“Cash money for a picture of Spider-Man!”
The beauty of J.K. Simmons as an actor is that he has made a career out of stealing the thunder of his better-known, more highly-paid co-stars. Rarely being credited as anything higher than third or fourth billing, he nonetheless makes a huge impression in every role, no matter how large or small. Popping up in everything from comic book blockbusters, to sitcoms and cartoons, to physics-based video games, he is more often than not one of the most memorable aspects of anything he puts his name to.
All of which makes deciding upon which particular role of his was most worthy of discussion something of a struggle – his perpetually baffled C.I.A. head in the Coens’ Burn After Reading? His blasé father in Juno? His outraged fired employee in Up in the Air? All terrific acts of scene-stealing – however none of them would have been possible if not for the supporting role that dominated a franchise and put J.K. Simmons firmly on Hollywood’s radar – Spider-Man’s cigar-chugging Daily Bugle editor-and-asshole-in-chief, J. Jonah Jameson.
Based on the comic book character, director Sam Raimi needed someone brusque, authoritative and with a wicked sense of humour, but above all someone who can show all that, but with a tiny yet definite glimmer of kindness and humanity shining through. After all, he does show great bravery in the first film when confronted by the Green Goblin – he refuses to divulge Peter Parker’s identity as Spider-Man’s photographer even when faced with death – thereby saving his life.
No matter how much of an arrogant scumbag he can be, Jameson’s unabashed honesty and frankness about his nature means he remains a likeable character, even when making a complete u-turn on the Bugle’s stance on Spider-Man. He cares little about right and wrong, or slander and libel (“Slander? I resent that. Slander is spoken; in print it’s libel”). His sole purpose in life is to sell as many papers as he can, and if that means selling Spider-Man down the river to stay with the tide of public opinion, so be it. And we, the audience, respect him for that.
It is one of those rare roles that combines hysterical writing with the pitch-perfect casting of an actor apparently born to play the part. So strong is the characterisation that we need spend but a few scenes with him to get a magnificent picture of what kind of a man he is. Delivered in Simmons’ trademark gruff bark, every line that comes crashing out of his mouth is an absolute zinger, and nearly all of it offensive towards somebody (usually his hilariously put-upon assistant Hoffman, played by director Sam Raimi’s brother). He is without a doubt the man who has come to define the character for a generation of filmgoers and comic book fans alike. Reading a Spider-Man comic today without hearing Simmons’ voice read Jameson’s every line may be an impossible feat.
Such is the strength of Simmons’ line delivery throughout the franchise, it would be easy for this piece to simply dissolve into a Buzzfeed-esque list of his best quotes accompanied by some unrelated images – however that would not do justice to how memorable a character Simmons creates with Jameson. The qualities of the character lie not just in his whip-smart lines and withering putdowns, rather they come from his relationships with the people in his life.
Consider his wife – an almost entirely offscreen character, the tiny snatches of conversation we hear between them are fraught with argument, for example this line with regards to arranging wedding catering: “We agreed to put on a wedding, not go into bankruptcy… Caviar!? What, are we inviting the Czar? Get some cheese and crackers, some of those little cocktail weenies… ”. However we get the impression that despite his aggressive demeanour towards her, and the multiple occasions he hangs up immediately after hearing “your wife on line one”, this is a married couple very much in love – a man as curt and dismissive as Jameson does not waste a second of his time on people he doesn’t care about. As well as this relationship, Jameson’s begrudging admiration and respect for his excellent secretary Betty (an early Elizabeth Banks role) adds another soft, more human layer to the man.
With the role of Jameson, Simmons has taken an already memorable comic-book character and delivered a truly note-perfect performance that has completely permeated popular culture. As Jameson, his work with the script has created perhaps the apex of “asshole boss” characters, and practically cornered the market on them – it certainly feels like no other actor could top his fantastic portrayal of the character type in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. The critical plaudits have finally come flying in this year for Simmons, for his terrifying portrayal of an abusive jazz drum teacher in the superb psycho-drama Whiplash. Based on his character work in the Spider-Man films, it’s amazing that it took so long; the future looks bright for J.K. Simmons.