Photo: ‘The Fly’
Jeff Goldblum: Actor and Charismatic Figure
Of all the great actors in Hollywood, few are as distinctive as Jeff Goldblum, a man who has been imitated and parodied yet never properly replicated. Like similarly eccentric (but more “prestigious”) actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Goldblum is such a force of nature as to have his own gravitational pull in whatever project he works on; people will recognize Goldblum’s name before they even take notice of the movie’s title. As a character actor, Goldblum’s genius has more than been recognized. It has practically created a school of acting all on its own, what with Goldblum’s signature stuttering, verbal false starts, and ability to turn any line of dialogue into a web of tangents. When you think of “acting,” you probably think of acting in the theatrical sense, wherein people enunciate every word clearly, and a gesture of the hands accompanies every sentence.
There’s a sort of heightened quality to all of it. For the longest time, acting in Cinema was based on stage acting, and only recently (in the context of Cinema’s history) have we been able to stray from that other medium’s standards. In a way, Goldblum’s method of acting is prescient; when ‘Jurassic Park’ hit theaters in 1993, people were taken aback by Goldblum’s subtly comedic performance. That performance would inform how the rest of his career would play out — for better or worse.
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In reality, Goldblum made a strong impression before ‘Jurassic Park’, with what would turn out to be one of his few proper lead roles (Goldblum being content to play second fiddle usually), David Cronenberg’s body horror masterpiece ‘The Fly.’ Cronenberg himself is a titan of a creative force who, like Goldblum, has been unjustly recognized by critics and moviegoers as being prone to one specific thing — in this case, grotesque horror. To make matters weirder, ‘The Fly’ is a remake of a rather mediocre 1958 film, titled ‘The Fly’, wherein a scientist experiments with teleportation and finds himself fuzed with the titular insect. Despite the nuanced performances (all things considered) and a typically flamboyant Vincent Price in a side role, the original movie is not much to write home about. The chief problem with the original version of ‘The Fly’ is that while it hints at emotional and philosophical substance, the script is too wooden and by-the-numbers to let the film ascend higher than an above-average B-movie. With Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’, however, we get what seems like yet another B-movie
on paper, only to be floored by two factors that are not mutually exclusive in their virtues: the Oscar-winning makeup effects and Goldblum’s performance as a scientist who plays in God’s domain.
‘The Fly’: The Perfect Movie for Such an Eccentric Man
David Cronenberg had already made a mainstream effort with 1983’s ‘The Dead Zone’, one of the better Stephen King adaptations. However, ‘The Fly’ was the movie that would make his legacy. Many people, even those who are not horror fans, are somewhat familiar with what ‘The Fly’ is about. Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, a young scientist who thinks he’s cracked the code to teleportation, building a pair of teleporters where going in one makes you come out the other, and despite his obvious neuroticism, he woos a journalist named Veronica (Geena Davis). In its first act, ‘The Fly’ establishes itself as equal parts romance and science fiction, and somehow, it manages to execute both convincingly.
The premise of Seth’s teleportation device is simple, but it’s not outlandish enough to strain one’s suspension of disbelief. Miraculously, the blossoming love story between Seth and Veronica is convincing due to Goldblum and Davis expressing much more vulnerability than one might expect in science fiction. We’re used to seeing square-jawed men keep their emotions hidden as they do “the right thing.” Still, Seth Brundle is not your typical mad scientist: he expresses practically every human emotion, from fear and lust to joy. Of course, though, the plot has to happen, and Seth makes the huge mistake of testing his teleporter on himself. At first, the experiment looks like a success — except that, unbeknownst to Seth, a common housefly flew into the teleporter with him.
