Being 'Being John Malkovich'

If they made 'Being John Malkovich' today, who would it be instead of John Malkovich? Am I, or was I, supposed to know who that is, or was, or not?

Being 'Being John Malkovich'

Here’s what I know about John Malkovich: I really like him, as an actor. His name is familiar, though I perceive him in our modern day as someone super-famous. I watched Dangerous Liaisons recently and believe anyone who things he is unattractive/could not get it is sorely mistaken. Many (my boyfriend) characterize him as threatening because he TalX LiKE THHiSE WheNE hEE is UPPSeTTE, but I feel he is more threatening when he is doing his soft-spoken, moving-his-eyes-around-a-lot-but-blinking-very-little thing (he never blinks! Notice how he never blinks next time you watch him in anything. He is like a shark).

But what is his deal? I have not had a grip on this question ever since the release Being John Malkovich, which threw me into a David S. Pumpkins-style tailspin of "Am I, or was, I, supposed to know who that is, or was?" That has now lasted over 20 years. I believe it is my right as a citizen of America to understand whether I was supposed to know who John Malkovich was, or not, at the time that movie came out.

I like Malkovich, especially as I've gotten to know him better during this period of finding it increasingly intolerable to not understand the cultural context of Being John Malkovich. but I confess I'm not a completist. I believe this doesn't matter because one can have seen all of his movies (I haven’t), or you could see all of anyone’s movies from any time, and it wouldn’t give you even close to a good understanding of how famous they were at the time. If you want to understand their fame, watching their movies is not enough.

This does not super-matter for most celebrities. But when I was 12, Being John Malkovich came out. And it doesn’t mean a lot in our modern day to say you hear about something constantly. But I felt at that time, that, living in a suburb, being a child, without having particularly high-browed culturally-invested parents, I heard about this movie a LOT. I heard about it so much that weighed on even me, a mere babe, whether I was supposed to know who John Malkovich was. I don’t remember this specific interaction with my parents, but it would have been characteristic for it to go this way:

“Who is John Malkovich?”

“Oh, he’s an actor.”

“But like who is he?”

“He’s an actor. He was in Con Air.”

And that’s how I came to wonder, for 20+ years, whether I was supposed to know in 1999 who John Malkovich was or not. Finally, I asked.

I gave the prompt “If they made Being John Malkovich today, who would it be instead of John Malkovich?” for two reasons. One, I almost only understand examples, not theoretical stuff. But two, this seems like a super-bad question to try and answer empirically, because almost immediately I received all different qualitative answers to “how famous John Malkovich was at the time.”

One person said essentially that you were supposed to not recognize the name but see him and go “oh that guy.” Others said essentially the opposite, he was a household name, but you might not be able to say things he’s done off the top of your head. One person said he was a “well known established actor.” Many said they loved and were obsessed with him at the time the movie came out. None of you can agree.

Malkovich’s face was definitely out there; you can see here the poster for Con Air, which has mislabeled his face.

In the Line of Fire was also a big blockbuster. He’d been in Empire of the Sun, a Spielberg movie, though it was kind of a flop (never seen it but Newsies-heads will know it as “the movie Christian Bale was in before he was in Newsies.”) He had been nominated for a couple Oscars. But those were the heights of his fame, and he had done a lot of work other than that.

What further complicates trying to retroactively determine how famous he supposedly was pre-Being is that it seems like Being John Malkovich broke out more than was anticipated; it was supposed to be a fairly nichey thing and wasn’t meant to be understood by most people. Many pointed to the joke in the movie that Malkovich was an actor people had heard of but couldn’t name anything he was in. (Quote: ”I loved you in the jewel thief movie!” Malkovich has never been in any jewel thief movie.) I must point out that movies make these kinds of meta-”I don’t recognize you, who are you again” jokes also about incredibly famous people at the height of their fame, so this isn’t an infallible yardstick.

