Star power is a fickle thing. It can be a huge boon to a career, it can be subverted for impressive results, but it can also put you in a box, and leave you with a lot of baggage that you can’t shake no matter how good you are. I finally recently caught up with The People V. O.J. Simpson, and was totally impressed with all the performances – they’re weird, yes, but in a good way, in the way that I like, in a way that feels honest. Everyone, from Cuba Gooding Jr. to John Travolta (I don’t know if I can overstate how much I genuinely love Travolta in this show, as well as fellow recognizable famous man Nathan Lane) creates a character that feels honest and off-kilter in the ways that real people do, striking a strong balance between emotion, performance, strangeness and sincerity. David Schwimmer should be praised for his portrayal of Rob Kardashian too, playing the role well and with a truly challenging emotional journey. But I can’t help but see Ross Geller every time he’s on screen.
It’s difficult to have any role subsume your personality, and nearly impossible to avoid if you play a big enough role eventually. Will Robert Downey Jr. ever not be Iron Man? Will Jon Hamm ever not be Don Draper? Or a favorite example: will Danny Devito ever not be Frank Reynolds? It’s an interesting one because Danny Devito was already a bona fide star when he took the role, but it has now (at least for me and people of my generation) retroactively colored his other efforts. In a bizarre reverse star power, Danny Devito’s late-life role has affected how I view is earlier performances, and because of the way time works they cannot be “subversions” – Tim Burton did not know Devito would play Frank Reynolds when he cast him as the Penguin, but that is all I can see. And the Penguin is probably one of the characters least “damaged” by Devito’s late in life image.
While Schwimmer and Devito don’t share the retroactive recontextualization, they do share one particular challenge in their roles. Both are associated with a particularly broad comedic character, and having your image attached to twelve years of Always Sunny or ten years of Friends is no doubt difficult to beat. Not impossible: Bryan Cranston shed a famous comedic role successfully to become Walter White. But still difficult: watching an episode of 30 Rock featuring Jon Hamm before returning to Mad Men always throws me for a loop, and Jon Hamm is easily one of the most talented and versatile actors around. But neither Hamm nor Cranston had a role that consumed their personality and invaded pop culture quite as much as Schwimmer did – to the point where I think of him as Ross Geller well before I think of him as Schwimmer.
The examples against him are continuous. For a long time I thought Michael Scott would always eclipse Carrell, but he was able to move past it. Schwimmer is probably not the same caliber of performer as Carrell and Hamm and Cranston, and he doesn’t melt into the role quite as easily. But there’s no denying he uses his natural personality and some superb acting to deliver an affecting performance as Rob Kardashian. The way he watches O.J. and tries to battle his own feelings, tries to weigh his emotions versus his logic, tries to be a friend while also having doubts, these are all conveyed well and humanely. If Schwimmer hadn’t been Geller first, he may have been a knock out. Is it really fair to hold one good performance (and make no mistake, he is a great performer while playing Ross) against him so much so that we ignore a second good performance?
Speaking honestly, fair has nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter if I convince myself I am being unfair by seeing Ross in Schwimmer and Kardashian, because I won’t be able to stop myself from seeing it. And unlike famous uses of casting against type, Murphey and Co. don’t do anything to play with or against our expectations. This is no Marion Crane.
But there is a silver lining, and it comes from Marion Crane. When I first saw Pyscho I had no idea that Janet Leigh was a star, and her death while shocking failed to subvert my expectations because I didn’t have any. The cultural awareness around Devito, Hamm, Leigh and even Schwimmer (believe it or not) will one day fade, and what we will be left with will be two strong performances untethered to each other by any preconceived notions. Perhaps one day someone will watch Friends after seeing The People V. O.J. Simpson and be surprised how goofy Rob Kardashian is.