Happy Memorial Day, y’all! It’s been a busy weekend at the box-office with the latest installment of the Men in Black franchise poised to dethrone Marvel’s The Avengers from the #1 spot on the charts. Well, I guess that’s good news for someone. I liked the original Men in Black well enough back in 1997, but not, I confess, so much that I was willing to sit through the 2002 sequel. I probably won’t sit through–yes, sit through–MIB III though I have to admit I am curious about whether Josh Brolin’s take on the younger version of the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in the other films is as fun and effective as it seems to be in the trailer. (The cynical part of me thinks there’s a plan afoot soon to turn 66 year old Jones loose from the whole thing and replace him entirely with someone younger such as Brolin, but I digress.) Maybe I’ll catch up with it on DVD. In the meantime, how about those Avengers? The latest live-action 3-D comic book extravaganza brings together Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’s Captain America and Chris Hensworth’s Thor along with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, previously seen in, among others, Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, and Mark Ruffalo, the third actor in recent memory–and reportedly the best–to play the Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The Avengers opened overseas before it reached American screens, and in only four weeks in domestic release, it has earned over 400 million dollars, now ranking as the fourth biggest grossing movie of all time. Yep, that’s right. It has obliterated at least two high profile challengers, including Tim Burton’s ill-advised revamp–uh, so to speak–of TV’s first gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, as well as the questionable big screen version of the classic board game, Battleship, which managed to exist for years without aliens from another planet and a pop-music hottie named Rhianna. Well, I really have no interest in seeing Avengers either–or Battleship for that matter, even though I have heard wonderfully positive things about both films from many of my most devout moviegoing friends; the reviews have also been encouraging. I can only take so much comic book excitement, and, to clarify, I’m not a snob about these things. I’ve enjoyed many comic book transfers over the years, but lately they’ve come so fast and furious(ly) that they’re starting to blur together.
On the other hand, the success of Marvel’s The Avengers has cemented Samuel L. Jackson’s status as the hardest working actor in the movies. That’s actually an understatement: per a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, this actor has 111 movies to his credit, which means that the combined grosses of all those flicks equal something like 10 billion dollars, which makes him the undisputed box office king though that claim is a bit misleading because it does not take into account that Jackson has appeared in a number of high profile misfires as he has movies that have actually turned a profit. It’s tricky. Yes, his total output is impressive, but I don’t know that he’s a consistent box office draw though, of course, no one doubts his talents. Don’t forget, for example, that despite all the hype that preceded the release of 2006’s high-concept “disaster” epic, Snakes on a Plane, in which Jackson memorably spews the oft-quoted line, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” the film was pretty much a bust, earning a paltry 33 million in this country–and only another 28 million in foreign markets. Granted, this seems like a lot of money–and it is–but it’s well below industry expectations for a movie that was so massively, zealously, promoted. Similarly, even though a Samuel Jackson reboot of blaxploitation classic Shaft seemed like a good idea at the time–that would be 2000–it was only a middling performer. Besides, even though Jackson is cool, he just can’t match that Richard Roundtree swagger. Then of course there are such oddities as Black Snake Moan, which, even with the added appeal of Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake, couldn’t break into the mainstream.
Of course, Jackson has been fortunate and/or savvy enough to be attached to some high profile franchises. For example, The Avengers is the fourth or fifth time he has appeared in a picture drawn from the Marvel pool of super heroes. He’s also been in a Die Hard movie, the XXX series (which was rebooted when the first one underperformed: goodbye Vin Diesel; hello Ice Cube), Pixar’s marvelous The Incredibles, and George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy–but even Jackson hasn’t been fooled by some of these offerings. According to the Internet Movie Database, when he was questioned about his role in Star Wars, Jackson simply replied, “He’s black.”
I certainly don’t mean to imply that Jackson is always attached only to mindless entertainment and/or outright junk, and I don’t want to knock anybody who’s managed to carve a successful career in a business that is competitive to the point of being cutthroat; after all, as he has said, he’s been married to the same woman for decades, has never been arrested (despite trouble with addiction that was well in his past before he ever hit the big time), and he’s been able to support his family. Good for him. This is America, after all. Land of the free, home of the–oh, skip it.