Hoping to ground the empirical question somewhere, I asked professional expert in celebrity public profiles, Lindsey Weber, who diagnoses celebrities as “whos” or “thems” with co-host Bobby Finger on the perfect podcast Who? Weekly. She directed me to the July 23, 2021 episode (43:59) where a reader asked whether John Malkovich was a “who” or a “them.”

in the episode, Finger and Weber deftly classified Malkovich as “character actor who” pre-Being, who, crucially would not be a “them” without Being. “The whole point of that movie is that he is a character actor no one knew,” said Finger, “that he was just this random guy, random character actor that was in everything.” However, Finger goes on to say he was “famous but not super famous”—this again!!!!—”and that movie made his name more famous and important.”

This does at least narrow things down for me, who is trying to excavate the world this movie was brought into like it is the Pyramids of Giza. Malkovich was not a MEGA famous celebrity type, nor was he toiling in the shadows. He was a specific type of medium to pretty famous, very Actor instead of Celebrity. Of course, many, many people barely finished reading the initial tweet in order to rush to my replies to tell me that distinction is nearly lost to us now in 2022.

I have several thoughts about this. One is that a lot of people attributed this lockstep of celebrity to social media. But I just don’t think it’s true that there are only actors who are sufficiently famous but not dead famous, who are also active on social media. Many aren’t; if you can’t call them up because they aren’t on social media, that’s a you/society problem, not a supply-of-actors problem. Asking about this on social media arguably does not help, but I didn't make the world.

Not unrelatedly, many others rushed to my replies to tell me you simply couldn’t make this movie today in the same way. I find this kind of argument so tedious that I barely stayed awake long enough to file this response:

However, I concede one thing, which is that it’s also hard to separate now in 2022 how much actor “knowability” is affected by being able to look up who did what at any given time, social media or not. How does that ecosystem alone change awareness  and general knowledge of an actor’s filmography? I leave this as an exercise to the reader.

Now—many also made a big deal of the fact that writer Charlie Kaufman only ever had Malkovich in that role, and did not give it much thought. Fight me about it if you choose to spend time this way, but no one makes a movie with the actors name in the title without the profile of the actor being some part of the consideration.

Even if it wasn’t part of the consideration, it would nonetheless have affected how the movie was perceived, no matter how dim-witted people might have been about marketing in 1999 compared to now; it meant something that it was Being John Malkovich and not Being Brad Pitt, even if Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze or whoever “didn’t care” about the difference.

I think you could also easily make the argument that artists like writers and directors had more implicit trust from their stakeholders in 1999 than they do now. Today’s Spike Jonze would have to make an airtight marketing case to some fucking assistant to the assistant #NetflixIsAJoke managing producer for today’s version of John Malkovich to be so featured in today’s version of Being John Malkovich; in 1999, the producers probably shrugged and said “if Spike Jonze intuitively wants John Malkovich, it should be John Malkovich.” The movie did get dropped from one studio when a studio head went “Why the fuck can’t it be Tom Cruise?” But it’s still fascinating to me that, in 1999, the marketing considerations of the whole title of the movie went no further than the binary of “Tom Cruise or John Malkovich.”

I do submit, though, that the content of the movie has basically no bearing on who the celebrity should be, except with respect to how they are positioned in real life. So we’re keeping that in mind going forward.

All that said, here are the criteria I gleaned from many of the replies about what made Malkovich Malkovich in 1999 relative to Being John Malkovich, roughly in order of importance:

-Almost exclusively plays villains, and crucially, not leads

-Multiple Oscar noms

-In a couple of big blockbusters, but not way more than that (a very open question is whether today’s Malkovich would have participated in the Marvel industrial complex or not; I vote no)

-Also enjoys playing against type; he hosted SNL a couple of times in his earlier days and did things like reading “Top ten things that sound creepy when they’re said by John Malkovich” on Letterman

-Easy-to-access unhinged affect (will get more into this below)

-Perhaps unfair reputation for pretentiousness

-45 years old or so

-name is fun and snappy to say

First, a clarification, somehow some people mistakenly read this question a different way than… the words that were there.

Some people convoluted it even further and tried to do “1999 equivalent of 1999 John Malkovich.”

