John Goodman came out last weekend with a new movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane,” and he is in a familiar role: a second-billed actor in a well-regarded movie. “Cloverfield” holds above a “90 percent fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right up there with the top 10 John Goodman movies ever.
But it feels weird to call something a “John Goodman movie,” right? Goodman is at his best when he’s the second banana. He’s been top-billed in a few good films — the animated “Monsters Inc.” and “Matinee” — but more often in films that aren’t so well regarded, like “King Ralph,” “The Flintstones” and “The Jungle Book 2.” Normally I’d try to taxonomize Goodman’s career, but that feels odd when he so rarely runs a movie.
For whatever reason, he’s not considered a leading man. Maybe it’s his weight, maybe not. But that second-banana label makes sense: An analysis of the Rotten Tomatoes scores of his movies, along with his place in the billing order, confirms that movies are just plain better when Goodman is the booming Midwestern second-, third- or fourth-billed performer.
The movies in which Goodman is second-billed are regularly fantastic: the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski,” animated features like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Monsters University,” and well-liked pictures like “The Jack Bull” and “True Stories.” He was billed third in four features1 rated above 90 percent fresh: “The Artist,” “Argo,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Arachnophobia.” The first two won Oscars for best picture.
Goodman is the cinematic equivalent of Phil Hartman, who was called “The Glue” on “Saturday Night Live” for his ability to hold sketches together despite rarely helming them. Think of Goodman’s role — billed, yes, second — in “Roseanne.” He pulls off a strong comedic role but knows how to be an emotional rock.
Goodman’s people and the casting directors who recruit him seem to have worked all this out. He hasn’t had the top billing in a movie, by Rotten Tomatoes’ reckoning, since 2003. He’s the ideal best friend, main villain or deuteragonist, and has been ably deployed by the Coen Brothers multiple times to do just that.
What’s also fun about Goodman is that he appears to be a natural fit to play figures of some authority. Based on billed credits alone, Goodman has played characters in law enforcement at least six times — where rank is indicated, he’s always a detective — and politicians three times. That doesn’t count his turns as a senator in “Alpha House” or as speaker of the House in “The West Wing.”2
Goodman has also played a Walter twice — in ”The Big Lebowski” and “The Monuments Men” — so read into that what you will. All I’m saying is that leading men and women are overrated — you should appreciate Goodman.