The Big Vin
Last week I received an email on the subject of Keira Knightley from one of the producers of The Hole, quite understandably aggrieved that I'd neglected to mention it in my newsletter. He admitted to some pride for having spotted her promise from a screen test.
Industry movers and shakers may be best placed for it, but it's something all film-lovers can relate to and participate in: that thrill of discovering a previously unknown actor for the first time.
Quite often it's not an actor's first role which reveals his or her charisma… usually there has been some digging in the trenches; a bit part here, a walk-on there. Sometimes they might have amassed quite a back catalogue before the world wakes up and takes notice of the latest overnight sensation. But when a star-making performance comes along, there's no missing it.
Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite is an obvious example. Or Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (his sixth major movie!). Reese Witherspoon had been putting together a body of work for nearly ten years before Election really gave her an edge - even if she'd given cult movie fans an inkling of that already, in a little item called Freeway a few years before. For those with longer memories, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets is a classic break-out performance, eleven movies and eight years into his film career.
For Vince Vaughn, Swingers was the one that made all the difference. He thought he had spotted his own star potential when he made a Chevrolet commercial while he was still in high school. He took it as his cue to move to Hollywood for what turned out to be seven years of struggle, picking up work as an extra in Bette Midler's For the Boys and finally grabbing a blink-and-you-miss-him part in Rudy.
Even though his role was cut down to only a couple of lines (legend has it his parents only recognized him by the number on the football shirt he wore) Rudy was a crucial film for Vaughn because that's where he met co-star Jon Favreau, who was already writing a screenplay about his own experiences as a wannabe actor in Los Angeles, hanging out at the clubs, trying to pick up girls.
When the two men became friends, Vaughn naturally found his way into the script, though just how closely the character resembles the actor is a moot point. Trent is the lounge lizard in his natural habitat, an obnoxiously suave ladykiller who has the patter, the threads, the looks and the moves. What everyone remembers is the too cool for school slang: 'Money' as the superlative; 'Babies' or 'Skanks' for women. The son of a salesman, Vaughn sold his insincerity so completely; you come out of the movie with his catchphrases on your lips. But he also made you aware that Trent was trying too hard; of the empty bluff behind the machismo.
Swingers was an indie movie and didn't do box-office business, but the critics dug it and it was a must-see for the in-crowd. Favreau, who wrote himself the lead role, must have been gratified and perhaps a little dismayed when his project made his best friend a movie star: Spielberg caught it, and immediately cast Vaughn in the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.
But even if Vaughn was suddenly considered leading man material around town, his career over the next five years consisted of one disappointment after another… the notorious Psycho remake… Return to Paradise… Clay Pigeons… The Cell… (and these are just the titles you might have heard of).
It's not that these were all stiffs, or that he was bad in them - his performance as the best friend from hell in Favreau's Made is as good as anything he's done, and utterly without ego - but Vaughn's cynicism can feel too real for comfort. There is a scene in Made when he's politely asking Sam Rockwell's bellhop to get out, but somehow he can't refrain from splashing his drink in his face, not once, but three times. The aggression is almost more than the movie can stand, not least because of the suspicion that we're watching a thinly veiled version of Jon and Vince's adventures in celebrity-wood.
It wasn't until 2004 that he reminded us he could be fun. Funnily enough it wasn't any one performance that did the trick this time, but OTT cameos in Starsky & Hutch and Anchorman, grounded by the likeably underplayed lead in Dodgeball… it seemed like every comedy coming out of America had to have at least one Vince Vaughn moment, and it only whetted our appetite for more - culminating in the decidedly patchy Wedding Crashers going ballistic last year.
The studio is trying to sell The Break-Up as the latest instalment in VV's rolling good times, a tactic that backfired in North America when critics and audiences primed by a rom-com trailer chocked on what turned out to be something of a bummer.
I'd argue that The Break-Up (which Vaughn had a hand in writing and produced) has more in common with the 'personal' films he made with Favreau, Swingers and Made, than it does with his string of risqué comedies. At heart it's a rather sad movie about a split up, and Vince's character Gary Grobowski behaves very badly in it. He's a slob, a chauvinist, and he only ever thinks about himself.
A lesser actor might have played it as a caricature, but this is no star turn; Vaughn makes it real instead, so that the laughs stick in our throats. Everyone's so preoccupied with the Jennifer Aniston saga looking at this movie; they miss the significance of casting Joey Lauren Adams - Vaughn's ex - as Jennifer's best friend. Regardless of what you think about the film, I'm pretty sure Vince Vaughn really means it. Meanwhile, look out for John Michael Higgins stealing scenes as la Aniston's brother, he just could be a star of tomorrow…