Watching John Malkovich

To understand better why Letterboxd members set out on quests to watch specific actors’ entire filmographies, we invited Tim Rod to describe their dangerous and seductive journey through John Malkovich’s screen history.

For many film lovers, 2020 has been a year of catching up: on franchises, on directors’ filmographies, on historical gaps and top 100s. But for some Letterboxd members, the year indoors has been an opportunity to hyper-focus on a single actor and their work.

Jeremiah Lambert is on a Bacon Fest, Naked Airplane has embarked on a wild ride through the works of De Niro, Hackman, Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino. Joey is preparing for next year’s centennial of The Kid by churning through Charlie Chaplin’s catalog (with David Robinson’s biography Chaplin: His Life and Art in hand). A quick Twitter survey found others churning through a performer selection as wide-ranging as Burt Lancaster, Parker Posey, Maggie Smith, Nicolas Cage, Cary Grant, Kevin Costner, Robin Williams, Adèle Haenel, Alan Arkin, Sam Rockwell and a Seth Rogen thirst project.

It can be a bumpy journey. In one performer’s oeuvre the quality will range widely, the genres too. But the rewards are many in a close study of craft, and there are revelations, whether it’s that Australia’s Miranda Otto deserves more recognition, or it’s “the total acceptance, lack of judgment, and vulnerability with which Alan Arkin has played so many of his flawed and wonderful characters”.

With Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (1987).
With Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (1987).

In 2020, no fewer than three movies and two television series starring John Malkovich have been released: Arkansas, Valley of the Gods and Ava, as well as The New Pope and Space Force. The legendary actor has kept himself busy, and I know this because I have seen most of his filmography—41 films and two series—in the span of a single month. I adore Malkovich, always have, and I came out of this experience with a deeper admiration for him, and with some thoughts about his unique, remarkable skills as an actor. (And, I had a really good time.)

Allow me to begin by saying that John Malkovich is the best part of every movie he is in. No matter the movie, Malkovich will always steal the spotlight, and he can turn a good movie into a masterpiece, or an average movie that wouldn’t catch anyone’s attention into one worth watching, if only to see him do his thing.

He’s starred in movies that are considered masterpieces by many: Being John Malkovich (1999), The Killing Fields (1984) and Empire of the Sun (1987). Movies that may be considered the opposite of masterpieces, like Supercon (2018), Eragon (2006) and the most recent Ava (2020), and he’s also starred in some gems that I knew nothing about but am glad to have discovered, such as The Convent (1995), Eleni (1985) and The Ogre (1996). Malkovich has brought to life iconic characters including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tom Ripley, Hercule Poirot (in BBC’s The ABC Murders), the artist Gustav Klimt, and several of David Lynch’s people, in the short film Psychogenic Fugue (2016).

As Mitch Leary in In the Line of Fire (1993).
As Mitch Leary in In the Line of Fire (1993).

Malkovich has received two Academy Award nominations, for Places in the Heart (1984), in which he played Edna’s lodger, the solitary yet kind Mr. Will, and for In the Line of Fire (1993), where he played the complete opposite: the psychotic Mitch Leary, determined to kill the President of the United States. Though Malkovich is not a classic action-film actor, his work in that genre is driven by logic, intellect and emotion, and the delicacy that he employs to challenge concepts of masculinity and keep us guessing. His soft and collected voice threatening Clint Eastwood over the phone is scarier and more effective than a deeper one would have been.

That voice. Malkovich has admitted that he hates the sound of it, that he would always avoid listening to it, just like so many actors avoid watching their own films, but I’m bewitched by his voice and I could never get enough of it. It can be tender, sweet and calming, seductive when the role requires it, and terrifying. With that versatility, it’s not surprising that he has done some narrating work as well, for films including Paul Newman’s The Glass Menagerie (1987) and Alive (1993).

Malkovich is at his best when seduction and villainy combine, as they do in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont has been performed by many actors over the years, but I find Malkovich’s take to be the most memorable and exquisite. He captures perfectly the depravity and evilness of Valmont, but also the nuances, his journey from womanizer to man genuinely in love and, ultimately, his tragic redemption. He even brings a comedic aspect to the character that adds more depth and dimension.

With Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
With Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

Valmont is an awful human being, a monster even, and yet, every time I watch this movie, I find myself fascinated by his mastery of the deception, his sensuality and complete control of the situation, until the situation is “beyond his control”. In her review of the film, Catherine Stebbins calls John Malkovich “a sexual force of nature”, and I completely agree. If you want to see more of Malkovich’s sensual side, other notable mentions include The Sheltering Sky (1990), The Object of Beauty (1991) and Beyond the Clouds (1995).

