The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Bill Pullman
Full disclosure - I visited the set of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE last year, where I not only interviewed Bill Pullman, but also had a beer with him and managed to convince him to pose for a photo poking fun at his resemblance to JoBlo.com’s own Eric Walkuski. A great guy, Pullman seemed to be extremely popular on the set, with even star Liam Hemsworth mentioning to me that he was thrilled to be working opposite “Lone Starr” from SPACEBALLS, one of his favorite movies.
Indeed, most stars are lucky to get one part that resonates with the public in a big way. Pullman’s had at least two. Starting off as the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo figure in Mel Brooks’s classic SPACEBALLS, Pullman’s always had a unique persona, which I'd describe as a more tongue-in-cheek Jimmy Stewart. He always seems so genuine, and even SPACEBALLS, which is meant to be a big joke, holds up surprisingly well as a legitimate movie thanks to Pullman’s presence in the lead.
Certainly Hollywood took notice, but while the early efforts to make him into a leading man didn’t really pay off, Pullman soon found himself on the A-List following another iconic turn as President Whitmore in Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY. A silly movie, Pullman, as opposed to the he-man Will Smith or the unconventionally cool Jeff Goldblum, grounded the movie by playing the whole thing super-straight and with gravitas. Indeed, while most critics are demolishing IDR, most agree Pullman’s performance as the now-unhinged but still heroic Whitmore is the movie’s saving grace.
Following ID4, Pullman parlayed his success into a series of unique character parts in indies. He played the lead (or quasi-lead) in David Lynch’s classic LOST HIGHWAY, key roles in movies like IGBY GOES DOWN, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, Jennifer Lynch’s SURVEILLANCE, and memorably the lead in Jake Kasdan’s underrated neo-noir/satire/cult-classic ZERO EFFECT. While he never quite became Tom Hanks, Pullman’s nevertheless carved out a great niche for himself and remains much in-demand.
I actually don’t think SPACEBALLS would have worked had Mel Brooks cast a straight-up comedian as Lone Starr. While John Candy is perfect as Barf, and Rick Moranis is a great Dark Helmet (and Brooks himself is spot-on as Yogurt & President Skroob) the key to SPACEBALLS working is Pullman as Lone Starr and Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa. They feel like they wandered in from a legit space opera, making the movie all the funnier as they play everything with such as straight-face. SPACEBALLS really is unique as far as Brooks movies go in that while it may not be his funniest film, it’s one of his most consistently watchable.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Sandra Bullock but WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, which was her first solo star-driven hit after SPEED, has never been an especially good movie. The gorgeous Bullock is hard to accept as a lonely transit worker, and her chemistry with Pullman is virtually nil. The thing is, as much as I like Pullman I’ve never found rom-coms were his forte, at least not as the lead. In movies like SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE or his small part in SINGLES he typically played “The Baxter” which is the second male lead, who inevitability loses the girl to Tom Hanks (or Matt Dillon). In that type of part he’s fine - but as the solo lead, not quite. He actually fared much better a year later as the nightmare dream-man in the Ellen DeGeneres vehicle MR.WRONG, which at least let him be funny.
Pullman’s had a few really good ones that for some reason or another aren’t talked about too much. One I really like is his Wes Craven horror flick, THE SERPENT & THE RAINBOW. An atypical horror yarn for Craven, this one stars Pullman as an anthropologist in Haiti, who stumbles upon an ancient potion that turns people into zombie-like slaves. What’s really cool is that for the first two-thirds, this is almost a straight political thriller, with the real horror coming from the Duvalier-era secret police, with one especially harrowing scene involving Pullman getting a nail driven through his scrotum. It only becomes full-on horror during the wild finale, but even that is framed as a kind of quasi dream-sequence, making the movie somewhat ambiguous.
While I was tempted to throw in Lone Starr’s Schwartz battle with Dark Helmet (“I see your Schwartz is as big as mine.”) I kinda have to go with the iconic and include Whitmore’s famous speech from ID4, while kind of perfectly encapsulates the bravado and sincerity Pullman brought to what’s arguably a very silly movie. It’s a great moment.
In addition to IDR, Pullman’s got another big role coming up in Rob Reiner’s Lyndon Johnson biopic, LBJ, as Ralph Yarborough, opposite Woody Harrelson in the title part. Always a top character actor, you really never know where Pullman’s going to turn-up next (as in his brief part in Antoine Fuqua’s THE EQUALIZER or the recent AMERICAN ULTRA and I fully expect him to play dozens of more great roles in the years to come. And hey, maybe we’ll even get him as Lone Starr again one of these days.
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