Happy Birthday, Jack Black

A re-post.


Is there anything more ridiculous, more self-parodying, more This is Spinal Tap, than “Wonder Boy”?

“He can kill a YAK from 200 yards away … WITH MIND BULLETS …”

Really, guys? Really?

And yet Jack Black’s performance, in and of itself (clip way below), is magnificent. There’s not one part of himself that is removed from it, or detached. It’s not snarky. It’s a TRIBUTE. A tribute to the grandiose rock bands that inspire him. His eyes are manic and committed to the madness.

I maintain my wild-card position, that Jack Black is a future Oscar winner. At the very LEAST a nominee. All it would take is the right PART. Someone utilize this man. He has already been utilized quite well. High Fidelity: it seems like that part was written for him, and I get the feeling that Jack Black is a master at “making something his own”. When he’s not used well, he can get general, but that is true of a lot of highly talented actors. He’s specific. School of Rock tapped into that specificity as well. As far as I’m concerned, he can do it all.

If “they” just let him.

Or if Jack Black lets himself.

That’s the danger with a talent like his. He reminds me of Jack Nicholson. This is a good thing. His survival instinct is his best ally. He won’t BE manipulated. He has the same mischievous spirit, the humor that cannot be tamped down, and he refuses sentiment. He just can’t do it. It’s not that he WON’T cheapen himself that way. It’s that he CAN’T. Neither can Nicholson. His talent helps him wriggle out of tight spots that conventional directors place him in.

I’ll tell you why I think he is a future Oscar winner, and it has to do with one moment of his in the movie Shallow Hal. Scorn if you must, but realize that you may be wrong. In fact you probably are. If there’s anything I know about myself, it’s that I have a damn good eye. I recognize truth. I can see phoniness of behavior from 5 miles away. In a social situation and in a film. Now “phoniness” in acting is not always malevolent (as it is in real life). Sometimes “phoniness” in acting comes from a variety of factors: the actor is in over his/her head, the direction is terrible, the script is bad. An actor does not act alone. Movies are a collaborative act. Regardless of the reason (and I am all about the reasons), I can clock it immediately. “Phony.” “Not real.” “Not coming from a truthful place.” Many major movie stars cheapen their gift. They can’t help it, or they just feel that that is what is required of them to be a star, or (worse) they can’t see that that is even what they are doing. They cheapen it by being pressured into being sentimental, cliched, by acting like someone other than who they are. If there is one selling point of the old studio system (and there were many) it’s that actors rarely were forced into roles that were against who they actually were.

The trend now in acting is “versatility”. I find it to be a trend that rewards facile talent, rather than deep talent. If you can do an accent, and and are able to embody a Siberian ice princess circa 4 a.d., then you have “talent”. I don’t scorn skill like that if it’s true skill, and not just a gimmick. But if you look at the Bogarts, the Cagneys, the Stanwycks, the Grants … they were not rewarded for their “versatility”. Cagney didn’t play things that went completely AGAINST who he was, thinking that THAT would prove he really had talent. Being able to do accents, and walks, and gestures is skill, and there are some who are highly skilled mimics, so skilled that it actually approaches channeling (phone call for Meryl Streep … ), but “essence” acting (as I call it) is out of style now. An actor who understands his own ESSENCE and can bring it to the screen.

Mickey Rourke is an essence actor. So is Jack Black.

Back to the moment that convinced me that not only is Jack Black talented (obviously) but that he has what it takes to sucker-punch an audience in the way that is required to be an Oscar contender.

So many comedic actors slide into schmaltz when they attempt drama. Comedy requires us to LIKE the comic, but acting has different requirements. Many comics fail in that transfer, because they still need to be liked. Even with Black’s abrasiveness, his ability to portray unenlightened and self-righteous individuals, it’s kind of impossible NOT to like him. He’s already got that in the bag.

In Shallow Hal he plays a dude named Hal who is, well, shallow. Hal seems to feel that he is entitled to a supermodel as a girlfriend. He has a warped sense of himself, which goes hand in hand with a disgust for women who are less than perfect. If he’s with a “dog” then what would that say about him? Through various magical moments (one involving an encounter with Tony Robbins), Hal becomes unable to NOT see inner beauty. He sees what he believes to be a beautiful babe walking down the street, he hits on her, and is amazed that she responds. His friends are horrified, because we see what THEY see: the girl has a snaggle tooth, or she’s chubby, she has straggly hair. He starts to date Rosemary, the most fabulous girl he has ever met, played (wonderfully, actually, and I’m not a fan) by Gwyneth Paltrow. We know that she is obese, we see her reflections in the windows and mirrors, but HE sees a lithe gorgeous Gwyneth. I was turned off by the ad campaign for the film (“hahaha look at the fat girl …” etc.) but when I finally saw the film I realized how subversive and pointed its commentary actually was. The best part of Paltrow’s performance is that she doesn’t play, in any way shape or form, a victim. No, she is an extrovert. A fun girl, who has a lot of interests, a sense of humor, and dreams (outside of finding a mate). She has opinions about things, she’s passionate and funny, and Jack Black (thinking she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow) cannot believe his luck. She likes him? And she looks like THAT?

