A Little List for the Big Man – John Goodman’s Best Roles?

Joe Dante’s maybe-forgotten kinda-classic nostalgia fest Matinee comes to Blu-ray for the first time this month. First released in 1993, the film is a great summation of two offbeat icons of cinema – its director Dante and its biggest star John Goodman.

As an oddly perfect fusion of early 60s creature feature homage and earnest recollection of the same period, the Gremlins director needed to ground his high school age cast with an adult capable of going big and absurd while still bringing weight to the calmer moments. No actor was bigger or better for the role than John Goodman.

In Matinee, Goodman plays the definitively larger than life Lawrence Woolsey as one part Alfred Hitchcock, two parts Roger Corman. He manages to be a master of tension, a washed up joke, a wise philosopher, an overgrown child, a remnant of the past and a signpost to the future all at once. As played by Goodman, these all play as aspects of a coherent character, not the contradictory mess they maybe should.

Surprisingly enough ,Woolsey may be Goodman’s finest performance. It is his most varied one anyway, and plays like a microcosm of his ridiculously flexible career so far. Trying to list the best John Goodman roles might be an impossible task, given that flexibility.

That said, let’s try.

Cloverfield Lane

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Goodman’s latest great performance is one happy to play off of his established persona.

For all the variety of his performances over the years, his most grounding trait might be that he is one of those actors who is almost magnetically likeable. Like Tom Hanks, likeability is one of his superpowers – it is no coincidence he has played a fair few lovable dads in his time. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes advantage of that as it approaches its casting like it approaches its script, its marketing and even its title. It exists to play with expectations.

When it comes to Goodman, that means using his natural presence – physically and emotionally – to upsettingly creepy ends. He plays up the creep factor while remaining subdued, so that the off kilter fear of the film’s opening sequences comes from simple moments like watching him stand in a doorway saying pleasant things and leaving everything unsettling unsaid.

Most of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s runtime alternates between Goodman’s familiarly jovial side and that surprisingly monstrous subtext. When he is allowed to be nice, he is the most likeable person on screen. When he is allowed to be a monster, he leaves the original Cloverfield creature looking as scary as Fred Flintstone.

Speed Racer

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Speaking of John Goodman playing the dad archetype: what better example than the time he played Pops Racer?

The Wachowskis’ appropriately ahead of its time film took scarcely more than a year to become a cult classic, and inspired everything from Scott Pilgrim to the freewheeling cutting of Marvel and DC’s superhero films. One key to its enjoyability is that it refuses to take any of its insane premise as a joke, and so we get Pops Racer as the world’s most sympathetic jolly yet troubled father.

Within the world of Speed Racer, Pops has already lost one son forever and is watching as the other seems to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Heavy stuff the film tackles head on, possibly drawing on further angst behind the scenes. Apparently the cast gathered together around a Goodman who was having trouble with alcohol at the time, unsurprising given the chemistry on display throughout.

What is surprising, though, is that the comedy lands just as strongly. Because this isn’t your everyday throwaway action movie humour. This is humour about a family’s live-in chimp who wears pyjamas with human faces on them, and ineffective ninjas who drop their car keys along with their shuriken. How this movie exists is a hard to explain; how it manages to be excellent is a mystery. John Goodman probably helped though.

Trumbo

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That timeless test of the great character actor: can you be the most memorable thing about a movie when you only have one scene of note? When you are John Goodman you can.

Trumbo is a depressingly self-serious film about how great (yet flawed) film writers are, with a not great (but definitely flawed) screenplay. Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, whose politics get him blacklisted by Hollywood in the McCarthy era where communist leanings meant the end of a career. He secretly wrote films as famous and Oscar winning as Roman Holiday under an assumed name.

That is an interesting story that might make for a decent 10 minute version of this film. But a 10 minute version would be missing the scene where everyone realises it is necessary for John Goodman to turn up and be John Goodman for a few minutes.

So the man himself appears as schlock producer Frank King, who won’t be threatened by a moralist’s warning about picket lines. The moment the threat is made, without a moment’s telegraphing, Goodman is picking up a baseball bat, swinging, and shouting “I make garbage!” with the kind of straightforwardly righteous, passionate pride from which the rest of the movie could have learned.

Red State

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As with Matinee, when you are trying to play with genre conventions you tend to need someone to embody some of those conventions. Kevin Smith’s restless Red State pulls in a slightly unwell looking Goodman a while into its runtime as the capable, sardonic cop and pretty much lets him remain in that role while the film around him spends an inordinate amount of time trying to dodge tropes.

Red State works because it hangs a lot of its hopes on two big hitting character actors. Michael Parks is the obvious choice for a cultish gun nut reverend, and Goodman brings so much gravity to his cop that he manages to pull in a whole range of distinct stock types.

He is vaguely bumbling in his response to the plot’s constant escalation, still manages to be the firm hand of competence when required, and ultimately comes across as a frustrated bureaucrat. Dipping into comedy and tension as required, it’s a one-man show checking off the biggest hits on the cop cliché chart.

The Artist

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You can’t discount John Goodman’s voice. Its warm boom is instantly recognisable (see his voice-only work like Monsters, Inc.), so Goodman appearing in a silent movie is like acting with one hand tied behind his back. Obviously, he is up to the challenge.

Goodman must be near the top of the list when casting for an actor based on physicality alone. He is a big presence, it is fair to say, and even when reduced to nothing but his face, he knows how to hold attention. Give him a cigar alongside that and you have gold.

That voice’s role can’t be overstated though, and it is only fitting that he is the only person other than the star to get a proper line in at the film’s end. It is an unexpected piece of relief after a whole film of silence.

Barton Fink

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A different list of great Goodman performances could be written up consisting entirely of Coen brothers films. The variety on display throughout his career is easy to spot across each Coen project.

In The Big Lebowski he is a mostly insane piece of over the top comic relief who gets a few of the best lines; in O Brother, Where Art Thou? he is nothing less than the modern day analogue to the cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey; but his most fleshed out role may be in Barton Fink.

As insurance salesman Charlie, Goodman more or less plays the devil. Except he is also playing a good old fashioned love interest. And the physical manifestation of a hotel. And the general concept of a movie character. There are a lot of balls in the air, basically.

The role was was written for Goodman, playing off of his easygoing charm in the style of 10 Cloverfield Lane. But rather than just flipping between charm and threat, Barton Fink gives Goodman a whole range of complex roles to play. Once again, his gravity pulls all of those disparate characters into his orbit and keeps them more or less grounded.

That might be Goodman’s biggest strength, the one countless filmmakers have relied on: whatever material you give him, he makes a character out of by sheer force of personality.