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ALL AN ACT: Notes on John Cusack and the art of being yourself

ALL AN ACT: Notes on John Cusack and the art of being yourself

By Masha Tupitsyn
PressPlay contributor

[EDITOR’S NOTE: PressPlay is proud to welcome New York-based critic Masha Tupitsyn to our roster of contributors. She’s currently working on a book titled Star Notes: John Cusack and The Politics of Acting. This piece is an expanded excerpt from that work in progress..]

I was almost 12 when I saw John Cusack on the street and thought he was Lloyd Dobler. I was with my best friend Lisa and we were waiting to cross the street in New York City. We saw a black trench coat. A tall man waving his arm impatiently on 8th and Broadway. We saw a short, nervous woman with long brown hair beside him and thought she was Diane Court from Say Anything. We couldn’t believe our eyes, but we wanted to believe them. Say Anything had come out the year before and Lisa loved it more than I did. Quoted from it. Played the song that defined the movie. Had the poster of Say Anything, of Lloyd Dobler, on her bedroom door, with Lloyd holding his boombox above his head. His sonic heart blasting into song. Like Lloyd, Cusack was wearing a trench, baggy cargo pants, and high tops that night, but what came first, the clothes or the movie? The character or the actor? Cusack himself had admitted, “Usually I do everything in reverse. I practice something in movies and then I try it in real life.” But all of us do that.

We could tell immediately that something was wrong because Lloyd was yelling at the woman, something Lloyd would never do. Not like that. It was cold, and he was pacing, like Lloyd. But he was belligerent and petulant, not like Lloyd. From only a few feet away, we watched Lloyd yell at the woman. “Get in the fucking car,” he ordered when the cab finally came. “Now.” The woman got into the car. Then he climbed in after her, slammed the door, and was gone. Until that moment it had never occurred to either one of us that the man we loved onscreen wouldn’t be exactly the same man offscreen. Or, that the man was actually two men, two separate things, and that the screen and the real world were two separate things too. Until that night, the screen was real. Lisa and I asked our selves how Cusack could play Lloyd if he wasn’t Lloyd? That is, if you could become something in and for a fiction, why couldn’t or wouldn’t you be it for real? Who and what were we looking at? Who and what had we seen? Who and what was a man?

Shortly after Say Anything’s release, a female fan approached Cusack at a bar and asked him, “Are you Lloyd?” His answer was, “On a good day.” Cusack himself had once told an interviewer that he “felt close to Lloyd” in Say Anything. Adding, “only I’m not as good as him. Whatever part of me is romantic and optimistic, I reached into that to play Lloyd. Of course, now it’s all gone. Now I’m just bitter.” I myself would later learn, it wasn’t about one or the other: real versus fake, onscreen versus offscreen. Lloyd Dobler versus John Cusack. It was about doubling. Using one person to be another person, so that you could be more and less of yourself. A hybrid. An ideal. In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Alma (Bibi Andersson) tells the stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who she’s been hired to take care of, “Nobody asks if it’s real or not, if you’re honest or a liar. That’s only important at the theater, perhaps not even there.” In Persona, two women, two images, consolidate to make one. Two different faces are not two separate people. Rather, they are what you are and what you are not. Bergman wanted the two women, the two characters, the two actresses—Ullmann and Andersson, who had both been his lovers at one time, whom he had worked with and lived with, who were characters in his films, as well as real people in his life, and in whom he saw himself, having been seriously ill and depressed like Elisabet—to fuse the way they had for him. The way they had for us. The way things on screen do. But also so that two different faces could become one face. One person. And then you wouldn’t have to ask yourself what and where you were seeing what you were seeing. When and where you were being yourself.

Over the past 20 years, John Cusack has profited from his iconic double by exploiting the cultural and romantic agitprop of Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler. The character has become Cusack’s idealized cinematic male alias; informing every movie role he’s done since, and “draw[ing] the spectator into a specific path of intertextuality,” to quote film historian Richard DeCordova, “that extends outside of the text as formal system.” On the blog Rap Sheet, writer Chris Knopf offers a description of Roy Dillon’s disaffected, yet charming con-man in Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters that could just as easily be a description of John Cusack (who plays Dillon in the movie version of The Grifters, specifically Cusack as Lloyd Dobler: “The protagonist, Roy Dillon, is a natural at this game. Beguilingly ordinary and unassuming on the outside, the kind of guy everyone likes to talk to, everyone immediately trusts. He’s highly intelligent, resourceful, courteous, and responsible—a paragon of respectability.” Say Anything’s Cameron Crowe has described Lloyd as a “warrior for optimism” and PressPlay contributor Sarah D. Bunting observed that with Say Anything, “Lloyd, the character, became conflated, in the minds of many girls of a certain age bracket, with Cusack, the actor.”

