For much of the 1980s, John Cusack was one of Hollywood’s most dependable go-to guys for affable leads in teen romantic comedies — typecasting that led to some great films (Better Off Dead, Say Anything…) as well as some rather forgettable efforts (Hot Pursuit, One Crazy Summer). But beneath that guy-next-door exterior lurked the heart of a thespian, and over the last 20 years, Cusack has assembled one of the more eclectic filmographies in the biz, starring in action flicks (Con Air), quirky dramas (Being John Malkovich), and even dabbling in horror (1408). With his starring turn in Roland Emmerich’s latest big-budget disaster epic, 2012, arriving in theaters this weekend, could there be a better time to give Mr. Cusack’s collected works the Total Recall treatment?
Remember in junior high and high school, when getting dumped felt like the end of the world? So does Savage Steve Holland, and in 1985, he took those memories, mixed in some dark, absurd comedy, and came up with one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, Better Off Dead. Starring as ski team second-stringer Lane Meyer, Cusack lent a crucial element of soulful deadpan humor to a movie that would have come apart at the seams without it. Think about it: would you have laughed as hard at Curtis Armstrong’s bug-eyed attempts to get high, or the Cosell-imitating, drag-racing Korean brother, or that psycho paperboy without Cusack’s quiet desperation keeping it (at least slightly) real? Audiences didn’t know what to do with Dead when it was released, but over time, it’s developed a following so huge that Film Threat’s Brad Laidman echoed the thoughts of most film lovers when he wrote, “I’ve rarely met anyone who didn’t secretly love it passionately.”
Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH) has never been afraid to take children’s animation into dark and rather esoteric places, and 1997’s Anastasia — which uses the massacre of Czar Nicholas II and his family as a launching point for the fantastical adventures of the titular Russian princess — certainly fits the description. Somewhat ironically, it’s also Bluth’s highest-grossing film, due in part to the involvement of an A-list voice cast that included Meg Ryan, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, and Cusack as the scrappy St. Petersburg con man who falls for Anastasia. Fox’s last, best hope for success in animation, Anastasia did well enough to inspire a direct-to-video spinoff (1999’s Bartok the Magnificent) and earned the respect of critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “Any film that echoes the landscape of Doctor Zhivago is hard to dislike for too long.”
Cusack is a lifelong fan of both Chicago baseball squads, and that — along with his 6’2″ frame and natural affinity for the sport — made him an obvious choice for the cast when John Sayles set about filming 1988’s Eight Men Out, an account of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal that tainted the Chicago squad accused of taking a dive in the 1919 World Series. Sayles cast Cusack as George “Buck” Weaver, the team’s third baseman, who refused to join his teammates in the fix and essentially serves as the film’s overall narrator and conscience; it was the first truly adult role in a career that had consisted largely of teen comedies, and although it was ultimately a commercial failure, it earned the approval of critics like the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who cheered, “For Mr. Sayles, whose idealism has never been more affecting or apparent than it is in this story of boyish enthusiam gone bad in an all too grown-up world, Eight Men Out represents a home run.”
After scoring relatively minor roles in Class, Sixteen Candles, and Grandview, U.S.A., Cusack landed his leading man debut in The Sure Thing, Rob Reiner’s directorial follow-up to This Is Spinal Tap. Of course, anyone expecting razor-sharp improv comedy was quickly let down by this rather run of the mill teen romantic comedy, but with Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in the lead — and Nicollette Sheridan in a bikini, not to mention a supporting cast that included Tim Robbins and Anthony Edwards — The Sure Thing earned a modestly tidy sum at the box office, as well as some surprisingly charitable reviews from critics like Laura Bushell of Channel 4 Film, who wrote, “A sweet film with many laugh-out-loud moments, this is what teen comedies were like before apple pies entered the equation.”
After getting the chance to act with Paul Newman in 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy, Cusack continued his hot streak with The Grifters, the Stephen Frears-directed, Donald E. Westlake-scripted, Martin Scorsese-produced adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel. Aside from the film’s lofty behind-the-scenes pedigree, The Grifters also afforded Cusack the opportunity to work with Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening, as well as dirty up his clean-cut Everyman image by playing a small-time con artist caught between his equally larcenous mother (Huston) and girlfriend (Bening). While the movie failed to find a large audience during its theatrical run, it did earn four Academy Award nominations and reams of positive reviews from critics — including Roger Ebert, who praised The Grifters as “a movie of plot, not episode. It’s not just a series of things that happen to the characters, but a web, a maze of consequences.”
