No great actor has as much fun as John Malkovich. Whether he's further enlivening a Coen Brothers movie, or portraying the evil mage Galbatorix in 'Eragon' ("I suffer without my stone"), Malkovich is clearly relishing every moment -- and it infects even his dumbest movies with a gratifying sort of dissonance. We're supposed to be rolling our eyes at Galbatorix, not laughing giddily, but here we are. And if Malkovich doing one of his famously impressionistic "accents," as in 'Rounders' (Russian) or 'Johnny English' (who knows?), forget it; during the former, I remember laughing so hard that tears streamed down my cheeks.
So it seems that if any major star would be up for an extended and prominent bit of self-mockery, it would be Malkovich. And by some accounts, "self-mockery" is exactly what he did when he took on the role of "John Malkovich" in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 1999 masterpiece 'Being John Malkovich'. But it's more than that. In playing an outraged actor who discovers that an out-of-work Manhattan puppeteer leading a stream of looky-loos through a portal into his head, Malkovich didn't just make fun of himself; plenty of actors have done that. Instead, he distilled his on-screen persona, his inimitable John Malkovichness, to its essence.
In fairness, a number of other actors have tried to do that, too, in various contexts -- "that" being give a performance that's sort of a Cliff's-Notes version of all their other performances. Robert De Niro, for example, seems to be doing that a lot late in his career, in movies like 'Analyze This' and 'Meet the Parents'. But no one has done quite as complete and diabolically clever a job of it as Malkovich. Vacillating between deadpan obliviousness (the bath towels), puzzled rage ("Let's do it on the kitchen table, then make him eat an omelette off it." "NO!"), and complete insanity (Malkovich's burgeoning puppetry career), he essentially performs a hilariously stilted impression of himself. And he does so in the context of a movie that's totally coherent and actually quite moving. It's unforgettable. I don't think it belittles the man's career at all to call "John Horatio Malkovich" his best role.
Of course, the film's centerpiece is the scene where John Malkovich enters the head of John Malkovich. You can see that scene in the YouTube embed below. There's a lot that can be said about it, including the sheer insanity of the conceit, the creepiness of it, the brilliance of several silent reaction shots, and the hilarity of John Malkovich as a lounge singer intoning his own name. But it also proves another axiom of Malkovichness: the way Malkovich delivers his lines is more important than their actual content.
Can you imagine any other big-name actor ever doing something quite this nuts? That's part of Malkovich's glorious Malkovichness too.