Comedy needs to enclose at least a little tragedy in order to work. Pure clowns appear unnatural and dedicated sufferers soon become tiring. The layered comedian, however, is all at once funny and convincing. Natural and uplifting. Easy to identify with and entertaining. Such comedians are only very few and John Goodman seems to be one of those rare talents leading the way towards a comedy that originates from tragedy and that moves from artsy to mainstream, from silent to loud and from film to television. His sad under-layer gives his jolly face and attitude a certain reality that takes him anywhere he needs to be, and that allows his audience to become involved in the story, while always being amused.
Whether as Dan Conner in Roseanne or as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, John Goodman always seems to feel at home. His characters are colourful but credible and their subtle underlying sadness grants them a deep feeling, and gives off the impression that they could lose it or break down at any given moment. In Barton Fink, Charlie is the next-door common man, a funny, upbeat, oblivious neighbour. At the same time he is the lonely soul, the bohemian eccentric that Barton starts befriending only out of pity and perhaps a little fear, as there has always proven to be something uncertain and unreliable about this man. In the scene where Goodman gets down on his knees in order to demonstrate some basic wrestling rules to Barton, everything else seems to go out of focus. All that can be seen is Goodman’s threatening smile, his watery eyes, from laughter or from sadness, his invitation to somewhere fun but somewhere mad and dangerous, and his loneliness and instability despite his size and strength.
Very rarely and never successfully a lead, but always a mesmerising supporting actor, it comes as a constant surprise that he manages not only to steal the show but also pretty much carry every other member of the cast through in each and every one of the films he appears. He seems to be setting the pace even when he’s not leading and ends up standing next to Barton Fink (John Turturro) as an equally appealing Charlie Meadows, he proves that Larry can be just as strong as Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is in Bringing Out The Dead and makes the movie what it is, perhaps even more than Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin, as Steve Blauner in Beyond The Sea. John Goodman stands next to great leading actors and shines unfailingly, offers something entirely new and original, brings humour where one wouldn’t think humour could be found, offers surreal stories a certain unexpected credibility and makes his most superficial characters clever and highly entertaining.
When a movie as average as King Ralph has Goodman performing Good Golly Miss Molly and a sexy thriller like Sea Of Love has detective Goodman alongside Al Pacino, then his brilliantly inadequate criminal mind in Raising Arizona and his bright statement that “a web would indicate an arachnoid presence” in Arachnophobia should cause no surprise. All these very different characters still have a few qualities in common that are a direct result of Goodman’s way of acting. They are outcasts, they are reserved, slightly insecure but also comfortable in their anxiety. They struggle even though they appear content. They’re weak although they look strong. They are angry, enclosing potential violent outbursts and at the same time delicate, exuding compromise and possessing a lost-dream melancholy.
John Goodman’s comedy has an under-layer of depression, anger and misery that consistently gives all his characters a great deal of credibility and depth. His cheery façade and not-to-be-trusted smile enclose sadness, irony and sometimes even unexpected rage. The teddy-bear look is not always good-natured and happy. Very often in the case of John Goodman, it’s the perfectly misleading front for the ultimate tragic character and it seems that this contradiction is exactly what makes him one of the most compelling actors of our time.
John Goodman at IMDb
John Goodman at Wikipedia
John Goodman (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
Barton Fink (1991): Charlie Demonstrates Wrestling Basics (video)