Times Staff Writer

It has been 54 years, almost the entire span of the era of the shriekies, since Fredric March won an Oscar for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the only moment in Academy Award history where a person was nominated for best actor for work in a horror film. By the full moon of next February’s nominations, perhaps the spell will be broken.

Jeff Goldblum’s performance in “The Fly,” a genre-spliced story of romantic tragedy and horror, has been scaring up that kind of talk. Critics have dared to use that kind of language. And though it may be difficult to get enough academy voters to sit through what Newsweek’s David Ansen correctly termed the “gross-out movie of the year,” it is hard to imagine finding five more effective or moving male acting performances in one season.

Goldblum, working through four stages of progressively grotesque and remarkably realistic makeup, has created one of the most sympathetic man-monsters ever seen on screen, and the best work under this much latex since John Hurt’s Oscar-nominated performance in “The Elephant Man.”


In fact, there is a stronger parallel between the title characters in “The Fly” and “The Elephant Man” than there is between the title characters of this version of “The Fly” and the campy 1958 science-fiction original. The flyman in that movie was an ordinary housefly with the superimposed head of actor David Hedison, squeaking in a Mr. Bill voice, “Help me, help me.”

In David Cronenberg’s horrific remake, the fly and the scientist are not so conveniently paired. In this version, the two creatures become molecularly fused during a teleportation experiment, causing Goldblum’s Seth Brundle to slowly metamorphose into a mutant hybrid, a lumpy, twitching fellow with human memories and feelings intact, plus an evolving digestive system that results in the most repulsive feeding scene since John Belushi lunched in “Animal House.”

Remaking “The Fly,” which became the nation’s No. 1 box-office draw after its release Aug. 15, was a daring move. The idea is ridiculous, and the possibility that people would laugh it off the screen must have occurred to everyone involved. It certainly occurred to Goldblum, and to makeup artist Chris Walas, who combined to make the fly so . . . human.

“I was very concerned about that,” Goldblum said, in a telephone interview from London, where he is currently shooting a movie for the BBC. “I knew it would take a lot to make it work. The makeup had to be good. Everything had to work. But I liked the character immediately. I knew we were going after something interesting with the human story, particularly the way he changes.

“Sometimes, you just have to say, ‘Here goes nothing,’ and let it come out. See what happens.”

Goldblum, who had gone undercover once before to play the Big Bad Wolf in Shelly Duvall’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” said Cronenberg allowed him more say in the shaping of this character than he had ever had in a film role before.


Although Cronenberg held fast to the notion that they were making a horror story, he allowed the romance between Brundle and a science magazine writer (Geena Davis) to move forward, and for Brundle to remain sympathetic all the way to the end.

The success of the character, and ultimately of the movie, hangs on the fact that people can feel the Brundle character--a scientist with a childlike nature and an ironic wit--long after they can’t recognize him.

“The thing did change a bit,” Goldblum said. “Originally, my character did become meaner near the end. . . . That all changed. It became clearly more romantic.”

Walas, a Lucasfilm graduate who designed the creatures in Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” and last turned Lou Gossett into an outer space lizard in “Enemy Mine,” said two of the film’s most horrific scenes were cut from the last act because they would have distanced the audience from Brundle.

One scene showed the desperate Brundle teleporting a monkey and a cat, trying to hit on a formula to save himself. Walas said the result was “a weird, hideous thing born in pain, a six-legged lump of flesh with two distorted heads.” Brundle had to kill it.

In another scene, the famished Brundlefly goes out looking for food, and pauses to suck the brains out of a bag lady’s skull.


“I was glad to see that go,” Walas said. “I’m fairly jaded about this kind of thing, but that one bit didn’t have anything to do with the character. . . . What I like about ‘The Fly’ is that it is not a monster-on-the-loose movie. It has internal dignity and an intellectual awareness.”

Walas had nearly 30 people working on the preproduction design of Brundle’s various stages of flymanity. He also designed several puppet creatures, including the cat/monkey, the final form of Brundlefly and (the following is not to be read aloud at the breakfast table) a 10-pound maggot baby.

But the real challenge, and the key to succeeding, Walas said, was designing makeup specifically for Goldblum.

“This was a very different kind of monster makeup. Jeff had to carry long scenes where he was talking and describing things. There was no action to blur the image and distract viewers. If audiences weren’t caught up in the character, it wouldn’t work at all.”

Walas said when Goldblum came in for body, face and teeth castings, he spent a lot of time studying the actor’s mannerisms and facial expressions to determine where his strengths were so he could design the makeup to suit him. Walas said he eventually designed the latex face appliances to give Goldblum freedom around his eyes, his strongest acting feature, and his mouth, because he had so much dialogue in the last phase.

“Jeff is a great performer for this kind of thing,” Walas said. “A lot of actors will say, ‘Go ahead, put it on,’ then he goes out and does whatever he wants. Jeff was interested in the makeup. He practiced with it. He put time in to see how it moved and what he could do with it.”


Goldblum, who sat through five-hour makeup sessions for the Phase 4 scenes, said people related differently when he was made up.

“They didn’t know how to treat me. It was hot in there, but in a way, I felt both kind of private and kind of free . . . free to be emotional.”

Goldblum said that he and co-star Davis, who has also been praised by critics, took “The Fly” script and began rehearsing together before production started. He also took home a set of prosthetic teeth and practiced talking with them. And he invented a series of twitches and skittish movements that he thought might occur when someone’s nervous system started getting the wrong electrical signals.

“I kept hoping that I wouldn’t get lost in there and look like one more guy in a Ronald McDonald suit,” Goldblum said. “I didn’t want people to forget there was a person there, that if you take away the fly thing, there’s this passionate, emotional story. The guy’s dying, he has this shameful embarrassing disease and he’s just fallen in love.”

Walas said it was the first time he had worked with an actor who made him believe in his own creation.

“The major strength of (the performance) is that he deals with the personal degeneration of Brundle as a human being, not an archetypal character,” Walas said. “He carries that character all the way through the makeup, the special effects and everything.


“Before they started shooting, I would be standing there saying, ‘Oh, no, the hair is going to fall off, some disaster will happen.’ Then they would start and Jeff would make some gesture and I would think, ‘Yeah, that’s got it, it works.’ At the end of every day, I wanted to run up to him and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”