Even years later, when Harold Ramis, the director of The Ice Harvest (2005), another neo-noir, was asked what made Cusack right for the part of Charlie, he answered, “I think people perceive John as a good person. I think that because they perceive him as a good person, as long as he’s alive [as a character], there’s the smallest glimmer of possibility for redemption.” For one viewer, this perceived goodness and possibility of redemption was so overpowering, it resulted in wishful thinking in the form of revisionism. On the commentary track for The Grifters, Donald Westlake, the movie’s screenwriter, recalls meeting a young woman at a party a year after the The Grifters was released. She insisted that Roy Dillon was still alive. “But that’s impossible,” Westlake told her, stunned. “Roy gets killed.” Yet despite the bloody unequivocality of Roy’s death, the woman continued to insist that Roy was not dead. The woman informed Westlake that as Roy’s mother Lilly drives off with Roy’s money, the very last thing we see is Roy running across the street.

Since Hollywood is known for keeping people alive onscreen, often at the expense of realism, a tradition Robert Altman’s The Player—a study of the movie industry, and in which John Cusack and Angelica Huston, his Grifters costar, both cameo—mocks, daring filmmaking is often equated with a willingness to eradicate primary characters. The viewer’s recovery of Roy that Westlake relays, then, is not only symptomatic of Hollywood indoctrination, but the resonant and indispensable subjectivity Lloyd Dobler has endowed Cusack with, and vice versa—what Ramis refers to as Cusack’s “perceived goodness.” So that even when Cusack has tried to forsake his participation in the sanctity of mainstream narrative by playing killers (Grosse Pointe Blank, War, Inc.) or staging his death onscreen (The Grifters and Max), fans can’t resist the urge to recuperate or resuscitate him, for without Roy, they believe, Cusack can still exist, but without Cusack, Lloyd (love, redemption) cannot. “The actor cannot be said to exist simply at the level of film form,” writes DeCordova in his book Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System, and Westlake’s anecdote testifies to this. In the case of Roy, the female viewer that Westlake describes in The Grifters’ commentary looks beyond the film form (the non-diegetic), the movie’s ruthless fictional terms, to remedy what she sees as an unbearable conclusion.

As viewers, we often have one foot in a film and one foot in reality, so when it comes to the stars we love, we look to the fiction or we look for a way out of it depending on which outcome is better. This adds a new layer to the cinematic fold. “We can note a number of levels at which the actor-subject is constituted as an instance exterior to its appearance in form,” DeCordova writes, and “each is predicated on the knowledge…that the people whose image appears on film have an existence outside of that image.” Perhaps Grifter’s director Stephen Frears was less sure about the dual tenancy of the actor because (at least at the time of shooting) he believed that once an actor plays dead they shouldn’t continue to appear in the film in which they’ve died. So Fears waited until the very end to shoot Cusack’s bloody death scene in The Grifters, concerned that once dead, Cusack might fail to come alive again. It’s possible that Fears believed that death, however staged, wasn’t something one could rise above even in fiction. To quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus on death: “It is irrational to fear an event if when that event occurs we are not in existence. And since when death is, we are not. And when we are, death is not, then it’s irrational to fear death.” But what does it mean to play dead and what exactly was Frears afraid it would lead to or inhibit? Was it Cusack’s acting ability that worried Frears, or simply the danger of acting something as irreversible and final as death? Or, perhaps, as Epicurus notes, it was simply the conceptual quandary of imagining the unimaginable; of feigning death while living.

Even Cusack himself took Roy’s death literally. Lingering onset afterwards, Westlake claims that Cusack told him, “I always just saw this script as this cool guy who goes around conning everyone and I never really paid attention to the ending of it. And in the end, I find myself lying dead on a pile of money, after having just been kissed and killed by my own mother. And I thought, “Whadda ’ya know? The joke’s on me.” An interesting noir rejoin to the The Grifters’ elliptical tagline, “Who’s conning who?” is also a double-entendre on an actor’s life. Roy, so afraid of being conned that he takes conning into his own hands, ends up tricking Cusack, who not only played, but learned to play, a conman under the tutelage of rehabilitated professional swindlers (“Mechanics”) like Ricky J., who taught Cusack nickel and dime cons, or what Cusack refers to as tutorials on “lying and deception” on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. “It was a great way to spend a September,” Cusack told Gross. “Grifters are non-persons and grifts are about having information the other person doesn’t have.”

But just as all noir is fundamentally about characters who grift, conning and concocting for a living is something all actors and human beings do. Cusack, 23 and terrified of being typecast and duped by Hollywood, took the role of Roy Dillon in 1989 just after Say Anything as an act of mutiny against previous roles (perhaps even his entire 80s filmography. See Hot Tub Time Machine), and a way into future ones. Desperate for the role, he’d even tried to option Jim Thompson’s novel in high school. Cusack wanted to slay his lovable image—specifically Lloyd Dobler—with Roy Dillon.

