Today, National Lampoon is probably best known for the series of films bearing its name — the most recent example being 2013's National Lampoon Presents Surf Party. But back in the '70s, The National Lampoon was a subversive wellspring of comedy, the spawning ground for numerous writers, illustrators and comedians who went on to successful careers. The upcoming Netflix film A Futile And Stupid Gesture will likely do a lot to burnish the Lampoon's reputation with a younger generation. Though it's a biopic focusing on the brief life of National Lampoon founder Doug Kenny, there's another man behind the magazine — Henry Beard. Yet as it turns out, the real Henry Beard from A Futile And Stupid Gesture is difficult to pin down.
Even something simple as Beard's age is uncertain — the Library of Congress doesn't list it along with his books, and different articles give differing years. He has a partner of many years, Gwyneth Cravens, or they might be married — it depends on which article you read or who's being interviewed. What's generally accepted is during his years with the Lampoon, Beard was mature beyond his time, taken to pipe smoking and mediating conflicts between the other writers, as the new movie shows. Given the challenge of playing someone so enigmatic, actor Domhnall Gleeson made some personal decisions of how to play the brilliant young writer.
"I always decided he was the funniest person in the room, but he just didn't need to get a laugh. He didn't need to prove it to himself," says Gleeson in an interview with Bustle at the Sundance Film Festival. "So while Doug would be doing all this outrageous stuff like sticking his hand in his mouth, I think Henry was happy to stand there, knowing...he would think of the best joke, and decide not to tell it, because he didn't need the laugh."
The strangest part is that Beard is still alive and working, well within reach. He's stuck to comedic print work, penning over 35 books, most recently the Encyclopedia Paranoica in 2012. In an interview with Splitsider, Beard himself explained he wasn't trying to be mysterious, he'd just been misquoted about his Lampoon days. "Some of those misquotes hurt a few people," he said. "I swore to myself for a long time thereafter that I would never speak of it again to anybody. I felt I couldn’t trust them. But now I’ve kind of mellowed."
It would be interesting to know what Beard thinks of the latest biopic, as a number of events shown in the film never happened in real life. Gleeson notes that if films were to be true, they'd be 15 hours long or more, and even then you couldn't cram in an entire life, and note-for-note faithful retellings don't always get at the heart of the matter. "If everyone told the same story we'd be living in a really boring world. Art is about expressing yourself as well," Gleeson notes in his Sundance interview, adding that "[writers] Colton and Aboud did just acres of research, and I think it is all true to the spirit of the time."
Beard might appreciate the film's seriousness towards some of the Lampoon writers' earlier selves. Where some biopics gloss over or brush away negative behavior, Futile And Stupid Gesture doesn't shy away from showing there's actual consequences for drug use and cheating. As Gleeson notes, "there are many movies where that's just seen as being part of the fun. I think in this movie you get to see the toll that has on a a real person."
Beard briefly tried screenwriting before settling into writing comedy books, a successful, ongoing career. Though he was only part of the Lampoon for five years, the real Beard was glad he got out when he did. In the same Splitsider interview, he said the magazine wouldn't have been able to compete with Saturday Night Live, an irony given how much of the show's talent the Lampoon helped create. Summing up his own career, Beard noted, "Thing happen, things change. It’s not the same as what I went through; it’s just different. I’m just grateful that I had a shot." As we all are.
Additional reporting by Kelsea Stahler