A few weeks ago I profiled Matthew McConaughey, drawing the conclusion that he had become a master of inserting his personality into every character he played. This isn’t a derisive remark. It’s a Hollywood tradition. John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vincent Price, Clifton Webb, Clint Eastwood – talented stars, all of them — had substantial careers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t do it that way. More in the tradition of Daniel Day-Lewis or early Rod Steiger and Robert De Niro, Joseph Gordon–Levitt creates a fresh creature, an absolute original each time. Even when directors hire him because of previous performances as a type — a wild or crazy, often-criminal young kid — the actor simply won’t play it the same way twice.
In Mysterious Skin (2004), Gordon-Levitt was a victim of molestation, he portrayed a disturbed, self-destructive teen who seemed intent on only harming himself until he is contacted by another victim and sees the need to get through i.
Brick (2005) has become a cult classic. And while some experts disagree, many find the movie an unexpected small, noir masterpiece (set in a high school). Gordon-Levitt has the distinction of playing the part Bogart or Mitchum would normally play. He pulls it off, always on the verge of losing, almost playing the fool. He is tough, relentless in in his pursuit of a noble but impossible goal.
Killshot (2008) is based on Elmore Leonard’s book by the same name. Here, Gordon-Levitt gets the humor. The wild and crazy kid in this film, unlike the others isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer as a character, but as an actor he makes dumb charming, funny and horrifying, as I suspect Leonard meant it.
Talk about dry humor, as Hesher (2009) we see the most cold-blooded of the young disturbed characters he plays. Without trying, he out-squints Eastwood and gives you an as unpredictably yet believably crazy guy in ways that are as subtle and effective as Mitchum. Yet he is neither of them. He is not doing impersonations, but can easily communicate a thousand words in a single glance.
In the strange but riveting Looper (2012), Gordon-Levitt seems to have made his last pass through youth. All innocence is lost. The sweet, funny young kid from “Third Rock From The Sun” is gone.
As he matures as an actor and a human, I think we are witnessing one of the best transitions from child star to adult since Leonardo DiCaprio. Lately, he has had significant roles in such blockbuster films as Inception (2010) The Dark Knight Rises, (2012) and Lincoln (2012). With Don Jon, he seems to have moved on. He seems to have taken the status seriously by writing and directing a film that has arrived with accolades. At 32, Gordon-Levitt is an adult. It will be fascinating to see what talent tapped so early can achieve as time passes.