After a short-con goes wrong in The Grifters, Roy ends up in the hospital with internal bleeding. Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), Roy’s long-con girlfriend, comes to visit Roy, who’s been posing as a matchbook salesman, and asks him what he really sells for a living? Although maimed and bound to a wheelchair Roy manages to muster up enough swagger to answer “self-confidence.” A euphemism, “confidence” (con-man) or “confidence trickster,” meaning to fool a person by gaining their confidence, is the original definition of grifter. In order to hoodwink people and maintain their anonymity, grifters, also called drifters, never stay in one place, in the same way that “good” actors are expected not to inhabit the same character twice. For both grifters (especially short-con ones) and actors, identity is a swindle; a temporary role you wander through and occupy quixotically without ever settling down into anything or anyone. Perhaps this definition of acting is also the antithesis of Method acting, where one lives (or claims to) firmly or fully in a role in order to “become” something else.

But while when it comes to Hollywood, screen performances and actors are designed to be remembered, grifters and grifts are not: “You couldn’t disguise yourself, naturally,” writes Jim Thompson in The Grifters, “It was more a matter of not doing anything. Or avoiding any mannerism, any expression, any tone or pattern of speech, any posture or gesture or walk—anything that might be remembered.” Thompson’s conspectus of grifters can be likened to a naturalistic style of acting—the kind of acting you don’t see. The kind that doesn’t leave an impression. That passes for real. That tricks you into believing. In her book Choking on Marlon Brando, film critic Antonia Quirke echoes Thompson description of grifters, “Actors always like to think that acting is about giving. But a great actor knows that it’s about concealing. Great actors are people with something to conceal.”

In Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) acting is presented intertextually and the diegetic and non-diegetic come together. Cinematic references, allusions, and stars litter the film both as distinct Hollywood types and interrelated parts that comprise the “identity-producing apparatus” of Hollywood. The Player film features over sixty cameo appearances by Hollywood actors, producers, and directors, who appear extraneously as actors/directors/producers playing “themselves,” or principally as fictional characters embedded in The Player’s diegetic fiction. However, stars do not appear gratuitously to simply boost the celebrity count of the film, but rather to depict an intricate system of representation and to illustrate how that system operates as a complex web of onstage and offstage life. DeCordova points out that the “star’s identity does not exist within the individual star (the way we might, however naively, believe our identities exist within us), but rather in the connections between and associations among a wide variety of texts—films, interviews, publicity photos, etc.” These connections and associations are literally the subject and mise en scène of The Player.

In the film, stars not only play themselves by appearing as themselves (as in the case of post-Grifters Angelica Huston and John Cusack, who are out to lunch in the film), but by playing the public self that’s been manufactured for them. Altman evokes a primitive form of cinema (newsreels) while using the current discourse on acting. Further, his theatrical schema in The Player salutes DeCordova’s historical template for the star system, which began with the discourse on acting, which led to the picture personality, the star, and finally star scandals. In the film, Hollywood producers plot to do away with the existing system of production by eliminating star salaries, reverting to factual versus fictional narratives, and reviving the early model of moving pictures as a mechanical form of reproduction.

But just as we never know what to believe when it comes to the actor—what is real and what isn’t; or more importantly, whether real comes from fiction, or fiction comes from real—actors never really have to defend the source of their reality, or the reality of their sources, and therefore can often traverse reality and identity in transgressive ways. “It [is] more than just the power of having other people look at [you], or the power of being another person,” writes Quirke, “it [is] the utter freedom and violence and irresponsibility available.” In his films, Cusack eschews the pretense of realism of an earlier generation of less reflexive Method actors, instead fashioning a style of portrayal that is less immersive and annotates the nature of acting and persona—the way that acting is a condition that belongs to all of us, not just the actor.

In a 2008 episode of Talk Theatre In Chicago, Joyce Piven, co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of The Piven Theatre Workshop (where Cusack, along with life-long friend and fellow actor Jeremy Piven, studied), discussed the school’s philosophy. Joyce Piven explains that The Piven Theatre teaches actors to inhabit a text using one’s own voice—not an “actor’s” voice—and the only way to do that is to bring oneself into the story. There are two aspects to the Viola Spolin (who influenced the first generation of improvisational actors at Second City in Chicago in the late 1950s through her son, Paul Sills, one of Second City’s co-founders), and later Piven method, individuality and transformation, and one has to master the former in order to achieve the latter. While Lee Strasberg’s Method acting uses an objective method as the means to accomplish something, in some sense making method (system) achievement itself, the Piven school emphasizes a conscious duality: the relationship between subjectivity and fiction, the subjective experience of creating a fiction, and most importantly, the fiction of subjectivity (identity). That is, the way a fiction changes according to who plays it. As Cusack put it, “The individuality of the actor is the actor’s goldmine.”

As the clip from War, Inc., (from 1:18-4:00 in the first clip and from 2:23-3:11 in the second clip) demonstrates, Cusack took his training to heart. Acting becomes a central part of being, as well as a crucial part of cinematic diegesis. In his post-Say Anything films Cusack often rhapsodizes about the opera omnia of his own screen persona, blurring the gap between onstage and offstage, being and performing, by meditating on what it means to act in the world and on the screen. To be an actor and a man, as well as a man who has chosen to spend his life acting. In his later films Cusack naturalizes persona (the way Ingmar Bergman did with his own Persona in 1966, where acting is as much a condition of life and identity as it is the theater, and which Carl Jung believed was the marketing of dreams under various guises, which is also what movies are) and undermines the so-called realism of fully immersive acting, by examining the possibilities of representation and performance.

