The Good, The Bad & The Badass: John Lithgow
John Lithgow is someone who often doesn’t get his due. More versatile than people think, Lithgow can currently be seen on Netflix’s “The Crown”, where he utterly vanishes into the role of Winston Churchill, something of a stretch for the American-born actor. For many of you, he’s probably best known for his TV roles, first as the wacky alien, Dick Solomon on NBC’s “3rd Rock From The Sun” (which co-starred a young Joseph Gordon Levitt), then as the Trinity Killer on “Dexter”. Both parts won him Emmys. At the time, jumping back and forth from the small screen to the big screen was relatively rare, but his tv stardom didn’t seem to effect his film career too badly, with him able to do character parts in prestige pics like KINSEY, and well-received commercial fare like ORANGE COUNTY.
As a child of the eighties, I think of Lithgow mostly for his eighties movies, with him getting back-to-back Oscar nominations for his parts as a transsexual in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and then as a nice-guy romantic interest for Debra Winger in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Arguably, his most famous role came next with his part as the town preacher in FOOTLOOSE standing as one of the great antagonists in eighties films, although if you re-watch it now he’s sympathetic and even gets a happy ending. And, of course, who could forget the madness of THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE THIRD DIMENSION (what's with the watermelon?).
From then on, Lithgow’s always been in demand. Often typecast as villains in the eighties/nineties with CLIFFHANGER and the under-seen RICOCHET (HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS being a rare exception), it took 3rd Rock to change people’s perception of him. At seventy, his career is as hot as ever, with his supporting role in MISS SLOANE (opposite Jessica Chastain) getting major buzz.
TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE isn’t the best movie John Lithgow’s been in, but it gave him one of his best roles. Sadly too-well known as the movie Vic Morrow died making, of the four mini-stories, only one is a full-on masterpiece, being George MIller’s virtuoso remake of the episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Lithgow plays a terrified passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing. He chews the scenery with aplomb, and it’s nice seeing him as a lead.
As much as “3rd Rock From The Sun” deserves credit for putting Lithgow back into the limelight, after the first, funny, season, the show’s premise started to wear thin. It lasted six years, but by the end the show had more than run its course, and watched fifteen years later, it’s not a show that holds-up, at all.
Brian De Palma’s RAISING CAIN often gets lumped-in as one of the maestro’s weaker efforts. While it is, like many of his films, all style over substance, Lithgow’ has a whale of a part as Carter Nix, his father and alternate personalities, and while the acting is far from subtle, Lithgow camps it up with the best of them. A new, alternate cut is making the rounds and apparently makes the film work a lot better than it did theatrically.
Another underrated movie is Russell Mulcahy’s RICOCHET, which was one of Denzel Washington’s first action roles. A fun, fast-paced Joel Silver early nineties actioner, Mulcahy’s stylish direction, Alan Silvestri’s great score, and especially Lithgow’s wild performance as a major screen psycho make this an undiscovered gem. His violent parole hearing bit (check out the guy killed with the table saw!) is delicious excess, and well-matched by the insanity of his performance.
In addition to MISS SLOANE and “The Crown”, Lithgow’s got a new comedy series (“Trial & Error”) in the making, as well as the Miguel Arteta/Mike White indie comedy BEATRIZ AT DINNER, due for release soon.