Thousand Clowns, A (1965): One of Worst Pictures Nominated for Best Picture Oscar

One of the worst films to be nominated for Best Picture Oscar.

Fred Coe directed “A Thousand Clowns,” based on Herb Gardner’s long-running stage production, which could be summed up as a paean to non-conformity.

Betraying its origins, the movie is still more of a filmed play, but the acting is good, especially Jason Robards, as a zany corporate dropout, Martin Balsam, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar, and Barbara Harris.

The contrived elements Gardner’s script are too obvious, what with the long monologues or speeches, and well-timed entrances and exits.  It’s hard to see what motivated the Academy voters to nominate a small, odd picture such as “A Thousand Clowns” for the Best Picture.  It must have been a weak year, for the ultimate winner was the blockbuster musical, “The Sound of Music.”

Jason Robards reprises the stage role that had earlier won him a Tony Award, as Murray Burns, a former TV writer who rebelled at the daily grind by quitting and refusing to yield any expectation of the mainstream. Instead, he spends his time visiting New York landmarks, collecting junk, and feeling superior to everyone around him in the urban rat race.

For most of the movie, he’s walking around with his 12-year-old nephew Nicholas (Barry Gordon), an intelligent if neurotic adolescent, who at one point says: “You want to be your own boss, but the trouble with that is you don’t pay yourself anything.”

For some reason, Nicholas doesn’t know who his father is and his mother never bothered to give him a name– Murray feels that he must choose a name by the time he turns 13; Nicholas is illegitimate and Murray wants to adopt him legally.

The welfare workers, who try to help with the case, are played by William Daniels, as Albert Amundson, the straight-laced, prissy pro, and Barbara Harris as Sandra Markowitz, the recent school-grad psychologist. They are both appalled by the conditions under which Murray and Nicholas live, but Sandra is unable to be as clinical about it as Albert.

In another contrivance, we find out that the two are engaged. They argue: he doesn’t think she’s ready to deal with casework, and she doesn’t either. Before long, Murray and Sandra go out on a date and get romantically involved.

Gene Saks, who later became a movie director, staging for the screen Neil Simon’s plays, is cast as Leo “Chuckles the Chipmunk.”

The film has inventive opening credits, which show people scurrying to work to the tune of martial music.

Too bad that it overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Best Picture, produced by Fred Coe

Screenplay (Adapted): Herb gardner

Supporting Actor: Martin Balsam

Score: Don Walker


 Oscar Awards: 1

 Supporting Actor: Martin Balsam

Oscar Context:

In 1965, “A Thousand Clowns” competed for the Best picture with “The Sound of Music,” which won, “Darling,” “Doctor Zhivago,” and “Ship of Fools.”

Great year for Julie Christie, who won best Actress for “Darling,” but was also the star of David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.”

Running time: 118 Minutes