He’s a compelling leading man and invaluable ensemble player, equally adept at comedy and drama, a true musician. Yet Jeff Goldblum’s artistry is hard to define. It is acting, but it is on another plane. His line deliveries — his offbeat inflections and pauses (“Life, uh, finds a way,” from Jurassic Park) — are inimitable. As he told GQ, “I’m not mainstream, I’m special.”
Oct. 22, 2022, marks Goldblum’s 70th birthday. To mark this milestone, we’ve selected 10 films that capture his Goldblumian essence. Why? To quote the title of Travis Andrews’ recent bestseller about him, “Because He’s Jeff Goldblum.”
10. Silverado (1985)
The role: Calvin Stanhope (“But my mother calls me Slick.”)
Goldblum does not show up until just over an hour into Lawrence Kasdan’s richly satisfying old-school Western, but in an ensemble that includes Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, Rosanna Arquette and John Cleese (I know, right?), he stands out as a gambler who ultimately makes the wrong bet when he sides with Dennehy’s corrupt sheriff against former-outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold Kline and company. (A big pat on the back, too, for his appearance in Thor: Ragnarok as Grandmaster of the prison planet Sakaar, which instantly transforms the Marvel-verse into the Goldblum-verse).
Solid Goldblum: No sooner does Slick arrive in town than he announces his intention to the sheriff that he seeks to set up an honest game in town. “To whom do I speak about that?” he inquires; then acknowledging the crumpled body of a freshly shot dead man, he dryly remarks, “I hope it’s not this gentleman.”
9. Between the Lines (1977)
The role: Max Arloft
Before John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, Joan Micklin Silver’s under-seen indie gem explored the conflict between the youthful idealism of the children of the ’60s and their adult compromises. The ensemble dramedy is set at a Boston alt-weekly poised to be swallowed up by a conglomerate. In one of Goldblum’s earliest key roles as the paper’s music writer, we see the incorrigibility that would inform his most memorable characters. Whether it’s a loan, a drink, selling his promo albums, delivering lectures on “Whither Rock?” or demanding a raise, this guy is relentlessly on the make.
Solid Goldblum: Max regales a roomful of dutiful note-taking young women (college students? groupies?). What’s the connection, he asks, between the Beatles’ song “Blackbird” and a Wallace Stevens poem about blackbirds? When he gets no response, he resignedly replies, “There’s virtually no connection.” Then he gives them all his phone number.
Watch it: Between the Lines, on Apple TV
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8. Adam Resurrected (2008)
The role: Adam Stein
In one of his most challenging roles and fiercely committed performances, Goldblum is Oscar-worthy as a resident at an Israeli desert-based therapeutic hospital for Holocaust survivors. A former popular comic in Berlin, he survived the death camps by allowing himself to be humiliated as the personal pet of a Nazi commandant (Willem Dafoe). Post-war, he has the run of the hospital, a charismatic McMurphy-like figure masking survivor’s guilt.
Solid Goldblum: “Write it down? Write it to whom? God? God is out to lunch. He left a note; see it on your arm.”
7. Independence Day (1996)
The role: David Levinson
Jeff Goldblum is the thinking man’s hero. Will Smith may have gotten to fly jets, punch out aliens and bark out career-making catchphrases (“Welcome to Earth”), but when it comes to harnessing science and technology to give the aliens a killer virus and really save the world, Goldblum’s David Levinson is your guy.
Solid Goldblum: “Maybe if we screw up this planet enough, they won’t want it anymore.”
6. Deep Cover (1992)
The role: David Jason
When Jeff Goldblum is good, he is very good; when he is bad, he’s terrific. As a lawyer, family man and midlevel cocaine distributor, he brings what Roger Ebert called the “off-balance craziness.” But he becomes absolutely stone-cold chilling when he very calmly explains the facts of criminal life to Laurence Fishburne’s undercover cop who has infiltrated his operation.
Solid Goldblum: “A man has two things in this world: his word and his balls. Or is that three things?”
5. The Tall Guy (1989)
The role: Dexter King
One of those frustratingly missing movies unavailable for streaming. This British rom-com afforded Jeff Goldblum a rare romantic leading role as the put-upon stage sidekick to an imperious comedian (Rowan Atkinson). His shot at stardom, a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man, hilariously makes Cats look like, well, Cats. Two notable feature film debuts: screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Emma Thompson, devastatingly charming as a nurse with whom Dexter falls in love.
Solid Goldblum: “I’m almost 40, and I’m a tall American, whose entire career consists of playing sidekicks and circus freaks, who doesn’t belong anywhere, except by your side.” (In your face, Notting Hill’s “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy.”)
Watch it: The Tall Guy, on DVD (and VHS!). Check your local library or Amazon.
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
The role: Ian Malcolm
As chaos-theory-spouting mathematician Ian Malcolm, Goldblum does for Jurassic Park what Bill Murray did for Ghostbusters. The skeptical Malcolm hilariously undermines the wide-eyed wonder of a cloned dinosaur theme park. It takes a special breed of actor who can steal scenes from a 30-foot-necked Brachiosaurus, but Goldblum, uh, finds a way with what Richard Attenborough’s theme park creator John Hammond calls his “deplorable excess of personality.” His chemistry with Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler is off the charts (they dated for five years after filming, and their initials presumably remain where they carved them, inside a heart on the Jurassic Park set’s gate posts in Kauai’s jungle).
Solid Goldblum: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
3. The Big Chill (1983)
The role: Michael Gold
A group of former college friends are reunited when one of their circle commits suicide (Kevin Costner, cut from the film, we hardly knew ye). Over a reflective weekend, they reconnect and weigh their former revolutionary ideals with their life choices. In his breakout film, Goldblum’s Michael Gold gets all the acerbic wisecracks as an unfulfilled writer for celebrity magazine People.
Solid Goldblum: “Where I work, we only have one editorial rule. You can’t write anything longer than it takes your average person to take an average crap.”
Watch it: The Big Chill, on Prime Video
2. Spinning Boris (2003)
The role: George Gorton
Based on an incredible true story, this made-for-cable movie is a darkly funny tale of politics, persuasion and polling (and that’s only the p’s). Goldblum leads a team of American political consultants who are recruited to change the political fortunes of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, at single digits in the polls in his bid to be prime minister. Working incognito in Moscow, they apply their skills to changing Yeltsin’s image the good ol’ American way — with tree planting, baby kissing and dancing footage.
Solid Goldblum: Goldblum is at his most slyly insinuating trying to schmooze Yeltsin’s skeptical daughter Tatiana on the primacy of American political acumen, while hitting on her.
1. The Fly (1986)
The role: Seth Brundle
Goldblum’s physicality as he transforms into a flybrid is astonishing in David Cronenberg’s superior remake of the 1958 horror classic. But what sells his mesmerizing performance is his signature intensity and that thing he does where he is at once off-center but simultaneously relatable. We are with him from the get-go when he tells Geena Davis’ reporter, “Uh, I’m working on something that’ll change the world and human life as we know it.”
Solid Goldblum: “I’m becoming Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize?”
Watch it: The Fly, on Prime Video
Donald Liebenson has written on film and entertainment for AARP, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly.