is to show all the colors and discover new things.' "
A rejuvenated Carrey antagonized club audiences with an incendiary style of crazed, absurdist improvisation. "Some nights," he recalls, "I wouldn't be funny at all. I'd walk onstage to piss the audience off." He remembers inviting a Hollywood producer down to see him at the Comedy Store. "And that night I had chosen to go on my tangents and sing songs, do everything except my act. By the end of it, there was debris raining on my head. They were blue in the face, screaming, 'We hate you!' And I ended up in the audience, climbing over people's booths to challenge six guys at a table to a fight. The producer was at the next table. He came in, sat down and saw me fending off six guys with a broken beer bottle."
When not exorcising his demons onstage, Carrey cultivated a screen career. He played a male virgin in the vampire movie Once Bitten (1985), a class clown in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and an oversexed extraterrestrial in Earth Girls Are Easy (1989). Then, in 1990, he became the token, all-purpose white guy in the TV comedy series In Living Color. Carrey even turned in a dramatic role, as an alcoholic brother in Ken Olin's acclaimed TV movie Doing Time on Maple Drive (1992).
But what made him a star was the chance to create characters big enough to absorb his slapstick energy. With an absurd pompadour and a shameless barrage of bathroom humor, he goosed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective into a $100-million hit. In a typical response, The Chicago Tribune called it "the el cheapo, gross-out, politically incorrect, critics-hate-it movie hit of the winter." Kids loved it.
With The Mask, Carrey struck a more elegant pose. As a nerd who receives magical powers from an ancient totem, the actor almost out-morphed the computer effects with his facial contortions. Then, as the Riddler, twirling a cane like some vaudeville samurai, he danced circles around Val Kilmer in Batman Forever. And when he played a gap-toothed boob with a bowl haircut in Dumb & Dumber, critical eminence Pauline Kael dragged herself out of retirement to praise the genius of his stupidity. Within two years, Carrey's salary jumped to $20 million from $350,000.
On the set of Dumb & Dumber, meanwhile, he met his second wife, actress Lauren Holly. By then, he and Melissa were separated, and their eight-year marriage ended with a messy divorce in 1995. (They have a daughter, Jane, who is now 10.) Carrey admits he is not good at decompressing from the giddy highs of his work to the normalcy of domestic life. But after a separation from Holly, they are now trying to patch up their marriage. "I'm hanging out with Lauren," Carrey sighs when asked about his current status, "and I don't really want to get into it too heavily."
It is easy to imagine how a man with Carrey's energy might find it hard to sit still in a relationship. Even on-screen, his characters are solitary creatures, too busy burning up in the atmosphere to surrender their emotions to someone else. From his impressionist days to his current role as superstar iconoclast, Carrey's persona has been fuelled by a kind of insolent rock-star narcissism. He has the deceptively clean-cut looks of a "straight" guy, in the classical Fifties sense. But in his best, and most provocative, roles he likes to vandalize that image - as he did in The Cable Guy. Although the film was deemed a flop because it failed to make $100 million, it still contains his most intriguing performance. And in a sense, The Truman Show's TV satire is the flip side of The Cable Guy - instead of wiring the world, Carrey's character is wired by it. But this time, he plays a hero, and the film is more audience-friendly.
For all his success, Carrey has yet to play a fully rounded character. His original idol was Jimmy Stewart, but he is still a long way from achieving the emotional depth that comes with acting ordinary. He hopes to get closer with his next film, Man on the Moon, director Milos Forman's drama about the turbulent life of the late TV comic Andy Kaufman (Taxi). "It's got everything," says Carrey. "The guy had an amazing life, an incredible, short life." Then, he adds: "I don't think I've misled my audience to think I'm only one thing, 'cause there are dark edges even when I'm zany. There are things going on. And I just want to show them a bit more - pull a Salvador Dali and lift the ocean to see the sleeping dog."
Among Carrey's multiple identities, there is still a Canadian kid from the suburbs lurking somewhere. He belongs to a familiar list of comedy exports that includes Mike Myers, Michael J. Fox, Dan Aykroyd, the SCTV gang and the Kids in the Hall. And what is it about this country that breeds comedians the way Holland grows tulips? Is it just our ironic distance from America? Or is Carrey's manic sense of humor an angry revolt against Canadian passivity? "To a certain extent," he replies. "There are so many artists coming out of Canada right now that I have to think it has to do with aggression of some kind. I think we have a bit of British influence that teaches us early on not to embarrass anybody, especially ourselves." Asked if he still considers himself a Canuck, Carrey says: "Oh sure. I may go dual citizenship at some point just so I can vote down here. But I'm a Canadian."
Carrey still makes regular trips back to Ontario to visit his sisters and brother. Maclean's did attempt to interview the actor's siblings, but they would not talk without his permission, which he denied. Carrey, however, seemed to have no qualms about discussing them, notably brother John, a factory maintenance supervisor in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill. "We wrestle a lot," says Carrey. Wrestle? "Yeah, it's kinda scary," he laughs. "A punch in the arm is worth a thousand words to us." The actor describes his brother as "a shy guy, not a real talkative guy." But because of Jim, people expect him to be funny. Once when he had a job cleaning an ice rink, "kids just swarmed around him all the time asking him to do funny faces. The last thing on earth that John is going to do is the funny faces."
Being a poor relative of the rich and famous can be trying. "It's tough on them sometimes, I gotta tell you," he says. "I help out my family wherever I can, but people expect you to completely take all the responsibilities away, and that doesn't allow them to live a life." His sister Rita, a bus driver in Burlington, will "get pressure from people saying, 'What are you driving a bus for if your brother is Jim Carrey?' And she says, 'Well, I got to wake up in the morning and contribute to life, don't I?' "
And what does Jim spend his millions on? "Oh gawd," he says. "Just doctors. Head ones, body ones, psychic surgeons." A model Californian, Carrey has, in fact, tried all sorts of therapy, from aura cleansing to colonic irrigation ("it's good for finding old jewelry"). But when pressed to say what material indulgence he feels most guilty about, he admits that he just bought a plane, a Gulfstream III jet, although he doesn't fly it himself. "It's run as a business, but it's my plane. That's a real cool thing, my first real extravagance."
Carrey has another whim that he's dying to indulge. "You know what one of my biggest dreams is right now, to this day?" he asks. "To sing the national anthem at a hockey game." The prospect conjures up visions of players struggling to keep a straight face as Carrey turns O Canada into sonic taffy. "I'm waiting for the right moment. The time the Maple Leafs finally get into the Stanley Cup. That could be it."
By then, he might be too old.
"I could be," muses Carrey. "But I could still have the pipes."
Carrey is not about to rush into maturity. "I believe this is as grown-up as I'm going to get," he says. "I guess time and experience and stuff will furrow my brow a bit. That's a natural thing. It's like a line from Chaplin in Limelight - 'things we do to get back that childlike feeling.' "
Maclean's June 1, 1998