Some actors are chameleons. With each performance, they transform themselves almost unrecognisably, whether it’s Christian Bale’s haunted, emaciated factory worker in The Machinist, Charlize Theron’s haggard serial killer in Monster, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s sinewy boxer in the forthcoming Southpaw.
Then there’s Jeff Goldblum, whose approach to acting is very different – but no less valid – than those chameleons. In each of his roles, he brings charisma, intrigue and restless energy. He’s a fascinating actor to watch because, whether he’s playing the lead or a supporting role, he somehow manages to project so many opposing forces in one performance: he’s at once an extrovert and an outsider. Geeky and awkward yet also flirtatious and comfortable in his own skin. Intellectual yet sometimes naive. Gentle but also commanding and sometimes even scary.
There are certain tics we’ve come to expect from a Goldblum performance: the staccato speech patterns, the words often coming out in a free-form torrent; the wide, darting eyes, the gesticulating hands. But Goldblum’s brilliance of an actor shouldn’t be underestimated; he’s appeared in comedies, thrillers, drama and horror, and brought something vital to each role.
Most of all, he’s made a lasting and important contribution to sci-fi cinema, lighting up the screen in a string of genre films from the late 70s to the present. Sci-fi’s often thought of as a genre more concerned with ideas and special effects than performance, but Goldblum’s turns have played a key role in each of them, from the intimate horror of The Fly to expensive blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Here’s a look at each of them in turn.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
Don Siegel’s ’50s classic was given a offbeat update by director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter WD Richter in 1978, with a wonderfully leftfield cast to match. Relocating the small-town invasion of the first film to San Francisco, it introduces a bickering, neurotic ensemble: Donald Sutherland’s health inspector Matthew, his colleague Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), and a psychiatrist, Dr Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).
Perhaps best of all is Jeff Goldblum’s Jack Bellicec, a struggling writer who we first meet at a party to celebrate the launch of Dr Kibner’s latest book. With his shock of jet-black hair and a battered trenchcoat, Jack stalks Matthew and Elizabeth through the hobnobbing crowd with a copy of the tome (titled “The Universe Within”) while ranting about how awful it is.
“He dashes one of these things off every six months,” Jack rages. “Takes me six months to write one line sometimes.”
The scene’s a perfect fusion of great writing and note-perfect performance. Jack’s vanity, frustration and sensitivity burst out in this one brief scene; he’s an outsider seething at a literary world that he at once resents and desperately wants to be recognised by.
Still in his mid-to-late 20s when he shot Body Snatchers, Goldblum shows off the intensity for which he’d later become famous. Even when appearing next to seasoned actors like Sutherland and Nimoy, both much older than he, Goldblum still manages to loom large in each scene. With his unblinking eyes and flailing, rail-thin limbs, he looks captivatingly alien – which, of course, is why he’s such perfect casting.
We later learn that, while Jack fancies himself a writer and intellectual (his verbal jousts with Dr Kibner are priceless), he actually runs a bathhouse with his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). It’s an example of the small yet unusual character details that make this incarnation of Body Snatchers really sing. Their individual shortcomings and quirks are what make us care about their fate, and for all his shouting and posturing, Goldblum’s character has a vulnerability that is ultimately charms us.
The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)
If you need proof that Goldlbum was unafraid to tackle varied and unusual roles throughout the ’70s and ’80s, look no further than the eccentric cult sci-fi film, Buckaroo Banzai, directed by Body Snatchers screenwriter WD Richter. Goldblum plays Dr Sidney Zweibel (also known as New Jersey), a neurosurgeon colleague of Peter Weller’s title hero.
Unaccountably wearing a cowboy costume for much of the movie, Goldblum pulls some great dance moves and gets to ask the question, “Why is there a watermelon here?”
If only Goldblum and Weller had made more films in the 80s…
The Fly (1986)
“Have you heard about insect politics? Neither have I…”
Jeff Goldblum’s talent as a leading man gets its best showcase in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. He plays Seth Brundle, an eccentric, scatter-brained inventor of matter-transporting Telepods. Brundle could almost be described as the archetypal mad scientist brought low by his own creation, but Cronenberg twists sci-fi convention in clever, heartbreaking ways.
Much of the movie takes place in Brundle’s apartment – a cluttered corner of an old warehouse which also doubles as his lab. We watch as this normally reclusive character forms a relationship with a science journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis) – a romance which in turn inspired Brundle to perfect his teleportation machine.
What begins as a groundbreaking discovery tips over into a bizarre tragedy: a lovers’ tiff prompts a drunk, clumsy Brundle to test the Telepods on himself, thus causing his DNA to become intertwined with that of a housefly. Initially invigorated, Brundle soon begins to physically deteriorate as the fly within takes over, and it’s here that the emotional bite in Cronenberg’s story emerges from behind the horror: it’s an accelerated take on how ageing, sickness and death affects relationships.
