John Cusack has appeared in more than 80 movies since 1983. The 53-year-old Chicago-area native has been a distinctive presence in discerning works by directors including John Sayles (Eight Men Out), Stephen Frears (The Grifters and High Fidelity), Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars).
He’s been in box-office hits like Con Air, popular romantic comedies like America’s Sweethearts and goofy one-offs like Hot Tub Time Machine. He’s played everyone from the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Love & Mercy) to Richard Nixon (The Butler) and Edgar Allen Poe (The Raven).
But one character and movie seem to stand alone in Cusack’s filmography: Lloyd Dobler in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. In celebration of the movie’s 30th anniversary, Cusack will appear at a post-screening Q&A at the Taft Theatre 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, part of a multi-city tour that, depending on the stop, also features screenings of his other cultish staples, High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank.
Say Anything is unique in its enduring resonance for multiple reasons, none more important than Cusack’s unguarded performance as Dobler, a charmingly earnest but unorthodox 19-year-old kickboxing aficionado who has no idea what he wants to do with his life. That changes when he meets and falls in love with Diane Court (an equally stellar Ione Skye), a single-minded high-school senior whose demanding dad (John Mahoney) has nurtured her to be the best student she can be, culminating in the procurement of a prestigious fellowship in England.
Lloyd and Diane are an unlikely couple in a romantic comedy that undercuts cliché through an emotionally nuanced and uniquely detailed script by Crowe, then a first-time director who made his name as a teenage music journalist at Rolling Stone.
In a recent telephone conversation with CityBeat, Cusack admits that he was initially reluctant to take the part — he was 23 at the time and wary of inhabiting another young-man role — but acquiesced when Crowe allowed him to inject Lloyd with darker and more playful tendencies.
“Yeah, that was my main concern,” Cusack replies when asked about the risk of Lloyd coming off as too much of a puppy dog in his devotion to Diane. “And it wasn’t a dig on Cameron at all; it was about how people would interpret the character. We talked about that a lot. We said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be like Lennon and McCartney.’ Obviously that’s the broadest analogy, because they’re Lennon and McCartney, but the dynamic was the same, which was that McCartney would write, ‘You have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time.’ And Lennon would come in and say, ‘It can’t get no worse.’ That’s the paradox.
“So it wasn’t that Lloyd was going to be optimistic because he was oblivious to having a dark side himself or to having any of those darker tones; it was that despite (those tendencies) he was going to be optimistic. That was the rub or conflict that made it work.”
Say Anything was well-received critically but barely made back its modest budget when released in the spring of 1989. Yet, in the age of VHS and later DVD, it gradually garnered a cult following, becoming one of the most beloved movies of its kind and a staple of a particular moment in history — a pre-internet, pre-cell phone America that would be almost unrecognizable less than a decade later.
Cusack is gratified that Say Anything has become something of a touchstone, one in which audiences’ affection for the characters is apparent.
“You walk into a screening and hear people reacting to the movie,” Cusack says. “I think it’s probably because people still like the movie so much and they sort of have an interactive quality with it like Rocky Horror or something. They are way into it.”
While Cusack is happy to talk about Say Anything, he isn’t interested in addressing where Lloyd and Diane might be today.
“I sort of love the ambiguity of that, so I usually don’t like to think about it,” Cusack says. “I just like to leave it as it is.”
A screening of Say Anything will be followed by a live conversation with John Cusack at the Taft Theatre (317 E. Fifth St., Downtown) on Nov. 3. More info/tickets: tafttheatre.org.