A Thousand Clowns

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  • Approved
  • 1965
  • 1 hr 58 min
  • 7.3  (3,675)

A Thousand Clowns is a 1965 American comedy-drama film directed by Fred Coe and written by Herb Gardner, based on his own play of the same name. The movie, which is set in New York City, follows the life of Murray Burns (played by Jason Robards), a former television writer, who has quit his job and has chosen to live a bohemian lifestyle in his cluttered apartment with his twelve-year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon).

Nick's social worker, Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), becomes concerned about their unconventional living arrangement and threatens to separate them unless Murray finds a stable job and takes better care of the Nick. Despite Murray's initial resistance, he eventually decides to give in and goes on a series of disastrous job interviews, realizing that he cannot fit into the conventional social mold.

One of Murray's closest friends and caring neighbors, Arnold Burns (Martin Balsam), is a television producer who wants to use Murray's talents in a children's program called "Chuckles the Chipmunk”. Through the process of developing Chuckles, we see Murray and Arnold both reconciling their own relationships with the child within themselves. Murray must ultimately decide whether or not to conform to traditional society in order to keep Nick in his life, or to continue his current way of life and risk losing his nephew.

A Thousand Clowns is a thoughtful, introspective comedy that deals with countercultural values, social norms, and the theme of conformity. The film touches upon what life could be like outside the traditional social structure, and how some people might feel trapped within it. As such, it serves as a perfect snapshot of the 1960s at the height of a counter-cultural movement that rejected social expectations.

Jason Robards delivers robust, witty, and sometimes, introspective lines to portray Murray, a man who only wants to live life according to his own terms. Robards' performance depicts Murray as a tormented man who can decode life’s irony with his sarcastic wit. He portrays Murray as a sympathetic character who wants to live free from conventions that restrict his happiness, sometimes at the cost of his own family’s wellbeing.

Barbara Harris delivers a charming and caring performance as Sandra Markowitz. She is a straightforward person who sticks to her principles and is very dedicated to her job. Her role in the film is that of Murray's foil – the embodiment of convention and order, a person who represents a social hierarchy with rules and norms that Murray is constantly struggling against.

Martin Balsam is exceptional as Arnold Burns. He plays the role of a man who has sacrificed his life to fit into conventional structures and is now trying to bring Murray back into the fold. Arnold Burns is a representation of everything Murray cannot be- the man who is able to make it in the ‘real world’ with his job, family and a sense of social mobility. Balsam’s acting reminds us of the stiff formality of the TV industry, which Murray was relieved to leave behind.

A Thousand Clowns tackles with themes of the “island of misfit toys”. It pokes fun at the government and cultural establishments, shaming and forcing individualist thinkers to assimilate into the mainstream way of life. It is a deeply empathetic depiction of people who are outside of the mainstream social constructs by choice or circumstance. The film even succeeds in portraying a beautiful metaphor of the chaotic nature of life with the memorable ending that is both heartwarming and thought-provoking.

Overall, A Thousand Clowns is a charming, witty, and insightful film that explores the themes of individuality and conformity in a refreshing way. It has a sense of transition from the old world to the new, which provides insight into the changing culture of the 60s. The film is a beautiful gem of a time when the ideology of free love and the power of self-expression were crucial to the youth in fighting social and political structures. It remains a classic for those who enjoy comedy-dramas, and for those who love to see how people question the establishments they live under.

A Thousand Clowns
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  • Release Date
  • MPAA Rating
  • Runtime
    1 hr 58 min
  • Language
  • IMDB Rating
    7.3  (3,675)