And then there’s Being John Malkovich (1999), in which ‘John Horatio Malkovich’ displays so many facets of his craft. The fictionalized Malkovich is possessed by different characters, one of them a woman. Catherine Keener’s character falls in love with a subtly different version of Malkovich, when he is a vessel for Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Even though Lotte doesn’t have full control of Malkovich, he uses his femininity to bring the character-inside-the-character to center stage, delivering a subtle-yet-perfect performance. Even when we don’t see Lotte, we know she’s there.

John Malkovich as John Horatio Malkovich possessed by Lotte, in Being John Malkovich (1999).
John Malkovich as John Horatio Malkovich possessed by Lotte, in Being John Malkovich (1999).

Not many actors could pull this off as brilliantly as John Malkovich does. To be fair, not many actors have been given the chance that Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman gave Malkovich: a film with his own name in the title.

I’ve discussed some of the most well-known of Malkovich’s performances, but I’d like to mention an overlooked one that I found heartbreaking and noteworthy. I didn’t know of the existence of The Ogre (1996) until I took a closer look at Malkovich’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws, but I found myself absorbed in the fairy-tale story of Abel, a naïve French prisoner of war who is taken to Nazi Germany and used to recruit children for Hitler’s Youth. Once again, the actor’s duality is on display, as Evan writes in his Letterboxd review: “Malkovich is both queasy and endearing as the (ig)noble simp who just wants to save the babies.” The Ogre tells a tragic story, but thanks to Malkovich’s tenderness, we can’t help but have sympathy for his character. At times it reminded me of the innocence of Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1992), another of the actor’s more noteworthy performances.

One of Malkovich’s great contributions to cinema is elevating an average movie just by being in it. One such role is as English conman Alan Conway in the bizarre true story, Colour Me Kubrick (2005). Malkovich admitted in an interview that he thought his performance was good, and I agree. If there’s one reason to watch that film, it’s to see Malkovich playing an eccentric conman who poses as Stanley Kubrick, using different voices and accents. As TajLV writes, “if there were anything to commend this film other than Malkovich, I’d happily rate it higher”.

As Alan Conway in Colour Me Kubrick (2005).
As Alan Conway in Colour Me Kubrick (2005).

One fun fact: I sometimes forget John Malkovich is American. Maybe it’s because he has starred in many European productions—out of the 41 films I watched, 18 were European. Malkovich is of European descent, has lived in France for a decade and speaks fluent French, which allowed him to star as the mysterious Baron de Charlus in Time Regained (1999), with entirely French dialogue. He also delivers lines in French and Portuguese in A Talking Picture (2003) by Manoel de Oliveira.

You’ve probably heard Malkovich use words, expressions and even entire lines of French dialogue on more than one occasion. He does this often, which gives him a certain European vibe, consistent with his own character, mannerisms and dress sense—elements that he sometimes brings to his characters. Maybe that’s the reason he has played so many intellectuals and artists: professors, scientists, detectives, painters, writers, a scientist and a robot, and even the Pope… It seems there’s nothing John Malkovich can’t do, including directing.

To end my marathon, I watched his directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs (2002), an assured movie adapted from a novel about the Maoist uprising in Peru in the 1980s, starring Javier Bardem. It was a nice surprise, and a strong start to what could have been a career as a film director, if not for the fact that he doesn’t have the patience to do it again. I recently read an interview where Edgar Wright revealed advice he always gives to directors, which is to make their second movie the one that will define them. I wonder if we will ever see John Malkovich’s second film, but for now, I hope he keeps gifting us with more unforgettable performances. At least we know that in the distant future, along with all the movies he has already appeared in, people will enjoy a never-seen-before performance when Robert Rodríguez’s short 100 years is released in 2115.

If there’s one thing I have learnt after watching most of his filmography, it’s that John Malkovich is one of the best and most versatile actors of our time, with the most unique voice I have heard in cinema, and with a rich filmography that encompasses every genre. And he’s not only a brilliant actor, but also someone I find personally fascinating. I truly find comfort in him. I hope we all get to enjoy his art for years to come, because his talent is limitless and I know he still has so much more to give. John Malkovich deserves all the praise for being a force of nature in the theater and film industry for over 40 years.


Tim is a Letterboxd member based in Spain, who has recently moved on from their John Malkovich marathon to a Sacha Baron Cohen quest.

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