Both audience and filmmakers alike seem to have Cusack’s screen mythology in mind, even when they claim like Stephen Frears to not know anything about it. In The Grifters’ commentary track, Donald Westlake explains that Roy was a breakout role for Cusack because he wasn’t playing somebody who was just a “nice guy.” Rather, he was “getting to use all those winsome, cute things,” says Westlake, “but he was taking it in an opposite direction.” Frears, on the other hand, claims he was entirely unfamiliar with his lead actor’s cinematic past as a loveable teenager. Unlike the movie’s two female leads, Angelica Huston and Annette Bening, Cusack didn’t technically even audition for The Grifters. He was “chosen,” said Frears, who had never seen any of Cusack’s films, for his “quality.” “On meeting John, I could believe in the character.” Cusack met the director in a hotel room and sat on a couch while Frears “circled” him. “It was the strangest meeting I can remember,” Cusack laughs, who claims he didn’t officially do any acting to land the part.

Working off of the social-political rebellion and romantic idealism of the 60s and 70s, along with the emotional lexicon and romantic tropes Cusack established with Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, Cusack fashions himself as a jaded rebel, a fallen angel, and a Romeo even when he plays an international assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc (movies he co-wrote and co-produced). Regardless of the ostensible subject matter, Cusack’s cinematic iconography has always revolved around the search for love and the meaning of existence. Thus, in many ways Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc (War, Inc has been referred to as Grosse Pointe Blank 2) are about what would have happened if Lloyd Dobler had in fact gone into the military to “work for a corporation,” something he famously refuses to do in his now-iconic dinner speech to Diane’s father in Say Anything, where Lloyd denounces corporatism, militarism, consumerism, and the ideological basis of male ambition.

If Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and War, Inc, form a triptych on masculinity, Grosse Pointe Blank can also be read as a sequel or alternate (double) to Say Anything, for the later two films are also de facto studies on who Lloyd could and would have become had he not chosen to follow Diane after high school in Say Anything. The way Martin Blank deserts Debi Newberry, his high school sweetheart, to become a professional assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank. In Say Anything, Lloyd chooses the path of love. In Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc., Martin and Hauser choose the path of death. While Lloyd is a modern-day Romeo, Martin is a modern-day angel of death because, as one character in Todd Haynes I’m Not There points out, death, not love, “is such a part of the American scene right now.”

When Martin returns to Pointe Blank, Michigan, for his final assignment as well as his 10-year high school reunion, Debi, who Martin’s been have recurring dreams about for 10 years, confronts Martin about his sudden and unexplained disappearance. Martin tells Debi that psychological testing in the Army (a path Lloyd actively avoids in Say Anything) revealed that he was suited to work as a hit man for the CIA. While Lloyd is urged by his absent, military father to join the army, Martin, “who freaked out, joined the army, went into business for [himself],” enlisted voluntarily. Martin justifies his absence and decision to become an assassin by telling Debi, “I just wanted to kill someone,” an admission of adolescent male rage that gets exploited and professionalized by the system. In an interview about Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack, a teenager during the Reagan-Bush years, explains why he was drawn to the film.

“I grew up fascinated by people in the Reagan administration, their ethics, their mercenary values. People who plan wars and then go home to their wives and their kids. What is that? It’s schizophrenic. How do they live? To me, Grosse Pointe Blank was a metaphor for the people in the Bush White House. I thought one way of looking at this was to play around with the killer genre. Some people got it. For some it worked as entertainment.”

In an appearance on Charlie Rose in 1997, Cusack describes Martin Blank as “a very depressed international assassin who has lost his joy for his work…who doesn’t have any meaning in his life, and who’s in a bit of a spiritual crisis, but [who] doesn’t want to equate his behavior with his self-image, and [who] doesn’t really want to stop what he’s doing.” Debi, a radio DJ, gives voice to Cusack’s ongoing interest in moral responsibility and hypocrisy (in Say Anything, for example, Lloyd is the designated “keymaster” at the party he takes Diane to on their first date) by asking her listeners to: “Ponder this: Where are all the good men dead? In the heart or in the head?” While Lloyd understands what is at stake for the head and heart, that the head and heart are indivisible; that who you are and what you do are inextricably linked, Martin, as Harold Ramis, Cusack’s director in The Ice Harvest observes, “has convinced himself that it doesn’t matter what you do. But in fact, the film tells you that you cannot take action in this world without expecting consequences.” It’s fitting, then, that Hauser tells the reporter Natalie Hegalhusen (Marisa Tomei) in War, Inc, that he is “looking for redemption in all the wrong places.”

