[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly would have been a shoo-in for a theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. What makes it truly special is its empathy for its arrogant scientist hero, Seth Brundle, who tests his revolutionary new matter transporter on himself and becomes genetically fused with a fly that was not supposed to be in the telepod with him. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is a nexus point for all the film’s creative elements: direction, writing, acting, makeup, optical effects, miniatures and puppetry. Goldblum’s work here brings everything together. It’s kind of a thespian telepod.
The original The Fly is a triumph of visual effects and special makeup. But these aspects of filmmaking are, for the most part, separate from the acting.
This is the other one.
Where the subtext of the original was deformity, the remake is about mortality and decay. It’s a tragic love story about the fragility of flesh. And that requires a more ambitious, and subtler, merger of special effects, makeup and acting.
Seth Brundle impulsively enters his invention, the telepod, because he’s despondent over a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believes that his lover, reporter Veronica Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is still in love her previous boyfriend. For a while after, Seth thinks he’s superhuman — an outwardly normal-looking person with extraordinary physical powers, which the movie sells through old-school filmmaking tricks. These include a gymnastic stunt double … and a rotating set.
Unfortunately for Seth, the merger of human DNA and fly DNA isn’t quite done yet. With each passing hour, Seth becomes less of a man and more of an insect. And Jeff Goldblum’s performance becomes incrementally submerged beneath ever-more-unsettling layers of gruesome makeup.
The effects are layered on incrementally, scene by scene, and they are showcased almost entirely through a single character, Seth Brundle, and a single performance, Jeff Goldblum’s.
But it’s the very last scene in the film that makes The Fly qualify, beyond any doubt, for our theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. When Seth tries to disentangle his DNA from the fly’s by bringing a third teleporter into the mix, Goldblum is nowhere to be seen, and the resulting, even more repulsive creature is played by a puppet. This is one of the saddest endings in all of horror, and it’s not just because of the writing, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, or that magnificent puppet. It’s because when we look at this pitiful creature, we’re remembering Seth as played by Jeff Goldblum.
Makeup masters Chris Walas and Stephen Doo Pwah deservedly won an academy award for their makeup effects on The Fly, and they graciously remembered to thank the film’s star.
But that moment also underlined a persistent problem in genre films that showcase nonhuman, or partly-human, characters. Whether it’s the acting, the makeup, the sets or the special visual effects that are being honored, the acclaim always has an implied asterisk next to it. Would the makeup and visual effects in The Fly have been as effective without Goldblum’s brilliant performance? No. And would Goldblum have been as magnificent and terrifying without the effects and makeup? Of course not. This was a collective effort that resulted in a singular achievement.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at StevenEdits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.