I still find it astounding how well-made ‘The Fly’ is because there’s no good reason for it to be more than what it is on paper: a scary monster story. You would also be skeptical if you read the logline and saw the poster; you would probably assume the movie is a low-effort creature feature with stilted acting and boring characters. In a way, it makes sense that someone as out of step with Hollywood expectations as Goldblum would put so much effort into this kind of movie and that Goldblum would team up with one of the most unordinary directors to stumble his way into Hollywood. ‘The Fly’ is no doubt a creature feature. Still, the actual creature effects take a long time because Seth’s fusion with the fly is not immediately apparent; at first, he looks to be totally normal. The great tragedy of ‘The Fly’, and what makes Goldblum’s performance so disarming, is that Seth Brundle starts as an average man and becomes slowly overtaken by the fly — not only the fly’s physiology, but how it thinks. Even if the fly makeup wasn’t great (although it is great, it won the film an Oscar for a reason), Goldblum completely sells this man who is gradually losing his humanity, only finding love at the point in his life where it’s too late to turn back. You can probably guess how ‘The Fly’ ends (even so, I won’t give it away), but like any great tragedy, you know that Seth Brundle, as the protagonist, must end up as a noble failure of a person.
The movie is both economically structured (being only 96 minutes long and not wasting any time) and almost a chamber piece with how small its cast is. Aside from Goldblum and Davis, the only other principal actor is John Getz as Sathis, Veronica’s morally dubious ex-boyfriend. There’s so much focus on the tragedy of Seth slowly transforming into the fly, of his mind and body being malformed by the experiment, that we can’t help but get wrapped up in it. Horror movies, at their most basic, are meant to scare people. Nobody would come out of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ complaining about the film not serving well as a comedy or a romance. What makes ‘The Fly’ work so well is that it’s not just a horror movie, but an amalgamation (one might say a fusion) of horror, romance, and science fiction as allegory. The makeup, and Cronenberg’s disciplined direction, could make the horror and sci-fi elements work. Though, to make them both work in tandem with the love story, you would need some top-of-the-line lead performances. Seth Brundle could have easily been played as a rip-off of Dr. Frankenstein, but Goldblum turns him into a Promethean figure — a man who discovers fire and gets burned.
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The Insect Who Dreamt He Was a Man
Real people don’t talk like how they’re shown in the movies. Real people often fumble over their words, repeat themselves and pause awkwardly; there are a lot of ellipses in real human dialogue. Jeff Goldblum became famous primarily because of how he delivers his lines, with pretty much all the human flaws you would see in real-life speech. What emerged as an immense talent later became a way to categorize Goldblum. He would take on roles that tend to fit a certain archetype: the neurotic rambling guy who plays the comedic foil to the leading straight man. As said earlier, Goldblum’s performance in ‘Jurassic Park’, where he played the eccentric mathematician against Sam Neill’s stoic paleontologist, would catalyze a long career of similar roles. This is not to say Goldblum has wasted his career by any means, but rather that he had two options: he could either go for the Oscar, or become an icon of the screen, and he chose the latter. There must be an alternate timeline, however, where Goldblum’s career-making performance in ‘The Fly’ gave way to future Oscar-worthy roles in more “respectable” movies — movies that contemporary critics and awards voters would take more seriously, but which would probably be more boring than the movies we got in our timeline.
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Jeff Goldblum has been enjoying about as good a time in the spotlight in the past decade as he ever did, appearing regularly in the films of Wes Anderson and becoming a hugely meme-worthy online personality. When his career ends (and it will be a sad day when it does), it can’t be said that Goldblum will have had many regrets. ‘The Fly’ almost feels like a freak accident, considering where Goldblum’s career would go afterward, not to mention David Cronenberg turning his back on Hollywood and making some truly bizarre films after that (I’m looking at you, ‘Crash’), and if made today, one has to suspect it would likely not receive the same care as it did then. The 1980s are typically considered a Golden Age for horror movies, with ‘The Fly’ ranking high in the pantheon alongside ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Shining.’ While his star never again burned quite so brightly, it’s safe to say that Jeff Goldblum had his share of glory with ‘The Fly’.
Sadly, ‘The Fly’ is not currently streaming anywhere. However, given the film’s continuing popularity, you probably don’t have to wait long for Goldblum and Cronenberg’s masterpiece to make its way to a streaming service of your choice.
By Brian Collins
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