Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: John Goodman is one of the best actors of the past thirty years. Somewhere on the list of things that should shame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the fact that not once has this consistently brilliant actor been nominated for an Oscar.
Goodman has won numerous accolades, over the course of his long careers in film, television, and theater. He has worked with several of the great directors of the past forty years, including the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and others. He has also appeared in some of the biggest movies of the past thirty years, particularly as far as the Oscars are concerned.
Yet nothing. Leonard DiCaprio fans who waited several years for Leo to win a statue they allegedly don’t care about is one thing. If you’re a fan of actors like John Goodman or Steve Buscemi (in case you wanted someone else who has never been nominated for an Oscar), better hunker down. They will be steady, spectacular for the whole of their careers. But generally speaking, they’re not going to win a lot of tangible symbols that supposedly emphasize excellence.
It doesn’t matter. It used to bother me that Goodman proved himself again and again in great films, on Saturday Night Live, and by elevating substandard material with a singular talent for delivery and chemistry with everyone around him. It bothered me because it seemed like Goodman was a perfect example of actors and actresses that people tend to take for granted. They can do so much so casually, and they are generally so prolific, we just kind of assume they’re always going to be great for us.
We can count on that from Goodman. I think that’s honestly all I need. If he ever wins a major award for film acting, it will be long overdue on a level DiCaprio fans can scarcely imagine. It will most certainly be long overdue, since he should have won, or at least been nominated, for one of the 5 best John Goodman movies listed below.
1. True Stories (1986)
About a year shy of the beginning of his long-standing relationship with the Coens, and roughly two years before he broke through on Roseanne, Goodman stood out in a very strange, largely pointless exercise in pretension from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. I actually like the movie, but Byrne’s collection of odd people in a fairly close proximity to one another doesn’t seem to have a lot to say. It’s a silly little visit to an odd locale, and it’s oddly enjoyable at times.
If you’re a Talking Heads fan, I suspect you’ll enjoy the whole thing. If you’re not, you may still have a good time. No matter what, you’ll at least like Goodman’s performance as a lonely, country music-moonlighting clean room technician. It’s a solid, early indicator of the man’s easygoing charisma, and the ability to move from one mode of energy to another in the blink of an eye. The moment in which he takes the stage near the end of the movie is the most satisfying moment by far.
2. Barton Fink (1991)
Personally, this is still my favorite collaboration between John Goodman and the Coen brothers. All of them are worth your time for one or several reasons, but Goodman as Charlie Meadows (or Karl Mundt) is the one that chills, baffles, and then destroys you.
Arguably at the height of his Roseanne fame, Goodman was clearly eager to do something very dark and unforgettably sinister with the lovable schlep persona that had given him fame. Mundt/Meadows is definitely a monster. He also makes a couple of good points about main protagonist Barton Fink (how many Oscars for John Turturro?). Mundt is a deeply insecure, unhappy man. He is looking for someone who is going to understand where he’s coming from. For a lot of reasons, he won’t, but his flickers of optimism that Fink might be the friend he’s been looking for provide genuinely human moments in a very surreal film. Mundt is not a sympathetic character, but he is a complex, believable one. Barton Fink may well offer the best performance of Goodman’s career thus far.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt and Walter Sobchak are big, loud guys, anxious to be understood and appreciated. Both are played by John Goodman. That’s where the similarities end. Goodman finds a completely different way to express the internal struggles of his character. With The Big Lebowski and John Goodman, we’re talking about what is easily the most famous role of Goodman’s career. At least, it is at this point.
Goodman expresses Walter’s struggles between pacifism (not in ‘Nam, of course) and constant hostility for laughs. They are laughs placed keenly on Goodman’s ability to deliver the lines in a way that makes it easy to like him, even when he’s being a nightmarishly irrational bully. He loves bowling. He loves being a servant to his never-seen ex-wife. He loves the Dude. We like Walter, even when he’s being hilariously dismissive and enraged with poor Donnie, because we understand what he’s going through. He’s just as confused and annoyed by the circumstances of our surroundings as the rest of us are. Goodman finds perfect chemistry with Jeff Bridge’s Dude. Their relationship is one of the best pairings in movie history.
4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Tons of essential John Goodman voice-acting performances are out there. As much as you might love The Emperor’s New Groove, I don’t think Goodman’s quite as perfect in that film as he is in Monsters, Inc. I also think Monsters, Inc. has a stronger performance value, particularly in terms of Sulley’s relationship to Mike (Billy Crystal), as well as Sulley’s relationship to Boo.
Pixar were only getting better and better at hitting pitch-perfect emotional connections to audiences. One of the ways they succeed with that is in paying considerable attention to the voice casting. Goodman is a flawless example of that. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a better rapport with Mike/Billy Crystal. It’s impossible to picture any other voice trying to calm Boo down.
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
However you might feel about the execution of this spiritual relative to 2008’s Cloverfield, you’ll definitely agree on one thing: When Variety demands Goodman receive Oscar consideration for his breathtaking performance as the survivalist Howard Stambler, they’re not just being kind. Goodman’s performance is the absolute definition of a great movie monster. In order for 10 Cloverfield Lane to get by on more than speculation as to what’s really going on beyond the confines of the bunker where most of the movie occurs, it needs several things. It needs to have a great cast, each playing their own vital role in creating the relationships and power dynamics within the bunker. It also needs that cast to be just as good at interacting with one another. If both of these things are not firmly in place, 10 Cloverfield Lane will suddenly become God’s saddest of the lonely waiting rooms.
Goodman’s character is arguably a more important one than that of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s, if only slightly. The absolute hell she descends into, starting with a car accident, depends strongly on her ability to roll with the punches. Winsted plays a victim of stupefying circumstances with active, smart determination. These things are expressed just fine by Winstead, but they are emphasized to perfection by Goodman’s potential monster of a character. Howard is going to run the spectrum of possibility for you over the course of 10 Cloverfield Lane.
A film that endeavors to be so many different genres with its characters and stories naturally needs actors who can move between modes with the ease of blinking. Goodman has been a pro at that for decades. 10 Cloverfield Lane is the best example of his versatility in ages. He is as phenomenal at his craft as ever. He will continue to add memorable performances and other surprising milestones for the rest of his career.