I want to be clear that I’m not asking this question because I think someone should make another Being John Malkvovich now; that would be a silly overextension, and I only deal with serious questions. I’m only trying to understand what was going on in 1999. The answers in here deal only with the 2022 equivalent of 1999 John Malkovich. For this reason among many others, Nicholas Cage and his 2022 meta-movie about being Nicholas Cage, while very good, is not an appropriate answer at all; you are just naming another actor with a meta movie in 2022. Please take this as seriously as I am. Everyone who said “uhhh isn’t this already Nicholas Cage?? 🙄“ Should be in jail.

With that out of the way, here is the power-ranking of our current celebrities for 2022 Being John Malkovich potential.

Rating the potential Johns Malkovich

Honorable mentions but simply way too famous, leading role-y, etc. something about it is right though: Jake Gyllenhal, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margo Martindale. Rami Malek

Stanley Tucci

Many said this. Maybe he has some villain roles out there I don’t know about, but Tucci is a big cuddly bear, cf. Julie and Julia, Devil Wears Prada, his show about “Finding Italy” (Stanley Tucci, it’s right there!!) You all are crazy for this one. 0.5/10 Malkoviches just for an absurd number of popular votes, but I award him no points as a qualitative match.

John Turturro

My boyfriend first suggested this, so favoritism road cones. While I don’t think Turturro would be in even the top 100 of movie villains I can think of off the top of my head and he is way out of range age-wise, there is something about a Being John Turturro that would just work. He has that quality where you just can’t quite tell what’s going on in his head; he could do all the genial late-night appearances in the world and you would never feel like you knew him. 1/10 Malkoviches.

Donald Glover

I love Donald Glover so much. The strongest case in his favor is (kinda unfortunately, to me) that he has really skyrocketed in the pretension ranks. Because of his humor background, his funny side feels too easy-access to play off of his seriousness, still. I think he also skews too clearly “creative mastermind,” vs. Malkovich’s pretty well-defined actor niche. He’s too young, also. 2/10 Malkoviches.

(tie) Michael Stuhlbarg/Paul Dano/Paul Giamatti

Strong entries here; general villain type, strong artsy reputations, kinda-unattractive (or strangely alluring, depending on who you ask when) dudes given to fits of spitting rage in their roles.

The reason that the Stuhlbargs/Dano/Giamatti types don’t sit right with me is that, while Malkovich is also soft spoken, he has that Billy Bob Thornton/Jack Nicholson undercurrent of “capacity to become a black hole of unhinged.” Stuhlbarg and Dano and Giamatti get spitting mad, but I’m not actually really afraid of them in the same way. (Stuhlbarg mayyybe a little.) None of them are really pretentious. (Dano maybe a little.) 3/10 Malkoviches for all, with maybe an additional half-Malkovich for Dano.

Mads Mikkelsen

Mads doesn’t get cast enough as a villain for this to be a real and true fit, I imagine Casino Royale just looms large in people’s minds. In actuality, he is pretty cuddly (see Another Round! See Another Round I’m begging you!!), and it’s hard for me to think of an actor who scans as less pretentious. However, he was very good in Casino Royale. Undeniably artsy (see Another Round!!!). Correct age. 5/10 Malkoviches.

Javier Bardem

On his face, to me, too cuddly, too obviously a sex symbol. However, Bardem is without question in my top ten unforgettably scary movie villains (Anton Chigurh). He is in the vein of Mads, but more so, in terms of “that one villain role.” He has that Turturro quality of “no amount of genial press appearances would make me feel like I Understand his Deal.” He’s artsy. 6/10 Malkoviches.

Tilda Swinton

A loooot of people said Tilda Swinton, especially people who felt very strongly that a 2022 Being John Malkovich could only feature a woman. I sort of agree. She has a distinctive look and delivery; she plays cold; she plays villain. I think of her role in Snowpiercer.

However, Tilda is a little old and far along in her career at this point, I would say; she would have been a perfect answer like ten-ish years ago, immediately post-Michael Clayton (for which she won Best Supporting Actress, but I’ll allow it because she hasn’t been nommed for anything since). For those reasons, she is downranked, but I do see it. 7/10 Malkoviches.

