Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle in The Fly.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Jeff Goldblum began his metamorphosis from actor to pop culture icon. Was it when he tapped into the acerbic comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, appearing on their Adult Swim show before playing a version of himself in their feature film Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie?
Maybe it was his work in Portlandia or Thor: Ragnarok, capturing newfound attention from younger audiences not familiar with his enigmatic style of performance? Or was his ascendence to icon status an inevitability, the generation that grew up with his roles in Jurassic Park and Independence Day developing a deeper appreciation over the years for his neurotic approach to embodying a character?
As with Bill Murray, his co-star in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, our fascination with Jeff Goldblum has effectively deified the man behind the movies. But his elevation to the pinnacle of pop culture threatens to obscure the remarkable acting talents that Goldblum possesses. He has an animal magnetism that’s spawned numerous memes and toys, yes. But even when he is underneath layers of prosthetics, Goldblum can effortlessly convey real emotion with all the quirks that come with the human condition.
If there was one moment in Jeff Goldblum’s career that set him down the path to pop culture sex symbol beloved the world over, it would be his performance in David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagining of The Fly.
In the film, Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a scientist who develops a device that allows objects to break down to their molecular level and transmitted through a computer to another location. He hopes his “telepods” will completely reinvent travel and infrastructure. And cement his name in history for discovering the scientific breakthrough of the century.
Brundle is the physical embodiment of passion and drive that Goldblum conveys through an infectious excitability. Which finds a new point of focus when he meets journalist Veronica (Geena Davis). Brundle is instantly attracted and sweeps her back to his lab, hoping to woo her by bragging about his invention.
This blossoms into an effective romance that propels the film forward as we watch Goldblum’s Brundle fall in love. After Veronica says she plans to write an article revealing his discovery, Brundle storms into her editor’s office to stop the publication. When he learns the story won’t run, his spirits rise in relief. Then his flighty focus stops in its tracks once he catches himself staring longingly at Veronica.
As their eyes lock, we see his face light up with an unexpected rush of adoration. He drops his gaze and smirks, as if in disbelief at how smitten he already feels. It’s a moment that connects us with Brundle because it’s a genuine human reaction. It allows the audience to reflect on their own memories of feeling the first sparks of romantic chemistry. (It helped that Goldblum and Davis were a couple in real life at the time.) All Goldblum needed to express that was a single, smoldering glance.
The love we feel between Goldblum and Davis is so lived-in and realistic that when Brundle begins to slowly transform into a fly in front of Veronica’s eyes, it shatters us. However, beneath the slowly mutating flesh, Goldblum never fully disconnects from the fun, bouncy Brundle that Veronica and the audience fell in love with. His carefree attitude makes his mutation bearable to watch and tells us something unique about his character. Goldblum’s Brundle isn’t someone fighting to survive. His life finds new meaning in death.
As his transformation progresses, he becomes gleefully inquisitive about what’s happening with his body. He documents each evolutionary stage on video and preserving the last vestiges of his human self in his bathroom. “The medicine cabinet is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History,” he mewls as he places his disembodied parts next to each other. A makeshift shrine in rueful tribute to the man he once was.
Brundle’s humor makes his downward spiral disarmingly entertaining. So, when he loses all sense of self, the impact is even more devastating. One moment he’s cracking jokes about his grotesqueness, giving himself the nickname “Brundlefly,” the next he is puking up corrosive vomit, sheepishly telling Veronica “Oh, that’s disgusting” before breaking down in a fit of fearful tears.
Goldblum uses Seth’s joie-de-vivre to build an emotional connection with the audience. So that when he fully becomes Brundlefly, it’s as if we are losing a loved one of our own. Goldblum is able to find a deeper resonance with his character. Through Brundle’s conflicting emotions, he’s able to trick his body into thinking what’s happening is real. As he told Gene Siskel in 1987:
“My favorite scene in the film is when I have to tell her [Geena Davis] that I’m really becoming a fly, that I’m not going to be able to control myself anymore, that she had better stay away from me, and yet this is the very moment when she’s come to tell me that she’s pregnant. To be able to truly experience those conflicting emotions as an actor is a special gift. Because to your nervous system, if you really are acting well, your nervous system doesn’t know it’s not real.”
David Cronenberg always intended the movie to be a metaphor for aging and death. I find The Fly is more universal in that we can project our own lived experiences on Jeff Goldblum’s Brundle. If you have an auto-immune disorder or cancer, you can see Brundle as a man suffering from a debilitating disease. As a survivor of alcoholism, I see in his transformation a representation of an addict’s self-destructive journey to becoming the monster they feel they are inside.
That Cronenberg can surface these universal emotions in a visual effects-heavy horror movie is a testament to his unflinching eye. As well as to Jeff Goldblum’s beguiling portrayal of Seth Brundle. The childlike sense of wonder he gives his character as he falls apart is at once heart-wrenching and exhilarating. Goldblum uses his naturally frenzied demeanor to build a multilayered monster that feels truly alive. Which is integral to Goldblum’s overall acting process. As he said in an interview during The Fly’s release:
“One of the reasons I wanted to be an actor, and one of the things I knew about me being an actor, is that it was going to include being alive, being lively. That’s what acting is for, and about, it enhances life. It’s a lively experience. It intensifies life, and that’s good. I wanted that.”
Goldblum is best known today as a pop culture icon. Elevated through hyperbolically titled television shows like The World According to Jeff Goldblum. But we shouldn’t overlook his strengths as an actor. The Fly is a goopy departure from the Jeff Goldblum the internet adores. Yet as Seth Brundle, he proved he has a propensity for making our hearts soar, and bleed, through strange, nuanced, and brilliantly realized characters.
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