While Lloyd’s fully rendered subjectivity and love ethic in Say Anything are acts of resistance (both spontaneous and deliberate) and self-preservation, Martin’s participation in the business of death has both necessitated and resulted in an identity of moral blankness. Martin Blank’s blank identity is a tabula rasa that gets filled in and written (or, more accurately, erased) by the government agency that recruits him and turns him into a killer. A man without an identity. As if awaking from a nightmare he can’t remember, Martin literally draws a blank whenever he’s asked to describe the “past ten years.” This is because in many ways Martin hasn’t really existed since he left Pointe Blank and Debi.

Grosse Pointe Blank maintains discursive ties with Say Anything’s diegetic universe through various leitmotifs and doubles: Debi, who is Diane’s double, the charlatan, corrupt, two-faced fathers (stand-ins for the Reagan and Bush administrations that Cusack has criticized), Jeremy Piven as the recurring friend, the pen, and the motif of high school. Say Anything opens with a conversation about love, followed by a high school graduation, while Grosse Pointe Blank concludes with a 10-year high school reunion that ushers Martin into an existential crisis and emotional rebirth. The two films are also linked by two key speeches that serve as character arcs as well as social commentaries. Lloyd’s heartbroken admission on Diane’s answering machine that: “Maybe I didn’t really know you. Maybe you were just a mirage. Maybe the world is full of food and sex and spectacle and we’re all just hurling towards an apocalypse, in which case it’s not your fault” returns in Grosse Pointe Blank (when Martin tells Debi’s father what his life has consisted of the past ten years) as: “Six figures. Doing business with lead-pipe cruelty. Mercenary sensibility. Sports. Sex. No real relationships with anybody.” The speeches also articulate the horror Debi feels when she discovers Martin’s true identity, for Martin personifies Lloyd’s elegiac description of late 20th century life.

Most significantly, the pen that Diane Court famously gives Lloyd in exchange for “his heart” (a pen that Diane’s criminally scheming father suggests Diane give Lloyd as a souvenir of their love when she ends their relationship—“I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen” Lloyd tells his sister from a payphone in the rain) reappears with a vengeance in Cusack’s later two films as a talisman of lost love and idealism; a symbolic object that connects the three films thematically, establishes a diegesis, and is irrevocably marred when Martin turns the pen into a weapon and uses it to kill a rival hitman at his high school reunion. When Diane gives Lloyd the pen and tells him: “write me,” Lloyd stares at the pen with disgust and bafflement; endowing it with a kind of repressed violence that resurfaces later (see the last 2 seconds of clip #1. 2:06-2:07). The following two clips establish the trajectory of the pen.

When Martin uses the pen to stab a man in the neck in Grosse Pointe Blank, The English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” narrates Martin’s actions and moral dilemma (“Maybe I didn’t really know you. Maybe you were just a mirage.”), dramatizing what is at stake for the self, and what has been at stake for Martin’s (and Cusack’s) in the modern world:

“Find no interest in the
racks and shelves
Just a thousand reflections
of my own sweet self, self, self…
Mirror in the bathroom
You’re my mirror in the bathroom
You’re my mirror in the bathroom
You’re my mirror in the bathroom…
Mirror in the bathroom
For all my crimes
of self defense.
Cures you whisper
make no sense
Drift gently into
mental illness.”

The motif of the mirror in the bathroom is represented literally (just before the fight scene) and figuratively (during the fight scene). Before the kickboxing fight scene (which Lloyd studies in Say Anything because it is the “sport of the future”), Martin looks at himself in a bathroom mirror and confronts his reflection. In the mirror, the three selves in Cusack’s trilogy become mise en abyme. In “Medieval ‘mise-en-abyme’: The object depicted within itself,’” Stuart Whatling observes that the writer André Gide used the mise-en-abyme “to describe a form of self-reflexive embedding found in various art-forms.” With relation to Gide’s study of the French novel, Whatling writes:

“From Gide‟s point of view, what mattered was not the mere presence of an embedded image or narrative within a larger whole, but the fact that the thing thus contained resembled that which contained it – and more importantly that this resemblance in some way informed the viewer or reader about the form or meaning of the whole.”

The experience or cognitive dissonance that results in standing between mirrors, between screens, between the three films—the mirror Martin is looking into during the movie’s bathroom scene, the mirror in the song (in words), and the mirror of the screen in which and on which we see the triptych of Cusack as Martin, Lloyd, and later Hauser—is an index of artistic self-awareness and self-reflexivity. The three films are thus a portrait of three men consolidated into one man, as well three men consolidated into one actor. More importantly, the mirror in which all the meanings are stringed together, stored, and embedded self-reflexively result in an infinite reproduction of division and unification. In blurring the boundaries between being and performing, actor and character, “the screen mythology extends itself behind the screen and beyond it,” writes Edgar Morin in The Stars. “The star is drawn into a dialectic of division and reunification of the personality.” Grosse Pointe Blank and its mirror image/fight scene are concerned precisely with both these questions. When and how did Martin break into two? When and how did Lloyd become Martin? And is reunification of the personality possible after such a division?

