Hollywood has a way of reincarnating its iconic movie stars. Cary Grant comes back as George Clooney, Tony Curtis reappears as Robert Downey Junior, Tom Hanks was, for a time, a slightly refracted answer to Jimmy Stewart, Penelope Cruz has now essentially become the new Sophia Loren, and back in the 1980s Michael Jay Fox was his generation’s reiteration of the young Mickey Rooney.

By now we are so used to this pattern that we don’t even think about it. But every once in a while I get surprised to discover one of these reincarnations that had somehow slipped by me.

As it happens, this week I finally got around to seeing “The Sure Thing”, just about a quarter of a century late. This 1985 Rob Reiner film was quite radical in its day, in that it had the form of a teen comedy (Hollywood was churning out lots of these at the time), but the soul of a classic romantic comedy.

Structurally, the movie was essentially an update of “It Happened One Night”. And in a truly daring move for the time, the teenage love story took place in a completely believable world, with complex, layered and realistic characters, and not a single implausible plot point.

But it was somewhere toward the end of the film, in the scene in the pouring rain outside the locked trailer where Daphne Zenuba discovers her dad’s credit card (if you’ve seen the movie, you will never forget that scene), when Cusack closed the scene in style with a pitch perfect deadpan line reading that got my full attention.

And suddenly it all came together — the oddly attractive features, charming con-man’s fast patter, naked vulnerability, barely contained manic energy just this side of dangerous, and surprising depths of underlying sensitivity and offbeat grace.

That’s when I realized I was witnessing a performance composed of two parts “The Apartment”, three parts “Some Like it Hot”, and one part “Under the Yum Yum Tree”, and I knew that John Cusack was his era’s reincarnation of the young Jack Lemmon.

7 thoughts on “Reincarnation”

  1. Oh, I disagree. Maybe on screen. He’s notoriously rude and unkind to people. (Me once, actually, and others.) Don’t think Jack Lemmon was ever unkind to his public.

  2. I agree with you that there are these echoes to be found throughout Hollywood cinema and not just in the reincarnation of certain actor archetypes.

    In fact I often see echoing happening throughout media and storytelling in general as a kind of callback that builds or extends familiarity and subtext.

    It makes me wonder who Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon may have been “reincarnating” and also what historic back-story I’m only half-seeing through some game of collective unconscious telephone.

  3. Here’s another, and perhaps more literal, example of Hollywood reincarnation – Christopher Reeve -> Brandon Routh.

    Both played Superman and similar roles.

  4. Sally, I’m very sympathetic to your experience. It’s always disappointing when somebody who has embodied wonderful insights into the human condition on stage or screen turns out to be a misanthrope. But I’m not sure I agree that it makes a difference. The particular character embodied by the young Jack Lemmon struck a chord with audiences not because the real Jack Lemmon was a nice guy, but because what he was portraying represented something essential that resonated with audiences.

    These are performances — truth attained through artifice — which is why I don’t think it is illuminating to look too closely at the real person behind the mask. For example, even after all the negative things I’ve learned about Peter Sellers the man, I am still astonished and delighted by the sensitivity and vulnerable humor he brought to the characters he played in his prime.

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