(I always wanted to start a letter like this, but sadly my life has been decidedly Johnless lo these many years)
I was sent a youtube link the other day by a friend, one of those crudely edited highlight reels of NBA players that I like so much, and after an hour or so of soaking up all the 1990’s era NBA action I could stand, I found myself watching a highlight package of Michael Jordan’s infamous Washington Wizards comeback. He didn’t look spry. He huffed and puffed up the court, rarely taking it to the rack for fear of ending up in traction thanks to a then 29 year old Shaq. He simply wasn’t the MJ that inspired a myriad of clones (looking right at you, Kobe Bean) and captured the imaginations of millions worldwide. It was depressing, like watching a once-great prizefighter get battered around the ring by a cocky upstart hell bent on staking his claim as the new breed.
I can’t see you go out like this, John.
Let’s call this a career intervention.
You first came into my life in the John Hughes classic, Sixteen Candles. You were one of The Geeks. I enjoyed the performance but I never really bought you as a dork. Even with the limited screen time, there was clearly something funny and dark and interesting in there that needed to be mined further. Darkness during adolescence often gets mistaken for awkwardness, so perhaps that’s all it was and you were well on your way to being typecast, not unlike your fellow cast member, Anthony Michael Hall. Next up was a lead role in Better off Dead, a strange and wonderful film experience when you’re ten, which only served as a platform for your charming awkwardness.
Then came Say Anything… and with your portrayal of Lloyd Dobler, my teenage (and let’s face it, early adulthood) blueprint was created. The film came out when I was thirteen, and that was just the right age to appreciate Lloyd’s cynical yet romantic worldview. Lloyd was rebellious without seeming obnoxious, which is a trait that I have tried to perfect for most of my adult life, with mixed results.
This monologue quite literally changed my life:
I knew right then that I didn’t want to sell out and I wanted to devote my life to something (or someone) that I truly felt passionate about. Lloyd Dobler was my touchstone in this regard.
The Grifters saw you enter film adulthood. I was too young to appreciate the comically sinister nuances at the time, but it showcases your coming of age and still really holds up today.
If Dobler was my youthful template, surely Martin Blank was my early thirties equivalent. Grosse Pointe Blank was, is and shall ever be a truly brilliant film. Funny, intelligent without being pretentious, mysterious and just the right amount of romance to not tip it into yawn-inducing rom-com territory, GPB might be the film I have rewatched the most in my almost four decade film-viewing career.
I love this scene with Dan Ackroyd’s frustrated, burnt out hitman:
And of course, there is the scene where Martin acquiesces and attends his high school reunion and has a touching and memorable scene with a baby:
This scene, in conjunction with the fantastic song (Under Pressure by Queen feat. David Bowie) is, to my mind, one of the most profound and powerful scenes in modern cinematic history. It is the moment where, almost before our very eyes, Martin is thrust into adulthood proper, and to see life for what it really can be. The rest is details, and for the first time in a long time, Martin sees this with a clarity that was previously non-existent.
Being John Malkovich was nothing short of genius. I’ve read that you were feeling disillusioned with the Hollywood system and wanted your agent to get you the most out there screenplay he could find. Charlie Kaufman delivered the goods with his deliciously warped story of a failed puppeteer that inadvertently discovers a portal to film actor John Malkovich. Your turn as depressed failure Craig Schwartz was a revelation, and I particularly enjoyed this exchange with Catherine Keener’s overtly sexual Maxine:
At the dawn of the 21st Century, High Fidelity was released and another cinematic gem was added to your increasingly impressive canon. Rob Gordon was everything I wanted to be: cool, angry without being a total drag, dry and focused on books, music and movies. The important things. I’m pretty sure I even bought myself a Cosby sweater. And although Jack Black arguably stole the show with his breakout performance, you’d established yourself as a comedic force and an actor worth keeping an eye on.
My favorite scene from the film might very well be the first one:
“What came first – the music or the misery?” Who hasn’t, in unguarded moments, asked themselves this question?
My admittedly long-winded point? You, Mr. Cusack, made at least four of the most important films in my life. I know I’m not alone on this. You mattered. You were a voice that people could believe in, and you offered a fresh alternative to the dreck that the Hollywood machine churns out ad nauseum to a culture that craves dumbed-down bile while they chew their popcorn and try to ignore their lives.
I can’t see you go on like this, John. Must Love Dogs? Are you freaking kidding me? You’re better than that and you know it. Hot Tub Time Machine? Funny in parts, but you were slumming and it showed.
I don’t know what happened. Maybe you’ve made some good money and you’re perfectly content to continue earning a steady paycheck and not take any chances. Maybe you’re burnt out from playing the game and just want to enjoy your work. I can respect that. Sometimes the fight is too big and you have to throw in the towel. On your IMDB page you’re quoted as saying that you’ve made ten good films and you’re okay with that. It could be argued that many reputed actors don’t get close to making that many quality films.
Maybe this broke you:
To be fair, I wouldn’t blame you if this was the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial.
But I can’t let you off the hook that easily, John. You’re simply too talented for that. Bill Murray was able to make a career renaissance in the mid-nineties, thanks in part to Wes Anderson and his refreshingly quirky take on story as we knew it. I see no reason why you can’t do the same.
We need you, Mr. Cusack. They’re threatening multiple Avatar sequels for Christ’s sake. If there were an actor’s equivalent of a bat signal, I’d be firing up the jumbo sky torch right about now. Thinking People’s Cinema needs you.
You were once great, Mr. Cusack and I know you can be great again. I truly believe it. I have no other choice than to hope.