Martin himself doesn’t know the answer and cannot account for the split. When Debi catches Martin in the act of killing, with the sullied pen in hand, Martin tells Debi, “It’s not me,” pre-figuring the monologue Hauser will later deliver on persona and acting in War, Inc., Through the three films, Cusack seems to be saying: all of this me and none of this is me. But also: I don’t know who I am and neither do you. Further, Cusack is dismantling the subjective concreteness of Lloyd. In War, Inc, Natalie tells the “straight mercenary” Hauser, “There’s gotta be a person in there somewhere (a nod to Martin’s blankness).” Hauser responds with: “Maybe being human means we invite spectators to ponder what lies behind. Each of us would be composed with a variety of masks, and if we can see behind the mask, we would get a burst of clarity.” Who and what are we looking at? Who and what are we seeing? Who and what is a man?

At the end of War, Inc, Hauser also uses a pointed instrument to stab and kill a man. In this case, the murder is witnessed by Natalie, Hauser’s love interest, as well as Hauser’s long lost daughter, the Central Asian pop star Yonica Babyyeah. Only this time, when Hauser, realizes that Natalie and Yonica have witnessed his savagery, he doesn’t bother to interject with, “It’s not me.” Instead, he looks utterly dejected. For Hauser it is simply too late for such disavowals. Both Martin and Hauser have blood on their hands and blood on their mouths. Blood coming out of them. Both men wound and are wounded. Both are no longer themselves. When Lloyd, the kickboxer, gets knocked out at the sight of Diane while training in the ring, Lloyd is wounded and bleeding around the nose and mouth. He is bleeding when Diane asks him to take her back. Bleeding when they kiss. Martin is bleeding when Debi sees him. Hauser is bleeding when Natalie and Yanica see him. As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, “These marks, these wounds are so many points.” The painter Caravaggio says something similar in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio: “In the wound, the question is answered” (See the clip from 4:43-5:30).

But unlike Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc., Lloyd not only forsakes the male power drive, he renounces the collective notion that men should, above all, and at whatever cost, signify the pursuit of male ambition and domination in all its fetishized and fractured forms. Cusack explores and parodies these fetishizations of violence (particularly as they relate to representation), simultaneously participating in and disavowing them, in Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc, just as he plays with and addresses his own romantic iconography as a contemporary Romeo in films like Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity. At one point even asking the camera/audience: “How does a regular guy like me become the # 1 lover man?” And in an interview off screen: “I just invented a sketch of a deep and sensitive guy because I’m in the position to invent him.”

If Say Anything is the pinnacle of an emotionally expansive and liberated masculinity—a masculinity with all its deep meanings and loving capacities both recovered and redefined—War, Inc, and Grosse Pointe Blank actually work their way backwards. Backpedalling from Say Anything’s emancipated, integrated, and non-traditional model of masculinity, and commencing from a different point altogether. Regressing into the crisis of male identity and male violence, Cusack’s charming psychotics (one is in therapy and one knocks back shots of hot sauce in an effort to simultaneously thaw and freeze his emotions) in Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc., are fractured, lost, disillusioned, and complicit in the morally compromising and bankrupt systems (the Reagan and Bush administrations) that Lloyd and Cusack explicitly eschew.

Both Martin and Hauser are looking for a way back to the moral center and “warrior optimism” that Lloyd personifies in Say Anything. In both Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc., Cusack delves into Lloyd’s shadow side, his alter ego, telling Total Film, “Like all actors, I really just reveal my shadow every time I work. And the shadow is all the pain, shame, anger, and rage; the creativity and sexuality.” Similarly, on Charlie Rose, Cusack explains that he wanted to make Grosse Pointe Blank because Martin “is a fertile character to get into American dream mythology.” So too, of course, is celebrity, as well as Cusack’s own contribution to and stake in American dream mythology. Thus, if Lloyd is the male ideal, perhaps Martin and Hauser are prologues—or even aftermaths—to Lloyd; a paragon that’s led astray in Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc, the way that the 80s can be read as a backlash to the political and social idealism of the 60s and 70s, which shaped Cusack’s own progressive upbringing in Evanston, Illinois.

But unlike Martin, who gets to be Lloyd again when he decides to go home in Grosse Pointe Blank, Hauser, in his 40s, seems to have lost his chance entirely by voiding Martin—the halfway point between Lloyd and Hauser. War, Inc, is partly concerned with how Lloyd became Hauser, with no Martin in-between to redeem him or intervene. When Say Anything’s Cameron Crowe pursued Cusack for the role of Lloyd, even flying to Chicago to meet him for dinner, Cusack, 22 at the time, was reluctant to play the part of a high school student. “I never want to go back,” he told Crowe, “even on film.” But “because life is full of second chances,” as one character in Grosse Pointe Blank proclaims, Cusack recoups the utopia of Lloyd through Martin who rediscovers his real self and lost love when he goes home (to an arrested time) to Pointe Blank. At first, Martin is also wary of attending his 10-year high school reunion back home. It takes the cajoling of Martin’s secretary, played by Cusack’s real-life sister, Joan Cusack, who also plays Lloyd’s sister in Say Anything. In real life, Cusack has openly admitted to hating high school, which he barely attended due to his film career. So why does Cusack have Martin go back? Why does he build the mezzo of his recursive trilogy around a high school reunion? Why does Cusack give Martin a second chance? Do the things one wants to revisit, recover, and become change over time? Does the past hold the answers even onscreen? And if Martin is allowed to escape the nightmare of American dream mythology, of American war mythology, of violent and nihilistic masculinity, why has Hauser gone even deeper into those things?

As a powerful identificatory symbol and ideal love object, viewers, as Harold Ramis and Donald Westlake have pointed out, can’t help but salvage the sainted Cusack, which partly explains why he’s often airbrushed in roles and why the sub-plot of Carol Roberg, for example, a Holocaust survivor and Roy’s private nurse in The Grifters, was omitted from the film. While the movie does retain Carol as a character, her story and Jewish identity were scraped. Westlake claims that the movie’s contemporary time-period didn’t permit for the inclusion of the story, yet both Angelica Huston and Stephen Frears point out that time doesn’t really exist in The Grifters. Yet if the movie is composed of all-time and no-time—“ambiguous time” (Frears)—a lacuna specific to America, and Los Angeles in particular; and if time is “everlasting” (Huston), or as Cusack pointed out, “each face has a hundred years in it,” then why wasn’t there space in the movie’s symbolically blended chronology to include Carol?

As a film, The Grifters, a color noir, gorges on American history by expressing it synchronically, and therefore not at all. History is medley, pastiche: “You had the women in forties dresses,” says Cusack on the movie’s audio track, “and we were driving cars from the seventies, and I was in eighties suits doing my grift at a Bennigans.” Even the movie’s DVD image (now over twenty years old) with the unspecified date surrounding Roger Ebert’s assertion that The Grifters is “One Of The Year’s Top 10 Movies!—” invokes a strange mixture of anachronism, simultaneity, and temporal suspension. I would argue that Frears’ and Westlake’s omission of Roberg’s story and Roy’s treatment of her is an attempt to save-face—primarily Roy’s (a victim of a shocking Oedipal dénouement, which complicates the film and saves it from being mere pastiche) and Cusack’s, a beloved romantic icon, for the anti-Semitism and nihilistic interiority that Roy displays in the novel versus the film, showcases a much more unpardonable and unsavory cruelty:

“He wanted to shake her, to beat her…He was furious with her. Subjectively, his thoughts were not a too-distant parallel of the current popular philosophizing. The things you heard and read and saw everywhere…After all, the one-time friends, poor fellows, were now our friends and it was bad taste to show gas-stoves on television. After all, you couldn’t condemn a people, could you? And what if they had done exactly that themselves? Should you make the same regrettable error? After all, they hated the Reds as much as we did, they were as eager as we were to blow every stinking red in the world to hell and gone. And after all, those people, the allegedly sinned-against, had brought of the trouble on themselves. It was their own fault. It was her own fault.”

As a novel, The Grifters does what the movie won’t do: it displays Roy’s bleak worldview outside of the suggestive, but ultimately obfuscating montage of conning and victimhood. The above passage shows us that Roy is not simply the casualty of a biological con—a boyhood duped and symbolically stolen by “corrupt motherhood”—but a victimizer as well, which moves his conning beyond the one-dimensionality of monetary survival. However, due to film noir’s open-ended history, any finale is possible, even the ones that come from outside a film. Westlake himself caved, admitting on the movie’s commentary track that Roy Dillon may in fact still be alive: “For all I know, she’s right.” But it’s also not surprising, then, that this sadistic side of Roy, this bloody and true-history thread in Thompson’s novel, is absent from the film’s mix of eras and styles.

So what is Cusack selling? If God is in the details, so is Cusack, who is accused of playing himself onscreen. But who came up with the idea that the onscreen Cusack is the real Cusack? How does an actor, who by definition plays people he isn’t, get branded for playing himself (what critics and fans have dubbed “Cusackian,” a correlative of “Doblerism”), a self viewers don’t actually know; and how can Cusack be playing Cusack if the person he plays onscreen is reportedly nothing like him? Discussing his first movie Class (1983) on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Cusack explains that acting, an ancillary to the self, ultimately “comes down to these very personal performances on this large scale…The first thing you do [as an actor], is play yourself, and if you can get comfortable as yourself in front of the camera, then you can start to play different aspects of yourself and different characters.

Unlike the taciturn romantic male icons of film noir, whose charm and sex appeal can be chalked up to their opacity, to what they conceal, withhold, and suggest—a tension that has come to define our definition of heterosexual masculinity, and that has rooted that masculinity in the mechanics of conning and withholding—Lloyd Dobler intercepts this paradigm by celebrating total emotional transparency instead. In the opening scene of Say Anything, Lloyd, in the company of two female friends, not only declares his interest in Diane Court, but emphatically asserts, “I wanna get hurt!” when his friends tell him that he has no chance with Diane. Not only is Lloyd unafraid of getting hurt, he is unafraid to admit that he is unafraid. He not only shows his feelings, he speaks about his feelings. He tells us he feels like crying and then he cries. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm writes, “To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness to even accept pain and disappointment.”

