Why John Malkovich? is a valid question to ask while examining his performance as a parody of himself in "Being John Malkovich." Why not "Being Alan Rickman" or "Being Kurt Russell," for example? In response, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman claimed that Malkovich's "quality of unknowability" prevented him from having any other actor in mind when he created the script (via Rolling Stone).
The fundamental draw of John Malkovich as a Hollywood actor is his instantly identifiable face, which is also as enigmatic as the enormous stone faces of Easter Island. He is mysterious since no one else is even close to being like him. Despite having hair when he first started out, he is better recognised for his spectacular bald dome, which suggests a mercurial mind. The interrogative, simian brow, the beady yet perceptive eyes, the sunken cheekbones, the protruding upper lip and teeth, and the tapering chin—which more recently has frequently sprouted a professor-like beard—come next. These features are beneath the surface.
Malkovich has a fantastic head that matches his demeanour and mannerisms. His body language conveys the icy arrogance of someone who believes they are by far the brightest and most significant person in the room, and his voice, which veers from dry monotone to spitting wrath, invites all the S's: sly, sneering, sibilant, sinister, supercilious, superior, and disdainful.
In other words, despite his extensive body of work, he is arguably best recognised for his villainous characters. I'll even venture a guess that as you read this, you're envisioning him holding a pistol to the head of a cuddly toy. He was born to play criminal masterminds and Machiavellian schemers. Despite his popularity here, Malkovich didn't choose this as his field of work by purpose.
A rogue's gallery of British actors dominated screen villainy from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, with Alan Rickman's stunning performance as Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" serving as the catalyst. In several high-profile action movies, Gary Oldman chewed the scenery, while in "Executive Decision," David Suchet played an Islamic terrorist. In "The Silence of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins received an Oscar for playing Hannibal Lecter, while Ben Kingsley played a violent nutcase in "Sexy Beast," playing gloriously against type.
John Malkovich was one of the few American performers who really distinguished out in similar roles during this age dominated by British thesps, and like his colleagues from across the Atlantic, he began his career in the theatre. He transitioned from theatre to screen in rather undemanding roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in "Places in the Heart," "The Killing Fields," and "Empire of the Sun," where he assumed the role of a young Christian Bale's substitute father.
Then came the part in Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons" where Malkovich played the reptilian seducer Valmont, which sent him on the path to villainy and made him a true star. He may have appeared to be an unlikely choice for the role as a highly unorthodox leading man, yet he controlled the movie with his captivating charm and dark sexuality. He started an affair with co-star Michelle Pfieffer and destroyed his marriage to Glenn Headley, reflecting the same turn in real life.
Malkovich is undoubtedly a very diligent actor, having racked up more than 80 cinematic credits. Throughout that enormous body of work, he has played a wide range of characters, but it is his villains who have really remained in the public's imagination.
John Malkovich had a significant impact throughout the 1990s by portraying incredibly cunning villains thanks to the success of his sly performance in "Dangerous Liaisons," which established him as an actor capable of embodying devious characters. He also played the stupid Lennie in "Of Mice and Men," for example, but it was the villains that truly stood out. Compared to his other roles, they were scarce to the point of nearly being outliers.
First, for his role as Mitch Leary in Wolfgang Petersen's tense political thriller "In the Line of Fire," Malkovich received his second Oscar nomination. Even though he only had a little amount of screen time, he left a lasting impact as the methodical would-be assassin hellbent on killing the President while teasing Clint Eastwood's aged Secret Service agent. It was a tensely controlled performance that offered the unusual impression that the villain really may win this time.
After that, he took on a less well-known role as a well-known literary and film monster in "Mary Reilly," reuniting with "Dangerous Liaisons" director Stephen Frears to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He provided a hammy but amusing dual performance, but Julia Roberts, who was severely miscast as the titular maid and used one of the worst Irish accents ever attempted on screen, destroyed the movie.
Then came the big one—Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom in Simon West's brilliantly entertaining "Con Air," the film that may forever link Malkovich with antagonistic performances. He felt like a genuinely frightening antagonist for Nic Cage's remorseful criminal, giving Nic Cage's character an air of calm calculating and intense menace among a chimpanzee's tea party of cartoonish crooks.
John Malkovich hasn't played many significant villain roles in the more than 20 years since the prison plane from "Con Air" crashed on the Las Vegas Strip, but the ones he has taken are undoubtedly designed to capitalise on his bad guy quotient. The most notable was portraying an older version of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley in "Ripley's Game," while in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," spooky special effects added to his eerie screen presence. He also provided a villainous octopus with his distinctive voice in "Penguins of Madagascar" just for fun. Malkovich is pretty forthright about his career's move toward villainy (via NME):
"Just the ones I was offered, that is. I was a little taken aback when I was even given the job of "Liaisons" at all. Why would I accept the Clint Eastwood job in "In the Line of Fire" if I wasn't offered it? To be completely honest, I don't really think of any of them as villains in the traditional sense; rather, I see them as case studies of promise or skill gone wrong."
Malkovich, who is almost 70 years old, is still going strong. He has a number of future movies, one of which is obviously relevant to the subject. He portrays a jailed serial killer in "Mindcage" who counsels two investigators looking for a copycat killer. It will be interesting to see if Malkovich can out-Lecter Hannibal Lecter given that the premise sounds quite familiar. Although I wouldn't bet on it duplicating "The Silence of the Lambs" with Martin Lawrence and Melissa Roxburgh playing the detectives, given Malkovich's penchant for gloomy characters, it ought to be worth a ticket and a bucket of popcorn.