Whether he’s playing the optimistic, wide-eyed Brundle we see at the start of the film, the violent, faintly terrifying super-Brundle who replaces him at the mid-point, or the shuffling, vomiting Brundle-fly we see towards the end, Goldblum is magnificent. The interplay between he and Davis (they were a real-life item at the time) is sparky and believable, which makes Brundle’s grotesque and inevitable deterioration all the more poignant.
Even as The Fly descends into a mush of goo and prosthetic effects, it’s the impact of Goldblum’s humane performance that drives the film. He perfectly conveys the feeling of a man whose body is at war with itself.
Earth Girls Are Easy (1989)
Fifties B-movie sci-fi got a makeover for the MTV generation in Julien Temple’s musical comedy, Earth Girls Are Easy. Jeff Goldblum stars alongside Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans as a trio of aliens who land in California. There, they turn the life of newly-single manicurist Valerie (Geena Davis) upside-down.
The antithesis of the heavyweight turn he gave in The Fly, Earth Girls Are Easy showcases Goldblum’s talent for comedy – and once again shows how adept he is at projecting a performance through a thick layer of latex and blue fur.
Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World (1997)
For young moviegoers in the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster may have been their first exposure to Goldblum’s individual style of acting. Here, he plays Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician who specialises in chaos theory and dresses like a rock star – leather jacket, shades, extrovert hair.
In lesser hands, Dr. Malcolm could have been a thankless role; he’s the story’s self-possessed Cassandra, his warnings of an impending catastrophe falling on deaf ears. But Goldblum makes remarkably light work of it, delivering a performance that is vain, sarcastic and dryly witty. Even when he’s forced to deliver a lengthy slab of exposition for the audience’s benefit – like his in-car explanation of chaos theory – Goldblum serves it up in a way that feels both spontaneous and sensually calculated.
Goldblum also gets some of the film’s most famous lines. Look at the way he interjects a dinner table discussion about Jurassic Park‘s profitability with his famous rebuke: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they should.” It’s a long, tongue-twisting line, so Goldblum races through it, letting the words elide into each other – thus turning what could have been a forgettable sentence into an unforgettable one.
The Dr. Ian Malcolm of the sequel, The Lost World, has lost some of his louche, rock star lothario quality. He has a few more years on the clock, and he’s back on Isla Nublar, just waiting for the dinosaurs to attack one again. “Oh yeah,” Malcolm says, cynically. “Ooh, Aahh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and, uh, screaming.” Even in the midst of a spectacle-led summer blockbuster, Goldblum remains a lynchpin.
Independence Day (1996)
If Dr. Malcolm’s line about wonder tipping over into running and screaming lent a hint of self-awareness to The Lost World, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day wore its status as a disposable summer film on its sleeve. Openly modelled on the alien invasion flicks of the ’50s and the trashy disaster movies of the ’60s and ’70s, Independence Day is an unabashed B-movie, from its soapy melodramatics to its final act, where humanity fights back against the aliens in a goofy counter-attack.
Independence Day‘s focus on explosive effects and wisecracks was such that the president of Digital Domain described it as “The Day The Script Stood Still.” Yet even here, among an ensemble cast which includes Will Smith, Bill Pullman and Harry Connick Jr, Goldblum still manages to make an impression. He’s stuck in a cartoonishly-drawn role, sure – Goldblum plays a cable company technician who seems to be the only guy on the planet who knows what the aliens are up to – but he’s quirky and entertaining where some other members of the ensemble are over-earnest or just plain hammy.
It’s easy to forget, in fact, that Goldblum’s part in Independence Day is comparatively small; he essentially pops up now and again to spout a bit of computer jargon, sketch in the broad strokes of his character (he’s an environmentalist as well as a computer genius) before helping to engineer one of the most infamous take-downs of an alien invasion in movie history.
Some critics rounded on Independence Day as yet another example of the air-headed, nakedly populist effects films that filed into cinemas through the 90s. Nevertheless, the sci-fi disaster confection Emmerich and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin cooked proved irresistible to audiences; Independence Day made more than $800m worldwide, making it one of the most successful films of the decade. But while audiences may have flocked to see its special effects, I like to think it’s Goldblum’s performance, cutting through the mix of cheese and ham, that made this gleeful disaster so popular.
Now in his early 60s, Goldblum has taken to wearing bow-ties, and exudes a calm, statesmanlike air in interviews. Goldblum’s performance in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was a reminder of how effective he can be even in a brief role – Deputy Vilmos Kovacs is a stand-out character even among such a huge ensemble – and he’s set to fight alien invaders once again in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
Urbane, funny, quirky, intense – Jeff Goldblum’s lit up the movie landscape for more than 40 years, and as his turns such genre films as The Fly and Jurassic Park prove, his contribution to sci-fi cinema can’t be underestimated.
As a final example of just how much personality Goldblum can put into even a simple exchange, let us take you back to 1978’s Body Snatchers, and a brief exchange he has with his wife Nancy about the “absurd” theory of a plant invasion. It’s a wonderful little jewel of a moment.