He had to settle for third billing behind Meredith Salenger and a wolf, but Cusack’s appearance as the fedora-sporting Harry in The Journey of Natty Gann did two things: One, it gave an early indicator of Cusack’s dramatic chops, and two, it forever cemented the young actor as a sensitive soul in the fluttering pre-teen hearts of an entire generation of Disney-loving girls. (In other words, Say Anything… may have spiked the ball, but Natty Gann set it up beautifully.) Unfortunately, the movie didn’t do Salenger’s career any real favors — four years later, she had to wear striped Spandex and kiss Corey Feldman in Dream a Little Dream — but it earned the admiration of critics like the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, who beamed, “It’s nice to see a Disney film that follows the rules of the family-film genre as Walt laid them down,” and helped Salenger’s canine co-star snag the lead role (as well as upstage future novelist Ethan Hawke) in 1991’s White Fang.
They’ve always been popular, but book-to-film adaptations are always an iffy proposition, too; no matter how successful they might be with movie audiences, film versions of beloved books often can’t help but suffer in comparison to their invariably more fleshed-out counterparts. Still, every once in awhile, an adaptation works so well that almost no one complains about the changes that were made — and 2000’s High Fidelity, which reunited Cusack with Grifters director Stephen Frears in an adaptation of the Nick Hornby book, is a perfect example. Main character Rob Gordon, a music-obsessed sensitive soul with a checkered romantic past, jibed perfectly with Cusack’s most popular screen persona; the cast surrounded him with beautiful faces (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet) and scene-stealing supporting players (Jack Black, Tim Robbins); and the script — for which Cusack earned a co-writing credit — distilled the book’s yearning spirit even as it transplanted the story from London to Chicago. During a period that found Cusack wandering between misbegotten big-budget projects like Pushing Tin and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Fidelity reminded audiences of his enduring appeal. As Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid wrote, “When you see John Cusack being cool in a movie, you want to be him. And even though that’s an adolescent’s game, I haven’t stopped playing it.”
Cusack’s early filmography was dotted with daring and unusual choices (Tapeheads, anyone?), but none of them were as all-out strange as 1999’s Being John Malkovich, which stars Cusack as an unkempt puppeteer who discovers a way to inhabit John Malkovich’s body for 15-minute intervals. Featuring decidedly non-glamorous performances from Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, as well as self-deprecating appearances by Malkovich and Charlie Sheen as themselves, the Spike Jonze-directed, Charlie Kaufman-scripted Malkovich used its attention-getting premise to touch on resonant themes of loneliness, personal acceptance, and gender identity, functioning as both a thoughtful drama and a heady roller coaster ride through the most unconventional impulses of mainstream modern American film. In the words of Rich Cline of Shadows on the Wall, it’s “A hilarious and beguiling comedy-adventure-mystery-romance hybrid. And it’s not just the jaw-dropping oddity of the thing that makes it work; the film has a wonderfully involving — and even moving — storyline.”
Cusack’s first collaboration with Woody Allen, 1992’s Shadows and Fog, wasn’t one of Allen’s better-reviewed efforts, but the second time for the pair was the charm: 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, at a robust 96 percent on the Tomatometer, represents a career peak for both men. Cusack stars as David Shayne, a naïve 1920s playwright whose efforts to get his show off the ground lead him into an ill-advised association with a mobster (Chazz Palminteri) and his ditsy would-be starlet girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly). Bullets wasn’t a big hit, but between the Allen/Douglas McGrath script and a sharp supporting cast that included Dianne Wiest, Jack Warden, and Mary-Louise Parker, it gave Cusack a chance to shine with some truly top-shelf talent. In the words of Nick Davis of Nick’s Flick Picks, “You can watch Bullets Over Broadway with the sound off and have a thrilling time. You can listen to it from the next room and achieve total bliss.”
If John Cusack had never made another decent film after 1989, he’d still boast a heckuva body of work — and it would still be crowned by this Cameron Crowe gem. The acme of teen romance movies from the 1980s (or arguably any other decade), Say Anything… gave Cusack the role of a lifetime in Lloyd Dobler, the trenchcoat-favoring kickboxing fan whose youth belies the kind of depth and self-awareness that it takes to pursue the wealthy, gorgeous class valedictorian (Ione Skye) despite the naked disbelief of his friends and frank disapproval of her father (John Mahoney). Boasting a stellar Crowe script and performances to match from its enormously appealing young leads, Anything… was initially more of a critical than commercial hit, but its huge heart and bevy of iconic moments — including, of course, the famous boom box scene — have helped it build the kind of cult audience that leads to 20th-anniversary retrospectives in the Los Angeles Times and a fancy new Blu-ray transfer, whose recent release was marked by a crowd of Dobler look-alikes crowding the streets of New York City. As Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal wrote, “You know that feeling when you’re watching a movie for the first time, and it grabs you right away and it gets better and better until the very end? This is one of these very special films.”
Finally, here’s Cusack discussing his legendary performance in American Beauty: