According to the collective consciousness of current pop cinema, this is the year of Being Someone Else. To wit: The Matrix turns a pasty-faced computer geek into "The One," Fight Club transforms a listless yuppie into a subversive pugilist, The Sixth Sense gives Bruce Willis's workaholic shrink a career after death, and Ravenous grants its characters immortality in trade for conspicuous consumption. Instant gratification meets metaphysics on the Internet, coming soon to a film theory near you.
Cross this wish-fulfillment genre with the white male woe-is-me-isms of Mumford and Election, and you have the otherwise unclassifiable Being John Malkovich, in which a pathetic puppeteer-turned-office-peon (John Cusack) stumbles upon a secret portal into the mind of the titular actor and begins to charge admission to the virtual experience of celebrity. Here's how it works: Two hundred bucks gets the client 15 minutes of fame as seen through the eyes of John Malkovich--or, depending on the time of day, a first-person glimpse of the star's morning coffee and Wall Street Journal, or his mail-order catalog and take-out Chinese food.
As directed with deadpan-screwball aplomb by music-video wunderkind Spike Jonze, the movie is patently absurd from top to bottom. And yet one can't help but question the ineffable logic of why John Malkovich should merit such iconic treatment and not, say, John Travolta or John Turturro or John Cleese--or Don Johnson. "In some ways I'm an easier target, in some ways I'm a harder target, and in some ways maybe I'm a more interesting target," muses Malkovich during a publicity junket at a midtown hotel, appearing both dapper and disheveled in a dark blue suit and wrinkled tie, his evenly tanned and unshaven face giving him the look of a bored aristocrat. In which ways more interesting? I ask. "Uh, well," he begins softly, sounding taken aback, "I've done a lot of different things, and I don't really have a category, and people don't really know very much about me. I think that to some people I've always been kind of enigmatic--or so I'm told."
Indeed, here's just some of what you probably didn't know about John Malkovich. When he was a young kid growing up in the coal-mining town of Benton, Illinois, the fledgling actor maintained an Italian alter ego named Tony (in appreciation of West Side Story). In first grade he briefly quit school out of frustration that he didn't win the Easter egg contest. In high school he weighed 230 pounds, but after going on a Jell-O diet for ten weeks, he emerged a "slim ladies' man" who joined the drama department at Eastern Illinois University to get the girl. And did you know that Malkovich, before cofounding the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with Gary Sinise in 1976, actually put in time as a coffee-shop folksinger? Or that he married Bernardo Bertolucci's Italian-born assistant, whom he met while shooting The Sheltering Sky? Or that now, at age 45, his acting accomplishments are nearly equal to his lesser-known gifts as an interior designer? ("The bathroom is like a seraglio in a Turkish palace imagined by the illustrator Edmund Dulac," noted Vogue of Malkovich's odd L.A. manse.)
What we do know about Malkovich is his tantalizing onscreen aura, at once menacing and kittenish, reptilian and effeminate--"so touching he's creepy," per Pauline Kael. No wonder the experience of being John Malkovich proves addictive in his latest movie. (As Cameron Diaz's frumpy character puts it after one close encounter: "I was John Fucking Malkovich.") Still, as much as Being John Malkovich nails our obvious obsession with celebrity, the film also pities the star for his fear of being pulled like a puppet on a string by his fans. The moral of both the movie and the junket: Being famous is a bitch.
"One day during the shoot," Malkovich recalls, "I was walking to the hardware store with my two young children, and a guy started yelling, 'Mr. Malkovich, Mr. Malkovich--can I talk to you? Can I talk to you?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Look, I don't want to bother you.' And I said, 'Yeah, but you're going to. So go ahead.' And he pitched me a script about Vlad the Impaler, in which the lead part was already taken by Ralph Fiennes, he said, but there were some good secondary roles. And I was trying to go to the hardware store."
At times like these, even John Malkovich would apparently prefer to be someone else.
Being John Malkovich starts Friday, October 29 at the Uptown Theatre.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.