Oscar Artists: Kaufman, Charlie, Scribe of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman is a highly eccentric and accomplished writer, who received the 2004 Best Original Script Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

He had also won the BAFTA and Independent Spirit Awards for that picture. In 2004, he was enlisted in Time magazine as one of Hollywood’s most powerful and original persons.

Kaufman was born on November 1, 1958 to a Jewish family in New York City, but they moved away shortly after. Kaufman is a graduate of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, after which he attended Boston University before transferring to NYU Film School.

Kaufman lived and worked for a time during the late 1980s in Minneapolis, MN, answering phone calls about missing newspapers at the Star Tribune before moving to Los Angeles. He now lives in Pasadena with his wife and two children.

In the early 1980s, Kaufman, along with college friend Paul Proch, wrote comedic articles and spoofs of Kurt Vonnegut and the X-Men for National Lampoon magazine. After moving to L.A., Kaufman began working for in TV, writing episodes for Chris Elliott’s Get a Life during the 1990 season. Later, he worked on Fox’s sketch comedy show “The Edge.”

In 1999, he made a splash as as the writer of “Being John Malkovich,” which was directed by Spike Jonze, and for which he received an Oscar nomination. He also wrote “Human Nature,” which was helmed by Michel Gondry and then worked with Jonze again as the screenwriter for “Adaptation,” which earned him another Oscar nomination. Adaptation featured a “Charlie Kaufman” character that’s a fictionalized version of himself, including an “identical twin brother,” a sellout screenwriter.

Kaufman then wrte the script for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” a disappointing biopic, directed by star George Clooney and based on the “unauthorized autobiography” of Chuck Barris, the creator of such popular gameshows as the Dating Game and host of the Gong Show. The film centers on Barris’s claim to have simultaneously been a CIA hitman.

Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” was his second feature with helmer Michel Gondry, for which he received his first Oscar for best original screenplay and third BAFTA. Kaufman also received the PEN American Center 2005 prize for a film screenplay.

This year, Kaufman makes his directorial debut with “Synecdoche, New York,” which premieres at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest. The movie, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Michelle Williams, tells the story of an anguished playwright, in a state of crisis, forced to deal with several women in his life.

Kaufman wrote and directed the audio play Hope Leaves the Theater, a segment of the sound-only production “Theater of the New Ear,” starring Meryl Streep, Hope Davis and Peter Dinklage. In the play, it was the last thing Kaufman the fictional character wrote before committing suicide. The play premiered in April 2005 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Kaufman’s work is fractured and surreal, usually revolving around an introverted male protag and a more dominant female figure, as was evident in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Joel/Clementine), “Adaptation” (Charlie/Susan), and “Being John Malkovich” (Craig/Maxine).

Critics have noted that apes recur in Kaufman’s work: in “Being John Malkovich,” Lotte has a pet chimp named Elijah, in “Human Nature,” Puff was raised as an ape, and in “Adaptation,” there’s a swamp ape.

Kaufman has said that his favorite, influential writers include Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanisaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, Flannery O’Connor, and Stephen Dixon.

The phrase “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” is drawn from Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard. In “Being John Malkovich,” one of the John Cusack character’s puppet shows is called “Eloise and Abelard: A Love Story”. There are also references in Kaufman’s work to Italo Svevo, the Italian writer. One of his characters is named after the writer (Mary Svevo in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Svevo’s novel La Coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno, or Conscience of Zeno, 1923) also had impact on his writing.

Filmography as Screenwriter:

Being John Malkovich (1999)
Human Nature (2001)
Adaptation. (2002)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Synecdoche, New York (2008, scribe-director)