The moment in this movie that gave me my “a-ha” moment in terms of Black’s ability as a dramatic actor is as good a moment as any heavy-hitting dramatic Oscar-winner has ever had in any Oscar-contending film. Rosemary volunteers in what we later learn is the burn unit of a children’s hospital. But we don’t know what these kids are in there for at first, because we see them through Ha;’s eyes. The children he meets are precious perfect little unflawed beings. Paltrow, unlike most fat characters in film, has a LIFE. She’s not immediately love-struck by Jack Black in a desperate way. She knows that she has to “vet” him, like any woman has to do with any potential mate in her life. How does he feel about family? How does he feel about kids? Who is he? What does he want? These are important questions any woman has to ask when considering a man as her mate, and Rosemary, by taking him to the burn unit, is doing that. How will he handle this? Will he cringe from the kids? Hal, still in the magical Tony-Robbins’-encouraged dreamspace, doesn’t see the burns, and freely plays with the kids, picking them up, and kissing them. Would he have cringed if he had been able to perceive their deformities, their scars, their burns?

Later in the film, the “veil” is ripped from his eyes. The magic is gone. He now knows that his girlfriend is obese, that she doesn’t look like Gwyneth Paltrow. He does not behave honorably. He blows her off in the most cowardly way possible. But he feels terribly about it. He starts to pursue Rosemary again, to apologize, he has broken her heart, she won’t answer the phone. He’s desperate. He goes to the hospital, to see if he can catch her during one of her shifts. As he wanders around, a little girl calls out to him. She recognizes him from when he visited with Rosemary. Black looks at her. Confused.

We see what he sees.

A tiny girl whose entire face has been burned off. We know who it is. He doesn’t know yet, but we do.

She says to him, “Don’t you remember me?”

It is in this moment that the light dawns over Jack Black’s face. He realizes what has happened to him. Not only does he realize what he has done to Rosemary, but he realizes what he has done to every single person he has ever met. Even precious innocent beings like this burned little girl.

He can’t hide what is happening with him. Everything goes soft and tender. He squats down onto her level, and she comes to him, and they hug. His heart is breaking. His voice is loving and soft – “Hi, beautiful …” but he’s playing so much more in the moment. Grief is there for him, grief at all of the time he has wasted not seeing people. In his “former life”, he might have missed out on this beautiful little human being, because of her burned face. He would have only seen that.

It’s a universal moment. It’s the theme of the movie. Jack Black embodies the theme easily, and deeply.

It’s my favorite moment of Jack Black’s acting. Ever. There’s a primal gentleness in him in the moment that seems to me to be wholly natural, not forced. He is brave enough to give us a good close look at his essence. No hiding. He can’t do it.

You show me a young actor today who could have played that moment better, without sliding into sugary sentimentality. Without somehow wanting to be congratulated for his emotional availability. Nicholson could do it. Bridges could do it. Cagney could do it. That’s the realm we’re in with Black.

Whatever he does, you can be damn sure it won’t be FACILE.


He is incapable of it. (This, for the record, is why he is not always successful. He’s out on a limb. Always. You won’t succeed every time if you operate in that way.)

In that vein, let’s just enjoy Tenacious D, helping us to rise above the “mucky-muck.”

Also: boy can SING.

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9 Responses to Happy Birthday, Jack Black

  1. Clara says:

    Yay, Sheilah, *high five*. I agree with you, Jack Black is a great actor! The moment from “Shallow Hal” you described so well is a great example, very memorable. I also like when he hums famous movie themes to Kate Winslet in “The Holiday” or when he encourages Tomika to sing and have confidence in “School of Rock”. His acting is really natural, you feel he’s speaking to you. I always empathize with his characters.

    Great post!

  2. sheila says:

    Clara – There are so many wonderful moments in School of Rock, but that moment you referenced is one of my favorites. I also love the trajectory of his career – again, there have been some missteps, but there always will be. He seems to be having fun, and his talent is irrepressible.

  3. Desirae says:

    Yep, I agree with you about this fellow.

    I was so excited when I heard that he was going to be doing Gulliver’s Travels. Can you think of anyone who would be more suited to the frankly harsh satire of Swift, yet also capable of showing the core of heartbroken humanity underneath that, the part that is just so sad that people can’t be better than they are? But it became clear that the movie wasn’t really similar to the novel at all. That was a letdown, because what a wasted opportunity!

  4. sheila says:

    Desirae – yeah, his talent is very specific. It can be misused because he can’t fit into just anything. I’d love to see him do Shakespeare, he’d probably be terrific. Like Malvolio or Bottom or something.

    And I have yet to see Tenacious D live and I really have to get on that!!

  5. Yeah, that scene in Shallow Hal is great. A vastly underrated movie.

  6. sheila says:

    Greg – I’m not sure the movie is underrated. It seems to have a pretty accurate reputation. Some hate it, some love it, some won’t even see it for the subject matter. I don’t think it’s an unsung great film or anything – but that scene? I’d put him toe to toe with any dramatic actor. What is surprising is that that scene comes in this movie. The movie is actually pretty dumb, in my opinion. I like dumb, don’t get me wrong.

  7. A dumb film with a good message, I think. But yeah, in retrospect, my sentence appears to be a bit hyperbolic.

    Still, that scene is great.

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