John Leguizamo: a life in film

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With a starring role in this week's 'The Happening', John Leguizamo has had a strange career. Tom Huddleston combs through it

Jack of all trades, forever a bridesmaid, king of the B-list: like a long-running TV show that just enough people watch, bat-faced Latino homunculus John Leguizamo has been ploughing his own unique, directionless and seemingly unending furrow through the mezzanine echelons of Hollywood for over two decades without ever managing to hammer a sizeable dent in the popular consciousness.

Born in Bogota in 1964 to a complex, globe spanning fusion of Italian-Lebanese-Colombian-Puerto Rican parentage, Leguizamo crossed the border as a child, and immediately set about bringing his own unique brand of forgettability to a shrugging world, writing his own material and testing it on nonplussed high-school classmates who bestowed upon him, with soon-to-be familiar critical indifference, the noncommittal title of ‘Most Talkative’. A stint at New York University followed, where Leguizamo won the rare chance to study under Method maestro Lee Strasberg. This important learning-and-growing experience lasted all of one day before Strasberg unexpectedly passed away, though it’s unlikely the two events were in fact related.

Leguizamo’s early years were a whirlwind of Latino typecasting, a parade of sweaty drug dealers and people smugglers with names beginning with A and ending in Z, such as ‘Antonio Diaz’ and ‘Angelo Alvarez’: he managed to play three completely different characters in 'Miami Vice' over three years, testament to the level of impression he made on the viewing public.

The first real break came with a role in brash Spike Lee pastiche ‘Hangin’ With the Homeboys’, one of those early ‘90s hip hop comedies that invariably revolve around parties, soft drugs and sass-talking honeys before descending into ‘unexpected’ violence so everyone can learn things about society and stuff. But the acclaim accrued from this profiled role couldn’t last.

In now-familiar Leggy fashion our hero was soon slipping back through the cracks, portraying ‘Liquor Store Gunman’ and popping a cap in Harrison Ford in dubious braindamagesploitation weepie ‘Regarding Henry’.

But the next stage of John’s career was about to begin. ‘Super Mario Bros.#39; was Leguizamo’s first summer tentpole, and its abject failure was barely his fault at all. Far more impressive was his role as 'Benny Blanco from the Bronx' in Brian DePalma’s thoughtful period gangsta thriller ‘Carlito’s Way’, a minor part not a million miles from Liquor Store Gunman, but aided immeasurably by the fact that the character had an alliterative name which Al Pacino kept repeating in a funny accent.

The next phase of John’s career could be described as ‘Leguizamo: the Weird Years’. From cross-dressing Chi-Chi Rodriguez in ghoulish transgender horrorshow ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar’ to swordmaster Tybalt in Baz Luhrmann’s garish Teenspeare moneyspinner ‘Romeo and Juliet’; from the title role of scamster Pestario Vargas in queasy dayglo so-called comedy ‘The Pest’ to his unbearably grotesque turn as corpulent master villain The Clown in underperforming superhero cartoon ‘Spawn’, there was no project so odd, over-budget and clearly doomed for Leggers to resist shining the feeble light of his mid-range talent upon it.

But the movies couldn’t contain John’s fire to succeed moderately, so it was back to the stage with one-man show ‘Mambo Mouth’ and mercifully short lived all-Latino sketch comedy ‘House of Buggin’, as well as vaguely irritating vocal roles in ‘Titan AE’, ‘Doctor Dolittle’ and ‘Ice Age’. Throughout this period, little hints of what could have been keep glimmering through the murk, most notably his superb central turn in Spike Lee’s messy but memorable ‘Summer of Sam’, a role which returned Leguizamo to the shiftless chancers of his early years but invested the caricature with warmth, honesty and depth. But it couldn’t last: cosy obscurity was calling, and a central role in Jonas Akerlund’s excruciating speedfreak drama ‘Spun’ was the fastest way there.

And so the Legmobile keeps trundling along, picking up the odd high-profile role (‘Land of the Dead’, ‘The Happening’), kicking in a decent turn in appropriately long-running but unloved hospital drama ‘ER’, and staunchly refusing to do anything that might require actually being famous or showing up to awards ceremonies. It’s interesting that, as the years go by, Leguizamo seems reluctant to get any older, frozen somewhere in his mid-thirties. Perhaps he’ll just keep going forever, grinning his cheeky grin, occasionally trying to act, ageless and timeless. And nobody will notice.

'The Happening' opens on Fri Jun 13.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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