Gleason

GLEASON. 2002

Director: Howard Deutch

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



In this made-for-TV biopic, Brad Garrett impersonates Jackie Gleason freakishly well, & a supporting cast manages to turn in convincing-enough character performances. Kristen Dalton as Jane Meadows & Michael Chieffo as Art Carney, are also doing impersonations, which is not quite the same thing as acting, & sometimes the accumulative freakishness is more weird than convincing.

Convincing would've been a better script played with greater conviction, but it'sa tv movie after all, & if we assume tv movies have to be crappy, this one has higher produciton values than viewers usually settle for.

Garrett besides being gigantic in height (Gleason was not that tall) also frankly looks too old to play Jackie in the 1940s & 1950s. He manages to convey a much more worn-out Jackie of a later period. In the early 1950s, Jackie was a handsome man who weighed in at about 170 pounds & only slowly became the grossly overweight fellow with boozer-face which is the only Gleason Garrett recreates. So while there were moments when he seemed just the right guy to recreate Gleason or Gleason as Kramden, there are other times when he's just a parody of a Jackie who didn't even exist in the film's time-frame.

Garrett is trying to be respectful of Gleason even within a script that wants to show him as a lousy rotten drunken bastard who couldn't possibly have any real friends or love for anyone but himself. About the only fault not highlighted in the script is his association with gangsters, but then his associations with fellow comics & stars is also left out in order to give the general impression of a lonely outcast.

The bits of Jackie's monologs & stand-up routines are very badly recreated. Garrett is a good stand-up comic in his own right, so I blame the writers & director for how poorly Jackie's humor comes off. We never really see much that would convince anyone Jackie Gleason deserved the title "The Great One." The bits recreated of his television humor are never at all funny. The insult comedy he did at Club Miami makes him out to be a brute as well as not funny, but that club was famous for insult comedy & attendees expected this treatment from comics who performed there. The film manipulatively & incorrectly wants us to think he is insulting people because he's angry, prelude to acting out viciously & accusatively against his future wife.

Scene after scene the script insists on a small-minded mean-spirited Jackie Gleason without saving graces.

In all scenes where Jackie is shown doing comedy, he is shown to be not funny. Gleason also had a singing career with some hit songs, never mentioned by the film, & the one time Garrett tries to portray Jackie singing on the variety show, it's just awful. If anyone believed this portrait of an unfunny grotesquely awful singer was accurate, for lacking memories of that very exciting entertainer, they would be left bewildered that he had ever been regarded as a top comic.

Having jettisoned everything positive about Gleason, the writers searched their own dark hearts for some sympathy-getting nonsense they made up from scratch. The film shows Jackie bringing the woman he will eventually marry to meet his mother, but finds her coincidentally at that apportune moment to be dead. In reality Jackie was still a teenager when his mother died & he met his first wife much later, so this trumped up bit of hooey seems to be for the sake of a completely fake tear-jerk. Another tear-jerk is trumped up near the end of the film, inventing how Gleason's father got back in touch with his successful son. None of that happened, & Gleason never actually knew with any certainty what had happened to his father.

As portrayed, his career succeeds more in spite of himself than due to his drive & talent. He's a drunkard, pathetic & alone, when in actual life he was a social drinker, & enjoyed his alone-time reading books. Reading at home might not have been dramatic to have shown in a film, but it is unfair to show him as a lonely drunk instead of a bookworm who got blotto mainly gregarious settings.

He was loved by many friends famous & not famous, powerful & just regular folks. If the "bad" Jackie we see is partly the truth, the other part that was left out was even more important, such as his soft-touch generosity to friends & colleagues. In one scene where he picks up a tab at a table, he ends up giving one of his table-mates a hate-filled spew for his ingratitude & envy. The real Jackie performed quiet kindnesses for his friends, & gave them money when their careers weren't generating enough to get by, & got them jobs on his shows. What we see instead is a Jackie who gives identical gift-watches at Christmas when gifts are an imposition, tells his friends how ungrateful they are for not aprpeciating that he picks up their tab, & receives poverty hand-outs from his manager after being a big failure.

We see in this film a man convinced no one but himself matters one whit. We see loud obnoxious Jackie, but not the sweet Jackie who also existed. Alcoholism did eventually take its toll on his health & perhaps on his personality, but this telefilm does not follow him so far as the Miami years despite wanting to show him already in physical decline & inately cruel, which is simply a false portrait.

The script seriously seems to want to tear down the memory of Jackie Gleason, showing all the bad that existed, adding more bad that did not exist, while skipping or understating the good. It shows him as a fat middleaged man still at the start of a career happy to be scoring a three dollar a week job, but the real Gleason's famous three dollar a week job was when he was fifteen years old & already working at Brooklyn's Halsey Theater.

The scenes of his childhood have a fine young actor as Jackie (Jake Brockman), but we are only shown the worst bits of his childhood merely as a point of amateur psychoanalysis on the scriptwriter's part, to expain why he was such a fuck-up in his later life. His teen years were actually jam-packed with a wild array of entertainment gigs throughout the five burroughs of the city. We see no hint of that precocious ability to spread joy.

The film minimalizes the success he was on television from 1949 onward, & completely denies the success he had in film beginning in 1941. In one of several continuity lapses the film shows the Ralph & Alice characters weren't developed until 1952, but they were already famous two years earlier. In one scene allusion is made to Ralph Kramden on his 1950 variety show, but later we are shown Jackie with second-rate writers deciding on Ralph & Alice's character traits in his 1952 variety show, so even the film's internal falsehoods are not kept consistent.

The script also implies the DuMont variety show was Jackie's first big break on television, but he'd already done a year's stint on the early sitcom Life of Riley for which he won an Emmy. And perhaps because of Garrett's limitations, we never see Gleason's best character creations except for Ralph. We see Garrett very badly recreate the vastly lesser character of Reginald van Gleason the Third, but he doesn't even try to do the well-loved Joe the Bartender or The Poor Soul, characters already created for DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars, either one of which might've conveyed to modern viewers why Jackie was so justifiably loved in his day.

The film makes a great to-do of his failure in Hollywood resulting from his inability to work on a team. The film shows that he was fired off the set of Navy Blues (1941) & implies that that was the end of his film career, when in fact he never experienced that type of humiliation, & was never fired. He appeared in a handful of films before returning to New York to do Broadway musicals, not because he was a wash-out in Hollywood.

This slice of Jackie's life stops before young viewers might learn about such great films as The Hustler (1961) which netted him an Academy Award nomination, or the incredibly moving little art film Gigot (1962) which more or less places The Poor Soul character in a serious story. These couldn't be included in a story that stops before these things happened, but even in the time covered by this biopic is was dishonest to make up a story that implied Gleason was an instant failure as soon as he tried to do something outside of New York. That misrepresentation was a huge lie. His six films for Warner Brothers in the early 40s may have been slight, but he absolutely saved The Desert Hawk (1950) from having nothing at all good about it.

At every turn, if the script had a choice between conveying The Great One, or conveying some ugly bastard drunk, we were denied The Great One. Someone may have mistaken this savage treatment as more dramatic than would have been the truth, but Gleason's actual life was very interesting & would've played better. My suspicion is the writers really didn't "get" Gleason & after hasty research on the man, this was as close as they could come to recreating him in a script, & that left Brad Garrett stuck with nothing to do but the freakish impersonation.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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