Not so very long ago pantomime was part of every major comedian’s repertoire.
Not just in the golden era of the 1920s when the great masters — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy — turned out a breathtaking series of comedies that were wet-your-pants hilarious and as rarefied and poetic as classical ballet. Well into the 1960s, almost every major television comedian — Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, Marty Feldman — included pantomime set pieces in their shows. Feature film comedians like Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers included long sight gag sequences that were virtually pantomime. Jacques Tati spoke no more than a handful of barely audible words in his six features, and Lewis made “The Bellboy” (1960) in which he did not speak until the movie’s final scene.
But in today’s media-saturated world where low-attention-span consumers are bombarded by HD images and high-decibel surround-sound systems scar the eardrums, pantomime has come to seem too slow, antiquated and precious. About as cutting edge as a tour of a wax museum.
But there is one magnificent exception: Rowan Atkinson. He is, quite simply, a force of nature. Part Harry Langdon (a helpless child-man trying to find his way in a big ugly world he cannot comprehend), part Harpo Marx (a mischievous imp who wreaks havoc on the repressive society that has ensnared him), he lives in a squalid one-room flat and drives a beat-up Tatiesque jalopy, roaming the megalopolis on a desperate search for the good life so lushly represented in gleaming department store windows, TV commercials and lifestyle glossies.
The key to Atkinson’s box office power (he’s the biggest international comedy star since Jerry Lewis) is not his runt-of-the-litter stature or his Ichabod Crane features. It is, as impossible as it may seem, his skill as a pantomimist. He manipulates his thick black eyebrows, huge cow eyes and amazingly flexible proboscis as a conductor would a symphony orchestra, to call forth a riot of complex emotions.
Atkinson, like all great clowns, uses pantomime to reach beyond words to the language of the body. Pain, loss, frustration, longing, anger and fear find voice through his rapidly shifting eyeballs, darting tongue, frantic gesturing hands and flaring nostrils.
And like all great clowns, he has a profound instinctual understanding of the human condition. Each installment of Mr. Bean — from his 10-minute television skits to his feature films — is about the fundamental hunger to belong, the fierce need to measure up to the people next to you at a mathematics test, in a reception line, a church pew or on a pool deck. Every social situation turns into a tormented competition in which Bean tries to prove worthy of acceptance, respect … love.
The more desperately he struggles for approval, the quicker he spirals toward disaster. Like Keaton, Atkinson never makes a direct appeal for our sympathy. But his stubborn optimism in the face of one horrific failure after another infuses his comedy with a chilling melancholia.
In “Merry Christmas Mr. Bean,” he writes a Christmas card to himself, slips it through the mail slot of his tawdry flat, bursts through the door, tears it open with ecstatic delight, then hangs it in a display of a dozen other identical cards that he has mailed. This two-minute vignette conveys more true feeling about the alienation of urban life than many earnest two-hour dramas on the subject.
Bean aspires to middle class ideals of success, material wealth, social grace and assimilation. Despite his best efforts, he remains out of sync with the world, never able to catch up, always one stumble away from catastrophe. Yet he never gives up. He continues to invent new ways to transcend his limitations and overcome obstacles.
There are transitory victories, moments where he seems to have mastered his world, taken command of his destiny. But as soon as he beams victoriously, the rug is yanked out from under him.
In “Do-It-Yourself Mr. Bean,” he visits a home improvement center, determined to transform his threadbare flat into an Architectural Digest centerfold. Bean so overloads his tiny jalopy with paint, tools and supplies that he’s forced to drive it from an armchair strapped to the car’s roof, operating the controls via a Keatonesque series of pulleys and poles. It works brilliantly until a pole slips off the brake pedal and he careens down a Himalayan slope of asphalt into the back of a truck full of mattresses and disappears in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud of feathers.
When he finally unloads the supplies at his apartment, he becomes ensnared in a Sisyphean nightmare worthy of Laurel & Hardy’s “Helpmates” (1932). His efforts to beautify his house quickly cascade into an orgy of destruction. Runaway skill saws and exploding paint cans turn his flat into a hideous Salvador Dali hellscape.
Ultimately, Bean is who we all fear ourselves to be: impostors. Children who never grew up, pretending to be mature, competent, in control of ourselves and the world around us. The dirty little secret that Atkinson and all great clowns understand is the absurd futility of human aspiration. They show us that it’s possible to laugh instead of cry about it, and for a brief moment we’re liberated. That’s why Rowan Atkinson is comic not just for our time, but for the ages. And why his films — like those of Chaplin and Keaton — will be filling theaters 100 years from now, long after today’s superstars and blockbuster extravaganzas are forgotten.
(David Weddle writes for Peabody Award-winning series “Battlestar Galactica” and is the author of “If They Move … Kill ‘Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah.”)