Defining the moment of transition from actor to movie star can be a tricky business. Sometimes, it’s perfectly clear when it happened, but not exactly why or how. I’m thinking in particular of Julia Roberts—most people would say she became a star with Pretty Woman, but she’d already been Oscar-nominated at that point, for the previous year’s Steel Magnolias, and she’d also gotten a lot of attention a year before that as part of Mystic Pizza’s ensemble. It happened very quickly, but there was no precise moment of coronation. Tom Cruise, by contrast, did have one: He became a movie star at the instant that he slid onto the screen in his socks and underwear, holding a candlestick as a microphone and lip-syncing to Bob Seger. It almost surely would have happened anyway, sooner rather than later; if you were around at the time, however, seeing Risky Business with little or no prior knowledge of Cruise, you’ll remember that feeling of star-is-born recognition. (You can also join me now in wondering how you’ve gotten so old.)
In both of those cases, stardom came almost immediately. Roberts had made only four films prior to Steel Magnolias (one of which hadn’t even been released), and Cruise had likewise appeared in four prior to Risky Business, having entered the industry just two years earlier. Some actors, though—especially those who didn’t luck into the 99th percentile for physical attractiveness—kick around for a good long while before they find the role that somehow makes everything click. Jack Black, for example, appeared in an Atari commercial way back in 1982, before his voice had even changed, and he started showing up in movies a decade later, making his debut in Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts. But nobody especially noticed his first 20-plus performances, unless perhaps they’d come across HBO’s short-lived Tenacious D series. I saw a fair number of the films in question (including such major titles as Dead Man Walking, The Cable Guy, and Mars Attacks!) at the time, and Black made no impression on me at all. When he walked into High Fidelity, after eight fairly busy years working as an actor, it was a galvanizing moment: Who the hell is that?
One of the interesting things about High Fidelity is that it’s a very American adaptation of a very English novel. The setting has been shifted from London to Chicago, and much of the dialogue has been modified accordingly; to cite one example of many, Rob’s great line, “How can it be bullshit to state a preference?” was originally, “How can it be bollocks to state a preference?” But far and away the most American aspect of this particular scene is Black’s performance, which is brash and obnoxious in a different mode than Nick Hornby imagined when he conceived Barry as a character. Virtually everything Barry says here is straight out of the novel, almost verbatim; the only significant new line is the one about how Belle & Sebastian’s “Seymour Stein” sucks ass. But if you imagine a British actor playing the role, it looks nothing like this. The first one who springs to mind for me is Nick Frost, who’d probably have made a perfectly serviceable Barry in a hypothetical U.K. version of High Fidelity… at roughly a third of Black’s energy level. Same with David Mitchell or (though he was a bit too old even at the time) Ricky Gervais. And that’s deliberately choosing comedians who are decidedly on the less reserved end of the British continuum.
In other words, Barry isn’t really a star-making part, on paper. Black injected his own sensibility into the character, which is something he hadn’t really done in any of his previous film performances (that I’ve seen, at any rate). Basically, he’s employing a slight variation on his J.B. persona from Tenacious D, while still fully respecting the role as written. In the book, Barry “comes into the shop humming a Clash riff.” The movie’s Barry performs a more generic guitar noise, presumably for budgetary reasons, but the key difference is that he doesn’t just come into the shop—he makes an entrance, flinging the door wide open and putting on a show for his fellow employees. And most of what’s memorable about this introduction to the character is Black’s wild physicality as he dances to “Walking On Sunshine” (the same track that Hornby has Barry put on). That whole insanely lewd mime routine toward the end can only have come from Black’s imagination, and it arguably did for him what strutting around to “Old Time Rock And Roll” did for Cruise. Watching him in High Fidelity, right from this moment in which he first appears, is like seeing a dog have its leash removed at the park.
Black’s conception of Barry also provides a starker contrast with the terminally shy Dick, who’s played, just as brilliantly, by Todd Louiso. I was equally unfamiliar with Louiso at the time (though he’d been around since the early ’90s), and while his work here is much less showy than Black’s, it still seemed entirely possible that he, too, might be about to take off. Obviously, that didn’t happen. He’s continued to act regularly (mostly on television, but also in films like Thank You For Smoking and Snakes On A Plane), and has also directed several indie features (most recently Hello I Must Be Going), but playing Dick in High Fidelity remains his highest-profile achievement. Consequently, I can’t really speculate about how much of his own personality Louiso brings to this role. But I can observe that he perfectly captures a very specific strain of music nerd, especially in his interactions with John Cusack as Rob (who’s basically the straight man in all the record-store scenes). Louiso plays Dick with a disarming mixture of diffidence and enthusiasm, making it clear that he exists in his own little bubble and can’t really conceive of music lovers who don’t share his obsession with record-label minutiae and such. What’s more, he (or someone) has clearly done his homework—few stray bits of business are as dead-on as the brief glimpse of Dick carefully winding his Belle & Sebastian cassette with one finger after Barry throws it on the ground.
(Quick aside: I’ve never understood why Hornby chose to invent a fictional band—the Liquorice Comfits—for Dick to rave about in this scene, given how much the book generally traffics in known quantities. Granted, part of the joke is that Dick is into obscurities, but there are plenty of real-life obscurities to choose from. And I’m doubly confused about why the screenwriters didn’t change the name, since most Americans have no clue what a “comfit” is. Make it the Jolly Ranchers or something.)
Anyway, back to Black. Whether it was just a fluke of talent and opportunity finally lining up after several dozen at-bats, or whether (as I suspect) Black decided the time had come for some serious carpe diem, everything changed for him after this. He didn’t win any critics’ prizes—it was the year of Traffic, and Benicio Del Toro was almost everybody’s pick for Supporting Actor—but he was nominated for Breakthrough Male Performance at the MTV Movie Awards, which means a lot more in terms of public recognition. And while he’d never played the lead in a movie, one year later he was the title character in the Farrelly brothers’ Shallow Hal, as a romantic lead opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s all it takes: just one performance, or even a single moment, that cements an identity and makes audiences hungry for more. It can take a long time to arrive—I can think of some terrific actors who are still waiting as we speak (hello, Jessica Barden)—but when it finally does, it’s impossible to miss.