Still, with his propensity to go from serious and subtle to audience pleasing hammy theatrics in the wink of an eye, which is a talent of sorts, it’s sometimes easy to forget that before Jackson was a “brand,” he was doing extraordinary work in films that were taken seriously for something other than their body counts and mind blowing effects:
Here are a few essentials:
Jungle Fever (1991) – This interracial romance between Wesley Snipes and Annabelle Sciorra marked the fourth time that Jackson had appeared in a Spike Lee film, following School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), and The Mo Better Blues (1990–a personal favorite, but I digress). Jackson’s role in this uneven film is that of Snipe’s crackhead brother. Jackson’s mate, btw, is played by none other than future Oscar winner Halle Berry. Jackson’s performance is, in a word, genius. In another word, it’s blistering in its power. That’s more than one word, isn’t it? The judges at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival were so impressed that they honored Jackson with a one-time only Best Supporting Actor award. At that point, Jackson seemed like a shoo-in for the next year’s Oscar in the same category, especially once Anthony Hopkins persuaded the folks handling the Silence of the Lambs Oscar campaign to promote him as a leading rather than supporting player for his widely hailed performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter; there had been some confusion in the early critics’ voting regarding the scope of the role. At any rate, Hopkins’s move should have left the door wide open for Jackson to claim the Oscar, but the nomination never materialized. If I were to guess why, it would be because the Academy has never really been enthralled with Lee, which is not to say that his movies are never nominated though they do seem under-represented in the Academy’s memory book. Instead of honoring Jackson, the Academy chose to pay tribute to Jack Palance in City Slickers, which was fine by me considering that Jackson didn’t make the cut. Palance’s turn as an old cowboy with an almost mythological swagger elevated what was just a better than average fish out of water comedy, and I guess that’s what a good supporting actor does; still, Jackson should have been in the race. That he wasn’t was and is a travesty. He was robbed.
Pulp Fiction (1994) – Certainly, the publicity generated by Jackson’s smashing turn in Jungle Fever helped him gain a lot of traction within the industry, and out of all that came his role as hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s modern masterpiece, a movie that–for better or worse–forever changed the public perception of independent filmmaking, inspiring dozens of lesser imitations in the process. Winnfield is a true standout in a large cast of interesting characters: he begins as a heartless, Bible quoting SOB who can kill a man as easily as he can discuss the vagaries of pop-culture with his associates, but midway through the film he experiences a spiritual awakening and decides to walk away from a life of crime, avoiding one final scrape and living to see another day. This film represents Jackson’s sole Oscar nomination–and it’s hard to believe that it came out 18 years ago. Really? At any rate, at the time of the Oscars, there was some controversy surrounding the placement of the actors. Jackson’s co-star John Travolta, hot on the comeback trail–yet again–was positioned as a leading player while Jackson was campaigned for as a supporting player. My thoughts about that are rather complex. First, it’s important to understand that studios that play the Oscar game play to win–especially the people at Miramax. How performers get positioned in Oscar campaigns is often simply a matter of numbers. Pulp Fiction was nominated for 7 Oscars. If Travolta and Jackson had competed in the same category, the film could have won at most 6 Oscars because a win for one of the actors would be a certain loss for another–ties are unlikely. There’s also a fear that two actors from the same film in the same category will split votes, jeopardizing the chances for either to win. Even so, studios have been known in the past to throw caution to the wind and campaign without as much behind the scenes strategizing. Right off the top of my head, I can use as an example Robert De Niro, who won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Godfather II in a year in which two of his co-stars, Michael V. Gazzo and the legendary Lee Strasberg were nominated in the same category. Also, please understand that Oscar campaigns are sometimes in actors’ contracts–yes, before a single frame has ever been shot–and at the time of Pulp Fiction, Travolta and his agent likely had better bargaining power than Jackson and company, but that’s just a guess. To me, it’s obvious that in any scene in which Jackson and Travolta appear together, Jackson clearly dominates. His character is more interesting than Travolta’s goofy hoodlum, which helps, and Jackson’s got that great big booming voice. He delivers his lines with full force, eyes ablaze. In that regard, Jackson trumps. Easily. The problem is that I’m pretty sure Travolta has more screentime than Jackson has: whereas Jackson is rarely onscreen without Travolta, the reverse is not always true. Travolta’s Vincent Vega has that whole extended sequence with Uma Thurman in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s 1950s theme diner, and Vincent also appears, however briefly, in the sequence with Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames. In that regard, Travolta’s Vega trumps. Myself, I would have never nominated Travolta in either category. I think his nomination was all about his own personal narrative and less about what was actually onscreen. I thought he was good–but not great. I also believe Jackson was rightfully placed among the supporting players. He lost to Martin Landau who made the most of his role as real life actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. It was Landau’s third nomination in six years, and the role of the Hungarian movie star turned junkie was truly transformative for the sexagenarian Landau. No harm, no foul though it does seem a little odd that Jackson hasn’t been able to translate the success of Pulp Fiction into more Oscar caliber roles rather than an unending stream of bigger paycheck roles. He has subsequently appeared in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 2, besides narrating Inglourius Basterds.
- A Time to Kill (1996)- In this adaptation of an early John Grisham effort, Jackson plays a man on trial for murdering the men who raped his daughter. It’s a great role for Jackson, but the movie, which was a huge hit, isn’t as good as it ought to be. At the time, Warner Bros., the studio that released the film, was extremely preoccupied with hyping the the relatively unknown Matthew McConaughey as the heir apparent to Paul Newman while Sandra Bullock, still reaping the rewards of Speed and While You Were Sleeping, was given star billing for a role that was relatively slim in the original text, so the movie is kind of a mishmash, and Jackson’s good work gets overwhelmed in all that studio machinery.
