One of the most interesting aspects of the marketing for this weekend’s big blockbuster movie, Independence Day: Resurgence has to be who the star of this sequel seems to have become. Without Will Smith’s return (Roland Emmerich choose to kill him off rather than explain his absence), the movie choose not to truly hand the reigns over to the junior team starring Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, and Jessie Usher. Rather, he’s pushed Jeff Goldblum front and center. And considering his scene stealing behavior from the first, it makes perfect sense for this movie. After all, you can never get too much Goldblum right?
Well, that ideology might not be completely true. I’m the first person to agree that Goldblum is one of the most enjoyable actors to simply watch on-screen in terms of pure entertainment. The guy makes a bigger impression with his left foot than a lot of actors have in their entire body (including some of his costars in this movie). But this movie is an example of capitalizing on that charisma, rather than utilizing it and giving him something memorable to play. Because no matter how hard Goldblum tries, he can’t carry the weight of an entire movie on charisma alone.
But a movie like this, and the fact that Goldblum is essentially the “lead” has been fascinating to observe. It is the rare example of an actor who can still be described as having a movie star quality…but has never had a movie star career. If you like the Jeff Goldblum persona (most people do), hearing he’s in a movie you almost immediately have a sense of the type of guy he’s going to play. And he’s brought that certain quality to the screen since he started in Hollywood.
If you look at some of his earliest bit parts in films such as California Slip, Nashville, or Annie Hall, that specific Goldblum quality was already coming through in his brief performances. He had barely anything to do with his all too brief roles and still showed something far more than the limited lines he had would suggest existed in the character. Even if audiences didn’t know him, he got a laugh with less than a minute of screen time in Annie Hall; not only for his funny line “I forgot my mantra,” but for that already distinct style of speech which could make plenty of lines seem funnier than they were. And the reason Goldblum rose to prominence was arguably because he had a quality completely unlike most of the actors on the rise in 1977. While most of his characters would be described as interesting but ordinary, with a sense of naturalism…Goldblum wasn’t really natural on-screen. He had a neurotic swagger, distinct voice and way of speaking, and memorable look…all things which would suggest he had to be on-screen to do more than his bit parts suggested.
So he began to get bigger roles. First in supporting films like Between the Lines and Remember My Name (quintessential examples of 70’s indie Hollywood). The roles were small, but gave him a few scenes to showcase not only his talent but scene stealing ways. There was also the all to kitschy Thank God It’s Friday (a movie better known for it’s soundtrack than the movie). But it wasn’t until TV came calling that Goldblum’s persona emerged in full bloom. As the lead in Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, a completely silly detective series, all that charm and charisma he had to tamp down in small roles he used to literally carry ridiculous plots every week…and he did it effortlessly.
After that brief time on the tube, he couldn’t just put that urbane charisma away…so he brought it out completely in The Big Chill (a role I always considered almost a sequel to his part in Between the Lines), The Right Stuff, Into the Night, and Silverado (some not as good as others, but all benefiting from that certain Goldblum quality he brought to each of his characters). All build up to actual leading roles for movies that had him headline like The Fly, Earth Girls are Easy, The Tall Guy…although all but The Fly would be considered great movies deserving of the amount of effort and commitment he brought to the work.
Because of those misses when he tried to take the lead, he was usually best as the supporting actor allowed to steal scenes from the more conventional leads. Audiences seemed to love to “discover Goldblum,” case in point, his brilliant contributions to Jurassic Park and Independence Day. In those blockbuster films, which some considered paycheck jobs, he never treats his characters any differently than when in more serious films. And because these plot/action driven movies were so dependent on Goldblum to bring more to the character, he was allowed to cultivated his own unique Hollywood personality; that quintessential Jeff Goldblum persona.
Goldblum’s persona is one part William Powell, one part science geek…a more charming than smarmy kind of Tony Stark. And that is a pretty potent combo when used to good effect. His best performances may often show his eloquence and bigger than your average brain intellect, but he’s never trying to be showy…even when he’s stealing the show. This version of a movie star, a man who is post John McClaine but pre Nerdist revolution, made him stand out and connect with audiences in a special way.
But as Goldblum’s contributions became better known, the personality of Goldblum started to dominate and that terrible Hollywood thing known as “typecasting” has become his biggest problem. The laziness from both Goldblum and the writers of a movie like The Lost World shows a clear example of how easy it is to become too aware of your own onscreen personality. At most Goldblum seems to be playing the public version of Goldblum, the personality audiences started to see in the press and on talk shows, rather than Goldblum’s character of Malcolm. At other times, it’s hard to even know for certain if he’s playing himself or a character …as with Mortdecai and Le Weekend, both movies I initially assumed had cast him to play Jeff Goldblum.
The problem of Goldblum after the public discovered just how great he can be in movies like Jurassic Park and Independence Day, is, the pleasure of watching Goldblum outweigh the pleasure of watching a rather brilliant and underrated actor create his characters. The pure delight in watching an effortlessly charismatic and boldly self-aware oddball like Jeff Goldblum is just that…a joy to watch. But Goldblum was considered a brilliant actor when he first burst onto the Hollywood scene, a talent we’re now losing to typecasting and easy paycheck jobs that aren’t worthy of his talents.
One of the biggest problems with this new Independence Day is that the original character was right on the dividing line between Goldblum creating a character actor with a lot of personality, and Goldblum the public personality. But he’s now so completely aware of his own personality, and he plays on it far too often to create this bland clone of his original character. And even worse, the writers have no idea how to write for him. Goldblum’s line readings of sarcastic witticism would be great if he were a guest on a talk show, but when he’s making comments in the same tone about the complete destruction of a continent, it is untrue to his once memorable character. He once played him as someone oblivious about personal interactions, but he’s now just a charismatic but cruel main character. And his tricks as an actor seem less and less cool as they become predictable, and more of a defensive crutch for an actor cashing a paycheck in a movie not worthy of his talent or intellect.
But Goldblum has been typecast and getting out of that hole can be hard to overcome…especially when that typecasting seems to have been based on his public image as much as the roles he plays. But there are examples of using his typecasting to still get excellent performances from him. Goldblum often stands out in movies that have a style different from his own signature. In Fay Grim, there’s a weirdness to seeing him opposite Parker Posey in a Hal Hartley film, because the two styles clash…but that’s also kind of the point considering he’s playing the invading character; the secret agent using and tricking our heroine.
Other filmmakers are seeing the undeniable appeal of Goldblum and building work around his unique qualities as an actor, performer, and personality. Portlandia is a series which has embraced the cult of Goldblum and relishes the opportunity to use him in a variety of episodes. Wes Anderson has managed to find brilliant ways to cast him in films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Grand Budapest Hotel. And he not only uses Goldblum’s Hollywood persona as a blueprint to create characters that will fit within the Anderson world, but also gives him roles which allow him to do that scene stealing thing he does so well.