'Liar's Autobiography' honors Python's 'dead one'
TORONTO -- Some call Graham Chapman the forgotten Python. Some call him the enigmatic one. John Cleese calls him the dead one.
Don't expect the animated film "A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman" to sort out his place in the British comedy troupe. Based on Chapman's book, an "autobiography" curiously co-authored with five other writers, the film doesn't reveal much that Python fans don't already know about the facts of his life.
But fans will come away with a better sense of the strange inner workings of Chapman, who died of throat cancer at age 49 in 1989 but is reunited with Cleese and most of his Python mates in the voice cast of "A Liar's Autobiography," which has a limited U.S. theatrical run starting Friday and has its television premiere the same day on Epix.
Ex-Python member Terry Jones thinks Chapman would have loved the cryptic mishmash of observations, self-analysis, bizarre asides, flights of fancy and revisionist personal history that make up the film.
"What an odd person he was," Jones fondly recollected at September's Toronto International Film Festival in an interview alongside son Bill Jones, who co-directed "A Liar's Autobiography" with Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson.
Fourteen companies crafted the visuals in 17 different animation styles, presented in 3-D and leaping from such vignettes as a procrastinator's writing holiday with Cleese in Spain and a re-creation of a skit with Chapman as Oscar Wilde, to a sedate moment drinking spiked tea with the Queen Mother and a rousing production of the Python tune "Sit on My Face."
Chapman studied at Cambridge, where he became a doctor and met Cleese, who became his writing partner and closest colleague among the Python troupe, which included fellow Brits Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle, and American animator Terry Gilliam.
Joining the Cambridge Footlights performing group, Chapman gradually veered away from medicine, joining Cleese as a writer on David Frost's BBC show "The Frost Report" and eventually co-starring in the groundbreaking sketch comedy show "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which premiered in 1969.
The other Pythons had signature bits and skits -- Cleese with his Ministry of Silly Walks, Palin with his lumberjack song, Jones with his menu of endless Spam variations, Idle with his nudge-nudge, wink-wink routine -- and Gilliam distinguished himself with his surreal animation.
Chapman reveled in shrill cross-dressing characters but often tended toward self-serious straightmen roles, much as he did with the leads in the troupe's biggest film comedies, as King Arthur in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and the title role in "Monty Python's Life of Brian."
Terry Jones recalls the first time he saw Chapman perform in London, an odd duck playing alongside Cleese and fellow British comedian Bill Oddie.
"I couldn't take my eyes off Graham, because he looked like he'd just walked on off the street, and what was he doing on stage?" Jones said. "John Cleese and Bill Oddie were being funny on stage. Graham was not being funny. He was being serious, and that's why I think he worked so well as King Arthur and Brian. Because John wanted to do Brian, wanted to play Brian, and we persuaded him out of it. Because Graham was, he's just the rock around which everybody else is doing funny performances."
If Chapman seemed like the straight guy, the rock to the other Pythons' zaniness, it was an illusion that held up only in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, Chapman could be notoriously unreliable, boozing and partying and so bad about showing up on time that he became known as "the late Graham Chapman" decades before he died.
"A Liar's Autobiography" chronicles not so much the facts of Chapman's life as his trickster spirit, as a cartoon figure named Graham Chapman works through such issues as his alcoholism, promiscuity and confusion over his sexuality (he eventually decides he's 70 percent gay, based on a survey he did with himself).
Chapman provides the backbone of the animation voices, which the filmmakers culled from recordings he did of his book. Jones, Cleese, Palin and Gilliam added vocals (Idle was too busy, co-director Bill Jones said), making it a reunion of sorts with their dead colleague.
The film includes video of Cleese's notorious eulogy for Chapman, in which he lovingly bid good riddance to the "freeloading bastard."
"Graham would have been very cross if John hadn't said that about him," Terry Jones said.
Bill Jones and co-director Timlett had just come off of making the six-part documentary series "Monty Python: Almost The Truth -- The Lawyers Cut" when the opportunity came their way to do "A Liar's Autobiography." They didn't want to do another Python-related documentary, though, and it suited Chapman's unfathomable spirit to let his life play out in whimsical, free-form animated sequences.
"It's just an appreciation of his twisted humor. Not understanding who the man is or finding out any facts about the man's life, but getting a sense of him and getting at his feelings," Bill Jones said. "I think we're just trying to show the sort of thing he enjoyed, because he is sort of the forgotten Python. He hasn't been around for 23 years."