There simply isn’t a more engaging and gifted actor in modern American cinema than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As a lifelong fan who hasn’t seen a single episode of “3rd Rock From the Sun,” I’m only familiar with the actor’s film work, and what a formidable body of work it is. Over the last decade, Gordon-Levitt has sported an astonishing versatility in a wide range of roles. He’s not afraid to take risks or fall flat on his face–which he nearly did on the set of his latest giddy thriller, “Premium Rush” (more on that later). When I briefly chatted with him on a conference call interview for the Iraq war drama “Stop-Loss” back in 2008, he told me that he had no desire to become a movie star, and was only interested in making films that he personally believed in. He’s not only a great actor, but an artist with real integrity.
After stealing scenes in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Gordon-Levitt is set to star in another of the year’s most anticipated films: Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic on Abraham Lincoln (the actor is scheduled to join the legendary director for the trailer premiere at Times Square on September 13th). In this first installment of “Reel Essentials,” we’ll take a look back at eight key cinematic achievements of Gordon-Levitt’s career…
Angels in the Outfield (1994)
Despite its cheesy special effects and overwrought sentiment, I have no qualms admitting that I adored William Dear’s crowd-pleasing remake as a kid. Even at age 13, it was clear that Gordon-Levitt had a long career ahead of him. As a heartbroken boy estranged from his father, the actor was wholly convincing and brought gravity to scenes that would’ve otherwise been lighter than air. Watch him in the scene where his father finally abandons him for good, and just try not to get choked up.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Though this silly teen send-up of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” is most famous for its charming rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” delivered by the late, great Heath Ledger, Gordon-Levitt also shines as a lovesick young man hopelessly infatuated with (Alex Mack herself!) Larisa Oleynik. For me, his most memorable moment occurs in the end credit blooper reel, where he rises up like a teenage terminator after being knocked backward by staged punch.
Mysterious Skin (2004)
The New Queer Wave would’ve been a rather dull movement without the tirelessly audacious, wildly exuberant work of Gregg Araki. Yet his best film is also the biggest departure from his signature style–a tenderly observed, truly devastating portrait of two men scarred by sexual abuse. This was the breakthrough performance of Gordon-Levitt’s career. His character lives the life of a hustler in order to escape his past, but once an old friend (Brady Corbet) tracks him down, he realizes that there’s no place to hide.
Rian Johnson’s exceptionally unusual picture isn’t just a crime drama set in high school. It’s a classical noir complete with femme fatales and colorful dialogue like, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.” That line is delivered by Gordon-Levitt and he delivers it brilliantly. This is a darkly funny, hugely entertaining lark that bodes well for the actor’s upcoming collaboration with Johnson, the time travel thriller, “Looper.”
The Lookout (2007)
Scott Frank, the veteran writer whose script for 1998’s “Out of Sight” garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination, made his directorial debut with this splendidly suspenseful thriller about an athelete-turned-janitor (Gordon-Levitt) who becomes mixed up with a group of thugs led by Matthew Goode. The fact that Gordon-Levitt’s character suffers from “Memento”-like short-term memory loss complicates matters even further. It was this film coupled with “Mysterious Skin” that solidified Gordon-Levitt’s status as one of the top actors of his generation.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Getting over a break-up isn’t nearly as easy as most Hollywood rom-coms would lead viewers to believe. It’s often an excruciatingly painful process that goes on for far longer than one would care to admit. That hardly seems like a promising premise for a comedy, but Marc Webb’s wonderfully inventive and cathartic picture tackles it head-on, while avoiding all the clichéd roads leading to a standard happy ending. Gordon-Levitt is a joy to behold as a natural-born romantic who becomes smitten with a woman (Zooey Deschanel) disillusioned with love. The post-sex dance sequence set to Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True” stands as one of the most memorable moments of Gordon-Levitt’s career.
Though Leonardo DiCaprio is technically the star of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending trip down the rabbit hole, Gordon-Levitt’s scenes are the most unforgettable. In the film’s spectacular show-stopper of a setpiece, Gordon-Levitt is required to wrestle a man to the ground in a hallway that continues to spin around and around, while defying all the laws of gravity. The actor performed his own stunts in-camera, and learned how to block his head with his arms. That proved to be a life-saving lesson on the set of “Premium Rush,” as he found himself suddenly flying headfirst into a windshield. His arm received 30 stitches, but his head remained unscathed. By the way, the clip below delivered the biggest laugh of the whole movie, while displaying the actor’s quietly impeccable comic timing.
In a perfect world, Jonathan Levine’s deeply moving drama would’ve been one of the year’s top grossing pictures, while earning Oscar nominations for Gordon-Levitt and screenwriter Will Reiser, who based the film on his own experiences of battling cancer. That the film also manages to be funny as hell without ever belittling its subject matter is a feat akin to genius. The entire ensembles is aces–Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Philip Baker Hall and the ever-sublime Anjelica Huston–but this is Gordon-Levitt’s film through and through. As a cancer-stricken 27-year-old, the actor navigates through the various coping stages without hitting a single inauthentic note, while proving that his comedic and dramatic chops are sharper than ever. What more can I say? The man is on fire.