Most audiences and critics consider great actors to be the ones who cause the most noise. The abilities to cry on command, scream in anguish, practice foreign accents, carry out method intensity to the point of self-torture, and be so chameleon-like they’re unrecognizable are the traits most associated with the elected “great” actors of the cinematic world.
While these talents are nothing to take for granted (Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Glenn Close, etc.- you are saluted), it’s also important to remember the actors who don’t draw attention to themselves, who simply and seamlessly exist within their films.
In a film career that started while he was in late puberty, John Cusack is an actor who has always played his cards close to his chest. In most of his performances, he speaks with the same, quietly direct voice (though he does have his occasional and intense screaming fits when they’re organically warranted) and carries over many of the same physical mannerisms into each role he plays.
In short, (though with a few exceptions) he’s always a variation of John Cusack in everything he does. That being said, none of these observations are an insult to his tremendous onscreen presence, mainly because it almost always works and, as his admirers already well know, because he’s John Cusack.
From his younger days of playing wild teenagers and college students to his obvious desire to pursue more sophisticated projects in his early twenties, John Cusack has always had the irreplaceable ability and talent to live and react honestly in his films. He is a piece of the films he appears in, not the main attraction. T
hat doesn’t mean his onscreen charisma and focus don’t usually steal the show, it just means everything he does almost always comes across as natural and integral to the story he’s helping to tell. He may almost always be John Cusack, but it’s quite easy to forget that because of how committed he is to playing every moment he is onscreen as real and as subtle as possible.
10. Better Off Dead (1985)
Although highly silly and even-more highly dated, it is impossible to deny that Better Off Dead is a major attraction amongst Cusack’s most renowned titles. It’s a silly, strange, unique ride that only Savage Steve Holland (a missed absurdist filmmaker who also helmed Cusack in One Crazy Summer) could create.
In the film, Cusack is a likable, dorky teenager hell bent on committing suicide to get even with the girl who dumped him. His performance showcases a wonderfully dry and weary sense of comedic timing that suggests a presence far advanced beyond his young age.
9, 8. Maps to the Stars (2014), Chi-raq (2015)
Like Nicolas Cage, much of Cusack’s recent work has seemed somewhat beneath him (generic action films, comedies that should have stayed in the eighties, etc.). Perhaps he’s having fun these days or perhaps he’s enjoying his paychecks.
Let him, because Cusack still manages to do work in interesting, smaller, and daring films with great directors in between the roles he is quite possibly sleep walking through. Chi-raq and Maps To the Stars are two examples of newer and lesser-known roles that are not only as good as his earlier and best work, but actually showcase a surprising growth and change in his style.
A collaboration between John Cusack and David Cronenberg doesn’t exactly sound like a match made in heaven. Cronenberg is essentially a surrealist who specializes in his personal brand of “body horror” and Cusack is usually about as real and grounded as you can get onscreen.
Surprisingly, however, their collaboration is a successful and memorable one. While the film is not without its faults, Cusack’s performance (where he plays a perverse self-help coach living against a nightmarish Los Angeles landscape) is a departure for him. He is strange, slimy, and, for the first time in a long while, we get to see Cusack grab the reigns of something outside his comfort zone and let go. It’s a memorable performance within a highly unsettling and bizarre film.
“Letting go” is perhaps the best way to open up the subject when one is discussing Cuasck’s role in Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, a film which also happens to contain some of the director’s best work in years. Cusack plays an inner city priest who is battling the gang violence in Chicago by supporting a sex strike amongst the city’s women (it’s an update of Aristophanes’ classic play, Lysistrata).
Cusack’s sincerity onscreen suits the character quite well, but he brings an electric passion and energy to the role that is frankly shocking to see from the often-stoic performer.
Both these films make one anxious to see what Cusack will continue to accomplish as he ages. As great as his is at being low-key, both Maps to the Stars and Chi-raq prove he has a lot to offer that we still haven’t seen. Regardless of the quality of his future films, his presence will almost always improve them.
7. Eight Men Out (1988)
The first turning point in Cusack’s career, the one that saw him grow from being an adorable teenager to an actual adult with “real” issues, was John Sayles’ unjustifiably forgotten masterwork, Eight Men Out. In the film, Cusack plays George “Buck” Weaver, a member of the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
Again showing remarkable advancement for his young age, Cusack is the heart, soul, and conscience of the film. He carries the burden of knowing his teammates are taking bribes to throw the World Series, refuses to personally take part in them, but also refuses to protect himself legally by turning his teammates in.
Cusack’s emotional conflict is (now) predictably displayed with stillness and quietness. It’s never forced, it’s never overtly dramatic, and it’s always internalized. Cusack’s work in Eight Men Out excels because of those qualities, yet he does so in a manner where the camera somehow catches nuanced every moment. That, simply put, is his gift: Cusack’s relationship with a movie camera is irreplaceable.
6. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Cusack does a better Woody Allen than Woody Allen in one of the writer-director’s best works in Bullets Over Broadway. Cusack stars as a pretentious playwright struggling in 1920s New York. He thinks he’s an artist, but has to succumb to casting a gangster’s highly annoying and untalented girlfriend (played by Jennifer Tilly in a wonderful comedic performance) to receive the funding he needs.
Cusack, like many actors who have appeared in the filmmaker’s works, is playing the role Woody Allen would have done if he were still the right age for it. He doesn’t do an outright impression of the iconic personality, but rather finds his own interpretation that is obviously influenced by Allen’s trademark neuroses and physical tics.
Cusack effortlessly and completely slips out of his own skin for perhaps the first time in his film career in Bullets Over Broadway, and the result is one of his best and most surprising performances to date.