The Prescient Celebrity Obsession of ‘Being John Malkovich’

I have been to the dark side and back! I have seen a world that no man should see!

—John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich

It’s been over a decade since Being John Malkovich wriggled through the existential wormhole that connects Charlie Kaufman’s brain with American cineplexes and still its electrifying inventiveness remains largely unrivaled. So original and bizarre was almost every facet of the Spike Jonze-helmed horror comedy that the existence of an office building with an appropriately proportioned 7th ½ floor registered as barely more than a footnote in its narrative. Hailed upon its release in 1999 as one of Hollywood’s most wickedly innovative triumphs, Being John Malkovich continues to dizzy audiences with a staggering array of mind-bending perplexities. And now, from the perch of the new millennium, we can look back and add yet another accolade to the film’s impressive list of achievements: It’s cunning prescience.

At the same moment in history that Kaufman’s screenplay was diabolically skewering the cult of celebrity in America, the nation was beginning its turbulent descent into the brave new world of celebutante worship we find ourselves in today. Reality television would establish itself as a ubiquitous network fixture after the smash ratings successes of Big Brother and Survivor during the 1999-2000 season, and the explosive popularity of social network services — with which we might tap into the intimate thoughts of most any person of notoriety — followed close behind. In short order the channels to achieving celebrity, our access to these celebrities, and the very idea of fame itself were overhauled and turned on their heads.

In the film, a smaller but more staggering rash of identity crises ensues when melancholy and misunderstood puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) stumbles upon a portal into the body of actor John Malkovich and reacts to the discovery just as any modern capitalist would — by commercializing it. Soon scores of dissatisfied men and women are lining up out the door to fork over 200 bucks for the privilege of spending fifteen minutes as the elusive thespian before being unceremoniously discharged on to a drizzly embankment alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s not long until the irresponsible practices of scrappy start-up J.M. Inc. have torn open a gigantic “metaphysical can of worms,” irrevocably muddying the question of what exactly it means to be John Malkovich — or, for that matter, oneself.

Not only was Kaufman prophetic about the emerging market of celebrity tourism, but he also understood our dark urge to watch famous psyches erupt into flames in real time. When all of the tiger blood and Adonis DNA finally curdled in Charlie Sheen’s brain to make him go haywire, he embarked on a national tour of self-immolation and audiences eagerly packed into theaters to witness the disaster first hand. Being John Malkovich deviously treats us to — and invites us to delight in — the similar spectacle of a public figure’s personal breakdown. And, in a bit of casting almost as hilariously trippy as the idea of inhabiting somebody else’s body for fifteen random minutes, the filmmakers present us with Mr. Sheen himself as Malkovich’s soothing confidant, sagely dispensing such nuggets of wisdom as: “You’re nuts to let a girl go that calls you Lotte.”

But it was the simple genius of creating and casting the character of Malkovich that gave life to the film’s twisted comedic heart. So hell-bent was Kaufman on landing Malkovich that he refused all offers (including one from the actor himself) to get the movie funded with somebody else in the titular role. No doubt the screenwriter found it impossible to imagine another Hollywood persona that could so bitingly expose the emptiness of celebrity worship by means of his exquisite vagueness. The movie’s characters possess little real knowledge or interest in the personal life of Malkovich beyond his modicum of fame. Before co-founding J.M. Inc., Maxine (Catherine Keener) is forced to inquire of her business partner: “Who the fuck is John Malkovich?” Craig Schwartz can’t name a single one of the actor’s credits other than, erroneously, “that jewel thief movie.” Even the customers waiting to gain entrance to Malkovich’s body don’t recognize him when he suddenly appears in their midst. In short, what is actually most special about Malkovich is the mere fact that he’s somebody else.

Despite their pointed criticisms of all the poor bastards aimlessly striving after the slightest whiff of fame, the filmmakers reserve perhaps their biggest satirical swipe for those who have already attained notoriety. When Schwartz learns how to remain in Malkovich’s body and control its movements at will, he decides to exploit the actor’s artistic credibility for the purpose of resurrecting his own failed puppetry career. Soon the very same act that made Schwartz an outcast loser is lifting Malkovich to new heights of stardom. He’s the favorite son of Broadway and an inspiration to Hollywood. “Once we all get the courage to just follow through on our instincts like Malkovich has,” observes Sean Penn in a mischievous cameo, “I think that a lot of us will move in to puppetry.” The most egregious of all star fuckers, it turns out, are the stars themselves.

Throughout his career, Charlie Kaufman has delivered a number of grand and celebrated meditations on the nature of identity, including such remarkable films as Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But there is one small, lesser-known work of his that I can’t seem to shake. It’s a sketch written for the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show that aired in 1996 and it gives an early clue as to the direction Kaufman would later go exploring with his writing. The premise of the sketch involves a service that pairs crazy people up with one another so that when they go marching down the street sputtering nonsense to themselves it appears, to the casual observer, that they’re just engaged in spirited conversation.

It’s a logical idea, but a little dated. In this day and age we simply use the celebrities on TV to make us feel a bit more sane.

The Prescient Celebrity Obsession of ‘Being John […]