Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1205
Terry Gilliam 1940-
(Full name Terry Vance Gilliam) American director, animator, screenplay writer, and actor.
The following entry provides an overview of Gilliam's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 21.
Gilliam is widely considered one of the most creative writers and directors in contemporary film. He is known for making films which contain fantastical imagery ranging from fairy-tale-like beauty to apocalyptic wastelands. His works typically employ dark humor and unexpected plot twists to prompt viewers to question the meaning of what they are seeing. Gilliam is also widely revered for his work in the seminal comedy troupe Monty Python.
Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 22, 1940. In 1962, he graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where he majored in Political Science. He then moved to New York where he was employed as an associate editor of HELP! magazine (where he met John Cleese). In 1967, Gilliam moved to London, England. After two years of selling occasional skits or animated shorts to BBC shows like Do Not Adjust Your Set and We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, he was invited to be a founding member of the comedy team Monty Python in 1969. The BBC show Monty Python's Flying Circus was extremely successful, and its members (Gilliam, Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) achieved sufficient fame and financial success to allow them to develop other creative ventures such as films, books, and recordings. After the series ended in 1974, Gilliam continued to collaborate with the cast members on five Monty Python films. In 1984 Gilliam's film Brazil was awarded Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and received two Oscar nominations. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) also received four Oscar nominations and won three British Academy awards. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1999) was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Gilliam lives in England with his wife Margaret (Weston), and their three children: Amy, Holly, and Harry.
As a member of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam wrote sketches, drew bizarre animation and occasionally acted on the show. The group's first film, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), contains short comedy sketches, and was a modest success. Their next film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a farce about King Arthur, was an international success. They followed with three more successful films: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), a Biblical farce (the protagonist, Brian, is mistaken for Jesus Christ); Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a live concert film; and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), a film comprised of sketches relating to birth and death. Gilliam acted in all five films. He also created animated shorts for all but Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl and co-directed with Terry Jones Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Jabberwocky (1977), Gilliam's first non-Python film, is a medieval comic-fantasy starring Michael Palin as a young cooper destined to fight a monster. The film is filled with gritty imagery and is heavily reliant on dark humor. The film struggled both critically and financially. Gilliam's next movie, Time Bandits (1981), is another fantasy which focuses on a young boy who travels through time with a larcenous group of treasure hunting dwarves. In this film, Gilliam makes extensive use of his creative imagination using elaborate sets and sight-gags throughout the film. With a strong supporting cast (Cleese, Palin, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Ian Holm, and Katherine Helmond) and more alluring cinematography, the film was a much larger success than Jabberwocky and prompted critics to view Gilliam as a promising new writer and director. After producing two more Monty Python films, Gilliam returned to solo work in 1984 with Brazil. In Brazil Gilliam creates an odd dystopian world in which people dress in 1940's fashions and use computers with early twentieth-century typewriter-like keyboards. Everything appears to be broken, run-down, or dirty in the film, but characters employ high-tech gadgets with as much frequency as mundane twentieth-century devices. The story follows Sam Lowery, a bureaucrat who encounters trouble with the government when he tries to fix an administrative error and sends an innocent man to jail. Lowery escapes from the grime and drudgery of society through his fantastic dreams and vivid imagination. However, he is unable to differentiate between illusion and reality, and eventually, when he is taken prisoner, he completely escapes to the dream world leaving his body behind to be tortured.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a visually stunning film starring John Neville as Baron Munchausen, a character drawn from European mythology who is known to tell outrageous and unbelievable stories. In the film, Gilliam vividly depicts several of Baron Munchausen's tallest tales. For this movie, Gilliam utilized a large budget and grandiose special effects to depict the baron riding a cannonball, dancing with Venus, and traveling to the moon. In 1991, Gilliam directed a film he didn't also write: The Fisher King, a comic fable that takes place in present-day New York City. Jeff Bridges stars as Jack, a severely depressed ex-disc jockey whose life is rescued by Parry, a homeless man played by Robin Williams. Parry has experienced extensive trauma during his life and is obsessed with all things medieval. He is consumed in a search for the Holy Grail, and he enlists Jack's help in finding it. Gilliam encourages the audience to question Parry's sanity and whether Parry's literal quest for the Grail might symbolize something deeper, such as a search for enlightenment or spiritual fulfillment. In 1995, Gilliam directed Twelve Monkeys, an apocalyptic science-fiction thriller. Based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker, Twelve Monkeys relates the story of a convict (played by Bruce Willis), who is sent back in time to stop a plague that has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the Earth's population. The plague has forced survivors to live underground due to fear of contamination. In Twelve Monkeys Gilliam conveys a bleak future and emphasizes one of his favorite recurrent themes in films—man's distrust of technology. In 1998, Gilliam returned to screenwriting and adapted Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen. The film follows Uncle Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) on a weekend trip to Las Vegas in which they experiment with a wide variety of drugs. The entire movie is seen through the distorted perspective of drug induced hallucinations. The two companions ingest a combination of marijuana, ether, LSD, and alcohol with reckless abandon; and Gilliam, like Thompson, uses their warped realities to lend black humor to their self-abusive behavior.
Many critics laud Gilliam for his daring imagery while others argue that this extraordinary imagery tends to overwhelm his narratives. Most reviewers, however, tend to praise Gilliam for his utilization of imagination and for creating films that are not only visual spectacles but are thematically critical in hopeful, comedic ways. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone writes: “Even when Terry Gilliam's latest leap into the wild blue of futuristic fantasy is at its most confounding, you leap along with him. Such is the seductive power of his twisted imagination.”