Celebrating John Malkovich

The cerebral thespian pulled no punches in Jerusalem event.

John Malkovich 88 224 (photo credit: Vera Etzion)
John Malkovich 88 224
(photo credit: Vera Etzion)
When John Malkovich, in Israel last week to accept an achievement award at the 25th Jerusalem Film Festival, entered an auditorium at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, he was met by a room full of people wearing masks, all of which were of his face. His reaction? Complete nonchalance. After all, he had seen it before in the film that had just been screened, the off-beat comedy, Being John Malkovich, in which a worker in a bizarre office discovers a portal into Malkovich's brain behind a filing cabinet. Malkovich plays a version of himself, and in one scene is transported to a universe in which every face is his. Surveying the audience and its masks, he acknowledged it as a "kind of Dante-esque scene," saying he probably "had witnessed this before" at some other festival but couldn't remember where or when. The soft-spoken actor, whose intensity and strangely distinctive look and voice have been used so often to play the most malevolent villains, has appeared in more than 70 films since he left the renowned Chicago theater company he helped found, Steppenwolf. In addition to his mesmerizing performance in Being John Malkovich, his best-known roles include the seductive aristocrat in Dangerous Liaisons; the psycho-killer trying to outwit Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire; Lennie in Of Mice and Men; an evil fortune hunter in Portrait of a Lady; a charming serial killer in Ripley's Game; and Dustin Hoffman's son in the television version of Death of a Salesman. As he addressed the audience at the Being John Malkovich screening, as well as at an SRO event the next day attended mainly by actors from Tel Aviv (the prospect of which Malkovich called "a vision of hell"), he spoke with courtesy and patience, even when answering questions he had undoubtedly been asked dozens of times before. He also offered fascinating glimpses into what it is really like to be John Malkovich, particularly in how he decides to portray characters and the many influences that inform and enrich his work. Asked what he made of the weird film that is Being John Malkovich, the cerebral actor said the filmmakers had "taken a Jewish vaudeville and made it into a Bergman film, but it already was a Bergman film," a more apt summary of the movie than any critic has offered. He also described working with the young hotshot director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to make the final cut work. The film "means something to me. But it doesn't belong to me. I think what it's about is that what you think is yours, isn't. It's a great life lesson, albeit a very bitter one." Jonze said so little when they first met that, "I thought he was Czech. He seems like a surfer dude, but he's very steely. So is Charlie [Kaufman]. They know what they want and how to play that [Hollywood] system for chumps." WHEN CREATING the character of Valmont, the aristocrat who seduces and discards a virtuous married woman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) in order to win a bet, he said he was inspired by a Bruce Springsteen song, "Highway 29." "Actually, I [Valmont] do feel something [for Pfeiffer's character] and what it is is more important than the damage it will do to the image I've created," Valmont said, but in the end, this character "does not have the courage to redeem himself." Playing a con man who impersonates director Stanley Kubrick in Color Me Kubrick, which was based on a true story, Malkovich did not concern himself with what the real character sounded like. In the end, the voice he went with was that of a "Yiddish North Korean who'd spent most of his life in Texas and was having something unfortunate done to him with a telephone pole," then switched to "Nina Simone somewhere in Copenhagen, having spent the last seven years in South Africa." Although he said, "I cannot bear the sound of my voice," Malkovich proved himself to be a gifted mimic, imitating Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman and, funniest of all, his mother, who was such a tough customer she was utterly unimpressed with the prospect of meeting Hoffman. Describing his brother, who would wake him daily with a beating, and his father, "a man of few words, the 82nd Airborne, etc." who complained that the body count in an Eastwood film was too low, Malkovich said, perhaps half-joking, perhaps not, "I grew up with a lot of anger." He also pulled no punches when talking about the actor vs. directing question. "I don't like it when my director is acting and I don't like it when my actor is directing me," he said, speaking of his work with Gary Sinise on Of Mice and Men. Malkovich has directed one full-length film, The Dancer Upstairs (2002), in which he did not appear. The film, which is about the search for a terrorist leader of a group similar to the Shining Path in Peru, starred Javier Bardem. As Malkovich discussed it, he showed that he did not march in lock-step with liberal Hollywood. "The subject interested me because it's about the about the political violence that has ruined this last half century." He intended the film as a response to movies that portray the Left as "riding in on a white horse." Said Malkovich, "In movies these days, the bad guy is usually a bad CIA agent or a bad big businessman... It's rarely a bad ideologue or a bad philosophy professor... I wanted to see how real I could make it without cheap shots." Asked how he felt about the fact that his work had never been rewarded with an Oscar (although he has been nominated twice), he said, "I personally feel over-rewarded and over-blessed," particularly when he thinks of all the gifted actors he has known who "never got the right thing to do at the right time, or got the right thing but it was with a cretinous director or it was mangled in some way." Malkovich says he simply loves what he does: "The biggest blessing I ever had is that I'm still so interested in the work." At the closing ceremony, after a montage of his film clips was screened, he mentioned that Jerusalem Festival founding director Lia van Leer had been asking him for many years to come to the festival, but, "apparently I'm always working."