Film Studies: Bald, blank, brainy. It can only be John Malkovich

Something strange even for the movie business has been evident in the last few weeks. I refer to a movie known as Being John Malkovich. A friend asked me what I thought of it, and I pass on the opinion I gave him - that for 45 minutes or so it is stunningly original, and so funny you can't stop laughing. "I'd settle for 25 minutes of that," said my friend, in a shrewd comment on modern pictures.

No one has ever seen anything as blithely demented as this before, and that is what prompts the question - would it be as good and outrageous if it was Being Bruce Willis or Being Keanu Reeves? No way, I say, because this fanciful "being there" could hardly register without the lugubrious insouciance of Mr Malkovich himself, who has passed through the stages of "genius" and "great man" in a matter of a few days, and is now numbered among essential household appliances - like the water closet or a pop- up toaster.

I am obliged to make some sort of a description of it for you. This is not easy, or sensible, or likely to inspire your belief. When I said "original", it was a way of trying to suggest that no American film has ever been so surreal, or so beyond synopsis.

Nevertheless. John Cusack is an unsuccessful puppeteer. Cameron Diaz is his wife. He applies for a job to make ends meet, and is hired by a company that exists on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of a city building. As such, it is squeezed in between 7 and 8, with the result that ceilings are comically low. One day, Cusack discovers a hole in the wall behind a filing cabinet. Enter the hole and you slip helplessly down a greased tunnel before, with a pop and a roar, you land inside John Malkovich's head. That is how you come to "be" him, looking out at the world through his eye-holes.

USA Films, the company distributing the picture, has been sending out life-size masks of John Malkovich - bald dome, hanging jaw, pale skin, blank eyes. My five-year-old son put on the mask, and I can only try to convey to you the horror of this effect - that my dear boy had indeed become John Malkovich. For I had never previously had such an opportunity for seeing the ghoul, the ghost, the ineffably sinister thing it is to be John Malkovich.

Time now to say that Being John Malkovich not only stars Mr Malkovich, but could not have been made without his consent. And the film-makers - writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze - say he was always their one and only choice. As if, somehow, this conceit turns on the special look, manner and status that Malkovich has already obtained.

This is where it gets really interesting. Malkovich is 45, from Illinois, and a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Ensemble (which included Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and Glenne Headly, his first wife). He played the unruly brother in Sam Shepard's True West in the late 1970s, and he was Biff, the son, in the Dustin Hoffman production of Death of a Salesman. That set up a movie career, the highlights of which have been Places in the Heart, Empire of the Sun, Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, Port in The Sheltering Sky, Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the brilliant killer pursued by Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, Jekyll and Hyde in Mary Reilly, Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, and a very bad guy in ConAir.

This record has "proved" several things. Malkovich is not a Hollywood leading man - audiences find him, variously, chilly, unattractive, repulsive, or anathema. They will not go to see him, therefore, unless his presence is suitably exonerated by roles of larger-than-life infamy or villainy. To all of which, Mr Malkovich, a man of unusual ability, intelligence and strength of character, has responded with disdain and superiority, as if to say, what does the great, unwashed public think it is?

In our addled age of celebrity, this rebellion has great potential. For here is a case in which the public has registered its dislike of an actor, and the actor has turned around and snarled, "Not as much as I despise you!" Hence the novelty - sustained by Mr Malkovich nearly alone - that you can be loathed, feared and scorned while still being successful and ubiquitous.

It is my own guess that just as Mr Malkovich in his performances has become more insolent and dismissive of us, so he has begun to make himself inescapable. It goes without saying that this stealthy example is all we have in challenging the stupid stress this culture places on being likeable and good-looking.

So Being John Malkovich is more than half a dazzling comedy (I fear it runs out of steam), and more than jet fuel in the soaring arc of this particular actor. It offers the prospect that there could be an end to those monstrous falsehoods of Americana - "Hi, how are you?" "Have a good one!", the degradation of character, difficulty and prickliness, and that lying smile known as Clintonism. With just a hundred people like, or trying to be, John Malkovich, America could be an inhabitable republic again.

`Being John Malkovich' (15) is at the LFF (see below) Tue & Wed, and goes on general release next March

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?