Five Essential Roles
Spider-Man 1-3 (2002-2007)
J. Jonah Jameson
I’m fairly certain J. Jonah Jameson will remain J.K. Simmons’ most well known role. He was given the opportunity to flex out the cankerous Daily Bulge editor-in-chief for three films and, in my opinion, stole each movie single handedly. Frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. But whenever Simmons is on screen in these movies (which isn’t nearly enough), the movie becomes alive. There’s a humor, a wit, an energy to his Jameson that I find endlessly compelling and, of course, hysterical. A star-making and career-defining role.
The Ladykillers (2004)
“Easiest thing in the world.”
In their comedy films, the Coen brothers are all about repetition. Repetition of locations, shots, character mannerisms, and most notably, lines of dialogue. And Garth Pancake’s ceaseless use of everything being the “easiest thing in the world” in The Ladykillers never fails to make me laugh. Garth is a good guy, but, like most of the characters in this film, a complete dipshit. Watching him call things “easy,” only to flub his task seconds later, is nearly as amusing as his ongoing and misguided battle with Marlon Wayans’ character. The Ladykillers is far from a perfect film, but Simmons earns every laugh. He makes it look, you know… easy.
I didn’t do this on purpose, but I’m glad I listed these three films first, because their respective directors are the reason we know the name J.K. Simmons. Really, Simmons can credit his film career to Sam Raimi, the Coen brothers and Jason Reitman. They all cast him repeatedly in their films, and they always give him something worthy to do.
Choosing a best Simmons performance from a Reitman film was a tough call. He’s perfect as the boss in Thank You for Smoking, and kills his one scene in Up in the Air. But for any number of reasons, I’m drawn to the compassion of his Juno character most.
Mac MacGuff is a tough character to play. On paper, he’s the ridiculously perfect dad. The frank appreciator, the quite enforcer – the dad who says and does all the right things. But through a very careful blend of humor and earnestness, Simmons makes Mac MacGuff Juno’s best character. He makes the film worth it, and he does it with effortless charm.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Simmons has built his entire career on playing authority figures who steal the scene. I haven’t calculated the figures, but I’d assume more then 70 percent of his film and television roles are people of authority. No complaints here. I particularly love his anonymous CIA Superior in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. With just two brief scenes totaling less than five minutes of screentime, Simmons’ task in this film is to make sense of the plot’s purposeful absurdity.
Think about it for a second: have you ever actually tried to relay the plot of a Coen brothers film to someone? It’s difficult as shit. That’s because their writing is so involved and intricate and layered. But watching Simmons (and his scene partner, David Rasche) uncurl the cluster fuck of Burn After Reading is simply brilliant. With confusion, sarcasm, and perfect nonchalance, Simmons does the impossible: he spells a movie out point by point, without making it seemed phoned in or anything less than necessary.
The Music Never Stopped (2011)
J.K. Simmons has been acting in film and television for 19 years, and on stage for a bit longer, and the very first time his name has been first on the call sheet is in the tiny but memorable independent film, The Music Never Stopped.
The film is based on an Oliver Sacks essay in which a man is stricken with a brain tumor, and as a result, cannot form new memories. Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) has been estranged from his parents for decades, and when Henry (Simmons) and his wife Helen (Cara Seymour) are reunited with him, they have no way to connect. Gabriel appears to be a living vegetable, but then something happens. Gabriel hears a familiar song from his youth, and he remembers. He remembers his life, his struggle, his domestic pain. He remembers when the music is played, so play it Henry does.
Gabriel left home because he didn’t get along with his father. And watching them reconnect years later through rock classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s is uniquely inspiring. This isn’t Henry’s preferred music, but he sticks with it. He plays, and his son listens. And it’s as if they become father and son all over again. Had The Music Never Stopped garnered a wider release, an Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons wouldn’t have been out of the question.
The Best of the Best
If I were to ever make a list of the vilest, grotesque, non-redemptive characters in the history of film and/or television (and maybe I will…), Simmons’ Vern Schillinger would definitely be near the top.
Vern Schillinger is a bad man. A disgusting man. As a notoriously feared inmate of Oswald State Correctional Facility, Vern Schillinger has made a name for himself as the head of the prison’s neo-Nazi gang, The Aryan Brotherhood. And seriously, if you’ve ever seen this miraculous HBO series, then you know I’m not being hyperbolic: Vern Schillinger truly is a repulsive creature. So how can I declare that such great acting is achieved from such a revolting character? Easy, because Simmons plays him So. Damn. Well.
I often have reservations about listing a television character as an actor’s best role in this column. It doesn’t seem fair to compare the 56 hours Simmons had to flesh out his Oz character, than, say, the five minutes he had to work his Burn After Reading role. So take any one episode of Oz and measure Simmons’ work in that against any film he’s ever done. Hell, take the very first episode of the series, and tell me Simmons’ has been better. But be warned, by the time that episode is done, you’ll never view J.K. Simmons the same again.
Other Notable Roles
|In Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game|
Homicide: Life on the Street (1996)
The Jackal (1997)
Law & Order (1997-2004)
The Cider House Rules (1999)
For Love of the Game (1999)
The Gift (2000)
The Mexican (2001)
Off the Map (2003)
Arrested Development (2005)
Harsh Times (2005)
The Closer (2005-2012)
First Snow (2006)
Thank You for Smoking (2006)
Up in the Air (2009)
I Love You, Man (2009)