In some ways, Cusack’s performance as Lloyd has prohibited any other kind of act from him, for as William Hurt puts it to Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, “You been this other guy almost as long as you’ve been yourself.” This shifts the question to not who Cusack really is, but rather, whether Cusack is anything like Lloyd, which is really just another way of asking: do men like Lloyd exist outside of cinema? This is the big question Lloyd Dobler continues to pose for fans. It also means that Cusack’s popularity has less to do with acting bravura and more with the nature of identity and performance. What is real, what is true, and just how natural can faking be? As one ImdB blogger put it, “I like Morgan Freeman as an actor and John Cusack as a person,” as if at the end of the day Cusack weren’t an actor at all. But this is the neverending question we all struggle with. Who and what is real? For, if the “real thing” is as fake as the fake, or if fake feels real; or real is so easy to fake, how will we ever know who’s who and what’s what?

If we return to what Cusack told Terry Gross about playing oneself first, it might be useful to ask: When did Cusack transition into playing other people? Perhaps the better question might be: Is the “subjective” screen-self that Cusack’s invented his greatest dramaturgical contribution? In Picture Personalities, DeCordova argues that when a discourse on acting was established in the early 1900s, the player’s identity entered into the process of the film’s production of meaning.” And in Celebrity, scholar Chris Rojek notes that “celebrity status always implies a split between a private self and a public self, and that staging a presence through the media inevitably raises the question of authenticity…a perpetual dilemma for both the celebrity and the audience.” Cusack’s school of dramatics seems to validate both points. That the self, however extrapolated, distorted, and split, is really the only thing one has to work with, and is therefore the best invention to strive for, so why omit it from the creative process? Why not use it to drive the fiction the way Cusack has with his trilogy.

In a review of Must Love Dogs (2005) one critic scoffed, “Cusack is playing Cusack as he always does. You know what I’m talking about.” Another chimed in with a similar complaint, “The problem with John Cusack is he has no range. He always plays one role: himself.” But while it’s one thing to accuse someone of bad acting, it’s another to equate what they do onscreen—however badly—with authenticity; that is, to assume that the flaw lies in a consistently intrusive verisimilitude that doesn’t belong in cinematic space or in a fiction, and that the viewer can never actually verify when it comes to the star. Moreover, that a lack of range or acting ability is rooted in the failure to break with the “real” self. And yet Cusack’s implicit and explicit use of subjectivity in his acting—his acknowledgement that the choice to act, to play someone, to compose a self, and most importantly, to draw a connection and create a continuum between the onscreen and offscreen selves—has made his screen presence uniquely significant.

When Total Film asked Cusack, “Isn’t there a speck of duality in there? If an actor’s doing [his] job, shouldn’t a bit of themselves poke through the performance?”
 Cusack answered, “Without question…Actors should embody someone who is real. Meaning their own qualities should come out. Good actors can access themselves – possibilities, possible versions of what they could become.” In the Guardian’s “Being John Cusack,” Suzie Mackenzie ponders the ethical repercussions of acting: “Actors, of course, play roles for a living. But all of us, and all the time, play roles in life and we have choices about how we play and what we play. Unthinkingly to play a part – to say this is not me, this is just what I do for a job, is morally irresponsible…(You could make the case that all [Cusack’s] films since Grosse Pointe Blank are about this. Is this me or is this an alias? Who am I?).” Mackenzie, however, makes her most astute observation about Cusack’s reflexive role-play at the beginning of the interview: “John Cusack is a man with a conscience, but as a film actor he specializes in morally ambiguous characters.”

But isn’t it the other way around? Cusack plays men with a conscience; men with often uniquely intact hearts and egos; men who lack guile. In other words, men who do not act.

When it comes to John Cusack, viewers look as much at what’s inside the frame as what’s outside it. For, we not only go to a John Cusack movie to see John Cusack—the incentive for many viewers when it comes to their favorite actors—we go to consider the nature of being and performance, of acting, through someone who seems not to be acting at all. Instead of suspending belief, viewers want to build upon it through someone who acts and feels believable — someone who uses acting to show us what authenticity (or, more precisely, a person being authentic) looks like. Even when Cusack plays bad, we believe he’s simply commenting on what and who is bad, which makes him good. That the fiction is always his—him. Thus making it, and what he’s showing us about himself, real. That Lloyd is who Cusack really is, always has been, and every character that’s came after Lloyd is just an act. It is this enduring conviction that allows us to keep Lloyd, and by extension, Cusack, in our hearts as a romantic icon. And it is also this conviction that makes us rewrite the script whenever Cusack falls out of it. Otherwise, we wonder, who will hold the redemptive boombox outside our window? Who will make our dreams come true? Who will love us? As Jim Thompson writes in The Killer Inside Me, “…If you’ll just love me…Just act like you love me.”


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