Jackie Gleason was larger than life. So was his ego. An immense man and an immense talent, he became one of television’s first superstars with his sitcom, “The Honeymooners.” But behind his cool, confident demeanor hid an insecure control freak, a womanizer and most of all, an overgrown child.
As the subject of CBS’ new biopic, Gleason is shown in an affectionate but unforgiving light. His multiple personalities – ranging from loving, devoted husband to tactless drunkard – are masterfully handled by Brad Garrett, in a role that ought to give him a career beyond “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He brings to life a man so beloved, yet at the same time, so confusing and contradictory. When looking at Gleason, we realize the eerie parallels between his life and that of Ralph Kramden, the foul-mouthed bus driver he portrayed on “The Honeymooners.”
“Gleason” is told in flashbacks from a “60 Minutes”-type of interview. We first see Jackie at the age of 8. Then, he was a starry-eyed wonderer, drawn in by the vaudevillian stage shows he attended with his father. These shows served as a distraction from more pressing concerns at home: both parents were alcoholics, and his father left while Jackie was still young. Raised by his mother until early adulthood, when she passed away, he used comedy as an outlet for his frustrations.
Working his way up from talent shows, to night clubs, to eventually his own sitcom, Gleason’s drive for success carried him through. But his ambition also got the best of him, resulting in a failed marriage and a number of bad career moves. “Gleason” is privy to Jackie’s dualities; the film does a stellar job at conveying his daring behind-the-scenes maneuvering with studio heads and agents. We watch Jackie transform from an affable everyman into a power-hungry tyrant, especially when he didn’t get his way. Insisting on complete control over writing and directing, Gleason thought himself a star before the rest of the world did.
“Gleason” achieves a good balance between Jackie’s personal and professional lives, though his onstage antics are far more entertaining. The recreations of the short-lived Gleason-hosted variety show “Cavalcade of Stars,” as well as “The Honeymooners,” are authentic and welcome; his “Honeymooners” co-stars, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, are faithfully brought to life by Michael Chieffo and Jayne Heitmeyer.
Though not a dead ringer, Garrett is nonetheless highly convincing as Gleason. Far different from the dense, docile cop he portrays on “Raymond,” Garrett seamlessly inhabits Gleason’s anxiousness, temper and in particular, the low-key charm that made him famous. Standing at 6-foot-8, he’s probably a foot taller than the man he portrays, but his stature works to his advantage in the film; Garrett’s intimidating size only reinforces the intimidating presence that Gleason was.
Ultimately, “Gleason” works better as a nostalgia trip, rather than a faithful biography. Fans may be disappointed that the film ends in the mid-1950s: Gleason’s extensive movie career, which peaked with an Academy Award nomination for “The Hustler” in 1961, is never explored. Regardless of the film’s focus, “Gleason” is worthwhile if only for Garrett’s performance and the chance to see what made “the great one” so great in the first place.