Peter Saarsgard

Peter Saarsgard has that undeniable unhingedness flavor and highly-specific-to-him Cold delivery, which, while not primary elements, make me go Ooh. Maybe. I don’t even know of a villain role for him and still the fit feels strong. For me personally, he perfectly fills the niche of, I recognize the name, can’t recall the face, but if I see a picture of him can instantly name something he was in (for me, the friend in Garden State, and that movie with Carey Mulligan). If that was meant to be exactly the relationship I should have had with John Malkovich, then Peter Saarsgard is perfect.

While I admit there are a lot of not-perfect things about Peter, I will say that we should have more answers like him in here, in terms of “public profile that isn’t begging for attention constantly.” If this list has a problem, it’s that most of these people are too famous, and the fact that lot of the the answers clearly leapt to people’s minds because they are famous should obviate them. Saarsgard as an answer, on the other hand, reflects thinking outside the media-coverage echo chamber. Therefore I award special accolades to anyone who suggested it. 8.5/10 Malkoviches.

Michael Shannon

This was the first answer anyone ever gave to this question, and honestly, it’s hard to argue with. Shannon is very typecast as a villain, but also plays against that; not a leading man; Oscar-nominated but hasn’t won; right age (48); artsy bent. I don’t think he scans quite as pretentious as Malkovich did then, but the fit is so good in so many other ways it’s really hard to deny it. The only argument against him is that he is too famous, and I would say he does not quite give the right amount of “doesn’t want to be famous, only wants to Act” energy. He’s been in sooo many movies with the Big Boys, including two Superman movies. However, I think he is the strongest “pure energy” case out there. 9/10 Malkoviches.

Chloe Sevigny

People either love Michael Shannon or don’t know who he is. But I detect that many people felt Malkovich was pretentious, and thus found him annoying. Chloe Sevigny absolutely wins on that type of divisiveness, in a way that Michael Shannon does not. She wins on “niche actress who favors independent movies but has had some big roles,” pervasive industry fascination, and a capacity for threatening coldness (I can't even find a good clip of her playing the mom in in season 1 Russian Doll, though that's what I mean). Obvious artiste energy, a self-seriousness that she is also willing to play against. Age isn’t everything, but she also is the precise right age (47).

Honestly, I’m not a Chloe Sevigny stan. She has that thing of somehow feeling overrated even as she is also really not that out there. However, if you know Actors, you probably love her, and if you like Marvel movies, you have no idea who she is (one person responded immediately to that effect). I grudgingly respect and like her the more things I see her in especially lately. If all that was meant to be my relationship with John Malkovich, then she is doing that perfectly. I could just see a Being Chloe Sevigny movie; it feels right in that Peter Saarsgard or Turturro/Bardem way. 9.5/10 Malkoviches.

There are almost certainly more and better Malkovich analogues out there. These are personal reactions. I’m not a movie expert nor a Malkovich expert. However, I am a fairly normal person who was once upon a time swept up in the tidal force of Being John Malkovich, and have longed all my life to make sense of it.

I feel like I get it now. But I also get that it seems like the point was to never get it, that there was neither much to get, nor that the idea was to generate a specific reaction. There was not any one way people thought of John Malkovich; other than the fact that everyone agrees he was not mega-famous, there is not a really strong consensus about him. To answer the all-caps question I have been stomping around the house yelling (”AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THIS IS OR NOT?”)—no, you are not. But if you do, that makes it probably more interesting.

What trips me up most, and only more as time goes on, is that today in 2022 this element of a movie’s marketing—the selection of the celebrity, their feature spot in the title—would be finely and precisely honed, so filled with Point, that there would be orchestrated SEO article upon SEO article explaining to us exactly what our reaction was supposed to be to the title and the celebrity in it, what their professional and personal history was and how it led, beat by predictable beat, to where they are now. In the sense that “we wouldn’t make this movie now,” you wouldn’t put a celebrity name in the title of a movie without field-testing and polling it to death. I think what has been lost to us more than anything, what I have certainly forgotten, is that it did not used to be that way. In 1999, artists picked what they picked, and people thought what they thought, and the universe unfolded.