Nobody ever mistook Jim Varney for Laurence Oliver, or probably even Laurence Fishburne for that matter. I doubt there have been many discussions about the 'character arc' in his films. To put it nicely, if you watch three of his movies in succession, it is the equivalent of snorting pure insanity. But he seemed like a likable enough clown, albeit in small doses. He was one of those 'novelty celebrities' we occasionally found amusing. I liked the guy, although he made more shit than 5 herds of buffalo. Let's look at the tapes.
Before delighting billions with his mugging and rubber-faced antics, Jim Varney appeared on such TV series as Operation Petticoat, Pop Goes the Country and Fernwood 2-night. As if these weren't promising enough endeavors, he soon discovered his true talent: hawking shit on TV. This guy (as the charcter Ernest) made over 600 commercials in his career. That's a lot. So what's next after selling turkey basters and oven mitts? The movies, of course.
1986-Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam- OK, truth? I've seen this movie. I don't remember why or how, but I vaguely remember it being worse than on an acid trip and on fire. Oddly, the Ernest character is relegated to a supporting role, as thespian Jim Varney takes on like 5 characters. It's a mess, and since Sally Pinata of Sacramento, CA, died last week, that leaves me as the only living person who's seen this movie.
1987-Ernest Goes to Camp--I get a little misty when I think back to when Ernest was new in our hearts. Getting hit with a surfboard, farting in a quiet room or getting bit on the nose by a nasty turtle, I felt his performance. I thought he was robbed when the People's Choice Award nominations came out that year. (co-stars: John Vernon, Lyle Alzado)
1988-Ernest Saves Christmas--Obviously wanting to grace the world with yet another seasonal tradition, Ernest falls down on a Christmas tree. His performance was so powerful that many believe it was Chevy Chase's inspiration during the filming of Christmas Vacation. Classic Ernest. (co-star: Billie Bird)
1989-Fast Food-After two films and repeated requests, Varney sheds the Ernest character for a wonderful performace in Fast Food. As Wrangler Bob, you could really feel that he wanted to buy out that hamburger joint where everyone was showing their tits. (co-stars: Pamela Springsteen, Michael J. Pollard, Traci Lords)
1990-Ernest Goes to Jail-After an interminable 2-year hiatus, Varney returns as Ernest, only this time in jail. Noted by numerous IMDb users at "The Best Ernsst Film! ;)", it was also the most financially succesful, in that it made it to its second weekend in the theaters. (co-stars: Charles Napier, Randall Tex Cobb)
1991-Ernest Scared Stupid-After realizing that Christmas is not the only holiday around, Ernest does the Halloween thing. This is one of my personal Ernest favorites, as there's a troll around. Trolls are neat. (co-star: Eartha Kitt)
1993-Wilder Napalm--Jim goes Hollywood in this unreleased movie about freak brothers who can start fires with their minds. Varney is buried underneath all the 'acting'. (co-stars: Dennis Quaid, Debra Winger, M. Emmet Walsh, Arliss Howard)
1993-The Beverly Hillbillies--The role Jim was born to play: Jed Clampett. (co-stars: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Erika Eleniak, Dolly Parton, Buddy Ebsen)
1993-Ernest Rides Again--Never one to disappoint his fans, Jim rounds out '93 with yet another Ernest film. Numerous film historians have pondered about what went wrong with Ernest Rides Again, although many feel it contains some wonderful scenes between Ernest and his butt. (co-stars: noone you've heard of, trust me.)
1994-Ernest Goes to School--In what is generally considered the inspiration for the seminal classic 'Billy Madison', Ernest does indeed go to school. Realizing that the average age of his fans is about 5, Ernest goes to.....um......school. (co-stars: see Ernest Rides Again.)
1995-Slam Dunk Ernest-After much soul-searching, Varney realized that the Ernest character had considerably more to say. Only this time he was hoping black people might like him. In this one, Ernest plays basketball. Poorly. (co-stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)
1995-Toy Story-If you've heard his performance, nothing more needs to be said. The ultimate Jim Varney experience.
1996-Snowboard Academy-Yeah-You rent it. (co-stars: Joe Flaherty, Corey Haim, Brigitte Nielsen)
1997-Ernest Goes to Africa-After realizing that perhaps he didn't perpetutate African-American stereotypes enough in Slam Dunk Ernest, this time Varney goes straight to mother Africa. The result is cinematic history. (co-stars: tribal natives)
1998-Ernest in the Army--In what would be Varney's final performance as Ernest, there is a tender and bittersweet quality ot this film. It's as if Jim knew that finally--Ernest had run his course. It's a touching a beautiful nadir for an American icon. (co-stars: nobody with a SAG card anymore.)
Before his untimely death in 2000, Jim graced the silver screen several more times, in such wonderful family films as Existo, Treehouse Hostage and the eternal 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. His final role would be that of Slinky Dog in Toy Story 2. It was a role he savored. He often mentioned how he felt a lot like that springy, hollow dog, especially when he was hungry. At the time of his death, Jim was working on Ernest the Pirate. I know I speak for all his fans when I say that perhaps that script belongs where it is, unfinished and never to be made.
Addition: A full four years after this feature was originally published, I received this email from a very polite and informative fan of the late Mr. Varney:
After reading your comments re Jim I was, at first, somewhat angry and frustrated. Then I decided that you obviously knew nothing about his background- or perhaps the kind of man he was.
I would like to send you a copy of E! The True Hollywood Story: Ernest Goes to Hollywood. No Sir Lawrence O? On the tape is Jim's rendition of Peter O'Toole in Beckett; judge for yourself (it's just a few seconds long but should suffice).
I guess you don't know that Jim was quite the Shakespearian actor as a youth (and the best actor of his relative age in his state). He got "stuck" in the "Ernest" role, but Shakespeare was his main love. He hated being thought of as an ignorant "hayseed" - and that he was most assuredly not.
He could sing a song all the way through at age one. He could read the newspaper at age 3. He was a "walking encyclopedia" on a myriad of topics.
There is far more I could tell you than there is on that program.
He had hopes that the last film he completed (Daddy and Them which I cannot bring myself to see- his cancer was full-blown at the time) would open doors to the kinds of roles that would showcase his abilities; instead of its being released while he was alive, insider bickering almost caused it to be shelved. This was one of the disappointments that killed him along with the cancer. He lost his will to fight after putting up a courageous battle beyond the imagination of most.
These last comments I will leave with you: Jim was bi-polar most of his life; suffered from severe and frequent bouts of depression (I know depression well); this didn't stop him, however, from going to the respective bedside of hundreds of terminally-ill children who wanted a visit from "Ernest"; when he couldn't go he called. He did more as well, but never publicized it. Had he discovered Wellbutrin years earlier we might not have lost this beautiful man; I think he could have stopped smoking.
If you send me your address I will send you the E! tape. I am hoping that you will modify your review on your own after viewing it.
So looking back over this silly old article, it made me realize that I was perhaps a bit too tough on ol's Jimmy V. For all the movies he made that may seem 'inane' to adult eyes, the lovable kook did make a whole lotta kids laugh for a few years. And surely that's reason enough to admit I may have been a bit unfair on Mr. Varney's talents. I suspect he could well have become one of those colorful fifth-billed character actors that we all know and love throughout the years, but unfortunately the guy passed away before we could find out.
I'd like Vicki and all of Jim Varney's fans to know that this article was not written with cruel or insensitive intent. The guy was a goofball, so I was just goofin' on him.
Plus the guy was in both Toy Story movies. Surely that's an impressive credit for any actor under the sun.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=169
originally posted: 02/28/00 02:08:36
last updated: 07/11/04 15:12:37