- The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – This is the movie that has set the pace for much of Jackson’s career in the years since its release. The Long Kiss Goodnight stars Geena Davis as a government assassin who was once attacked and left for dead. When she regains consciousness, she has no idea who she is and ends up settling down to an uneventful life in small town America. Years go by and eventually she starts putting back the pieces of her life just as she’s sucked into a great big conspiracy. What does any of this have to do with Jackson? He plays a sleazy investigator hired to help Davis find out about her past. Of course, he has no idea just complicated his assignment is until he’s running from the bad guys with his client. The Long Kiss Goodnight is too violent for its own good–and it’s probably 20-30 minutes too long as well. It can be fun at times, but I’ve never loved it the same way that some of my friends do. Still, this is the template for a lot of what Jackson has done countless times: a lot of wisecrackin’, a lot of cursin’, along with a tendency to speak louder and louder as the film progresses, and, of course, an ever increasing reliance on weaponry. The Long Kiss Goodnight, for which once hot hot hot screenwriter Shane Black was paid a considerable fortune, reportedly four million, was box-office failure, pretty much wrecking the big screen careers of both director Renny Harlin and actress Davis. The two were married at the time, and this project was supposed to be a comeback for both of them on the heels of another big budget disaster, Cutthroat Island, on which they collaborated in 2005. After their second bomb, Davis was pretty much relegated playing the sweet yet firm mommy in the Stuart Little movies–and working on TV; however, Jackson simply went on making one movie after another.
Eve’s Bayou (1997) – The big screen debut of writer-director Kasi Lemmons is a film so good, so rich and powerful, that it deserves its own blog entry. Jackson is listed as a producer, and it seems unlikely that the movie would have been made without his participation. He plays a doctor in the film, which is set in Louisiana in the early 1960s. Though Jackson is the draw, the movie is a showcase for a host of wonderful actresses, including Jurnee Smollett, in the role of Eve (from whose viewpoint the coming of age story is told), Lynn Whitfield, as Eve’s mother/Jackson’s wife, Diahann Carroll, as a voodoo priestess, and, especially the amazing Debbi Morgan, as Eve’s aunt, a woman both blessed and curse by “second sight.” Eve’s Bayou is beautifully filmed, and it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the critics when it first released. Roger Ebert famously put it at the top of his “10 Best” list; it even made a little money. Lemmons was honored as a first time director not only by the National Board of Review but by the voting in that season’s Independent Spirit Awards. Morgan was similarly honored with a Spirit Award for her supporting role. There was a smattering of other accolades as well; however, the Academy wasn’t interested, which is puzzling indeed. Morgan would have easily been my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar while Lemmons should have at least been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, that is, given the Academy’s reluctance to recognize women directors. Four short years later, Lemmons and Jackson teamed up again for The Caveman’s Valentine, but that film disappeared quickly, which means it might be awhile before we see any more movies directed by Lemmons; meanwhile, Jackson perseveres. This guy’s like Teflon.
- The Red Violin (1998) – A movie that depicts the history of a single musical instrument, from its construction in the 1600s all the way to a highly contentious auction in 1997, might seem like a real snoozer but it’s wicked fun as the action switches from Canada to Italy to Vienna, then to England, China, and, finally, back to Canada, complete with subtitles. The movie begins with the auction and uses it as a framing device for the remainder of the film; the last act is a well plotted game of one upmanship with Jackson in control. Like Eve’s Bayou, this is a film that you should spend some time tracking if you have not already seen it. Directed and co-written by Quebec based François Girard, it won 8 of Canada’s Genie Awards, the Oscar equivalent, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was released in this country in 1999 and was subsequently honored with the Oscar for Best Original Score, awarded to John Corigliano. In a year in which the Academy went gaga over a faux piece of cutting edge art called American Beauty, it was good to see that there was room at the ball for The Red Violin and Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, which won statuettes for Best Costume and Best Makeup, but I digress. Jackson is great casting in this instance because he’s not only a good actor, he’s getting to do something a little different, and he gives this truly international production an American star that audiences can root for all around the world. Nicely played.
If you want more Jackson, you might consider The Negotiator, co-starring Kevin Spacey, Changing Lanes, with Ben Affleck, and Coach Carter, the fact based story about a high school basketball coach who benches his whole winning team until they improve their grades. The movie was a modest hit, and Jackson earned an NAACP Image award for his portrayal of the title character, but he’s still waiting for his second Oscar nomination; meanwhile, how about those Avengers?
Thanks for your consideration…
Jackson in Entertainment Weekly:
Jackson by the Numbers at EW:
Jackson at the Internet Movie Database: