Like a lot of people right now, while sheltering in place I’ve been on a voyage inward. What I’ve been finding there are shame, insecurity, and ’80s sci-fi movies.
But enough about me: let’s move on to Andy Kaufman. I knew virtually nothing about him when I sat down last month to watch Heartbeeps, his final film. I remembered the 1981 movie from one or two cable broadcasts when I was growing up; haunting images of robots in love, dying as they flee a shiny-black enforcer droid on a grassy hillscape, have stuck with me. The idea of a robot romance cut short in first blossom must have resonated with a kid who was always acutely aware of his own unrequited crushes.
I knew Kaufman was a controversial and quirky comedian who’d died young. I knew about the Jim Carrey movie, though I’d never seen it — so after revisiting Heartbeeps I watched Man on the Moon, then Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a Netflix documentary about Carrey’s Method performance as Kaufman. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Carrey terrorizing cast and crew, constantly in character as Kaufman and his alter egos.
Heartbeeps doesn’t show up in either of those films — which you’d think Kaufman’s lounge-singer character Tony Clifton would be pissed about, since apparently the robot movie was the reason why his biopic was never made. According to Kaufman’s co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, The Tony Clifton Story lost its chance at getting green-lit when Heartbeeps flopped.
Hollywood was nervous about whether the Taxi star, a magnetic but baffling comedian who broke out on the earliest, weirdest days of SNL, could carry a movie. In terms of both box office and critical response, Heartbeeps could not be taken as evidence to the positive. The New York Times called it “unbearable,” and even Kaufman himself called it “a terrible movie. I’m embarrassed that I was in it,” he told David Letterman in 1982.
When Kaufman went on to say he was working on a plan to personally refund every single admission, Letterman quipped, “Make sure you have change for a twenty.” On a $10 million budget, the movie made just $6 million.
It’s not really surprising, then, that even within Kaufmanalia the movie’s been almost forgotten. Search Google for “Heartbeeps” and the search engine assumes you mean Hartbeeps, a series of classes for babies and toddlers. Search for “1981 movies” and Heartbeeps doesn’t even show up in the featured results — unlike the exploitation film Ms .45, the slasher pic The Funhouse, and the POW sports drama Escape to Victory.
Heartbeeps sure doesn’t look like $10 million on the screen. The enforcer droid lumbers along like an overloaded golf cart. A bear attack scene is cut so clumsily, they might as well have used stock footage. Much of the film consists of four robots literally wandering through the woods, without another prop in sight. Yet there’s something entrancing about its seeming amateurishness, something that’s weird in a good way.
Despite surface appearances, the movie wasn’t made by amateurs. Director Alan Arkush is a Joe Dante collaborator who got his start editing trailers, so he knew a highlight when he saw one. (He’d go on to direct the “dancing baby” episode of Ally McBeal, so he also knew how to fling himself into the uncanny valley.) The score is by John Williams, at the height of his powers with The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman among recent releases; and no one told him to pull his punches.
The legendary composer’s work gives the film an intimate gravity that pairs well with the work of Kaufman and co-star Bernadette Peters. Their dialogue may be stilted, but there’s no doubting their sincerity — especially that of Kaufman, whose haunting vulnerability transcends the tired running gag about how the robots keep falling into stereotypical gender-based arguments over their spare-parts son.
Makeup legend Stan Winston won an Oscar nomination for his work here, which follows in the grand pre-CGI tradition of robots who look awkward because they are. Arkush struggles to make viewers understand how the Crimebuster’s pursuit of the fleeing Val Com and Aqua Com (not to mention their collective evasion of robo-tech Randy Quaid in a helicopter) takes up the entire movie, but there’s a certain awkward majesty to the scene where the rolling cop droid literally crashes a swinging party where its prey are trying to blend in with the automated help.
Val and Aqua also pick up Catskill, a creaky robot who can only communicate in creakier gags, constantly expelling smoke from the mouth where it ostensibly chomps a stogie. Catskill has a pseudo-death scene that deeply moved me as a child; my continued feelings of nostalgic warmth toward the box-bound robot help me understand why people wait in line for an hour to go on the Disneyland Jungle Cruise.
When Kaufman died two years later, of the rare condition large-cell carcinoma, conspiracy theories abounded as to what actually struck the comic down. One notion had it that the Heartbeeps makeup was carcinogenic, reported Zmuda in his book Andy Kaufman Revealed! “They said he sat in a chair three hours a day while they sprayed a bunch of crap all over him.”
Then there were the theories — sometimes fueled by Zmuda himself — that Kaufman had faked his death. It was too Kaufman-esque a prospect to dismiss out of hand; when asked what Andy would have done if he’d survived, Zmuda proffered, “I truly believe he would have faked his death.”
I was going to hold this post until December 2021, the 40th anniversary of Heartbeeps. I’m publishing it now, though, because it doesn’t seem to have been entirely a coincidence that after waiting most of a lifetime to revisit this strange, reviled little film, I landed back on Heartbeeps — and on Andy Kaufman — now, when we’re all huddled in our shelters watching the world end, or be reborn, in slow motion.
Although it was the end of the movie I remembered most strongly, it’s the beginning that most resonates with me now. There are Val Com and Aqua Com, sentient but shelved until further notice. They stand next to each other, looking out a warehouse window into a lush valley they’ve been forbidden to explore. Locked away, scared and bored all at once, they discover each other and nothing is ever quite the same again.