Jonathan Kimble Simmons, aka J.K. Simmons, is the Academy Award-winning actor who first came to fame as a song-and-dance man on Broadway. He then segued to a celebrated career in television and finally began an illustrious film career that has endured for 30+ years.
Simmons was a long-time theater actor — he had a memorable turn on the 1992 Tony broadcast in a striped purple suit raising his jazz hands in a number from “Guys and Dolls” — until he made his way to television and stunned audiences as white supremacist inmate Vern Schillinger in the HBO series “Oz.” Hollywood then came calling, making a big splash in the “Spider-Man” films and capping it off by winning the Oscar, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award for his chilling performance as a music teacher in “Whiplash.” He has since gone on to join the DC and Marvel universes.
Let’s raise a glass of the bubbly to Simmons by counting down his 10 greatest film performances. Our list includes the movies mentioned above, plus “Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “The Front Runner” and “Thank You For Smoking.”
10. PATRIOTS DAY (2016)
Director: Peter Berg. Writers: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan.
Much of Simmons’ career has been playing tough, no-nonsense cops, and he’s back on the force in Peter Berg’s film focusing on the manhunt for the brothers who detonated the bombs that killed three people during the 2013 Boston Marathon. Simmons plays Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese of the Watertown, MA police department who goes door-to-door searching for the brothers, and Pugliese’s well-aimed shot incapacitates one of the bombing suspects. Again, if you want a tough, no-nonsense cop, call J.K. Simmons.
9. THE LADYKILLERS (2004)
Writers/Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayons, J.K. Simmons.
In the Coen Brothers’ remake of the 1955 British Ealing comedy, Simmons is on the other side of the law as Garth Pancake, a demolitions expert posing as a classical musician but who is really a member of a criminal gang anxious to break into adjoining casino. But to do that, the gang has to tunnel through the house of an elderly lady (Irma P. Hall) who is being schmoozed by the gang’s leader (Tom Hanks). Simmons is very funny in thinking that he is much more expert at his skill than he really is, yet he suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, not a great situation for a demolitions expert.
8. THE MEDDLER (2016)
Writer/Director: Lorene Scafaria. Starring Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean.
Simmons takes on one of his few romantic roles in Lorene Scafaria’s film about Lori, a single young screenwriter (Rose Byrne) whose life his invaded by her recently-widowed mother Marnie (Susan Sarandon) to wants to be involved in every facet of Lori’s life. Marnie unexpectedly finds herself drawn to retired motorcycle cop Randall Zipper (Simmons, with a great cop ‘stache), a tender soul who plays the guitar and rides a massive Harley. Simmons gets to show a sweet side here that he rarely gets to display and has palpable chemistry with Sarandon to boot.
7. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005)
Writer/Director: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Hickey. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes.
No one does gruff quite like Simmons, and in Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking,” he’s the irascible boss of tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), who is neck-deep in a disinformation campaign trying to convince Americans that there is absolutely no connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. When Nick inadvertently reveals details of his company’s campaign to reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), BR fires him, then after Nick delivers a brutally honest address, BR begs him to return.
6. LA LA LAND (2016)
Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons.
In this acclaimed musical, Simmons has one major scene as old-school restaurant owner Bill, who orders his rebellious pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to stick to a Christmas set list for his customers. But when Sebastian ignores him once again by playing an improvisational jazz routine, Bill fires him on the spot. The moment is a key one, setting the plot into motion by freeing Sebastian to pursue his dreams of a career, and walking in a huff after Bill’s firing, Sebastian literally knocks into the admiring Mia (Emma Stone) who will later play a large part in his life.
5. THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)
Director: Jason Reitman. Writers: Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, Jay Carson. Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina.
Although the film received tepid reviews, Simmons earned strong notices in Jason Reitman’s look at the ill-fated 1988 Presidential campaign for Democrat Gary Hart. Simmons portrays campaign manager Bill Dixon who is exasperated by the candidate’s unwillingness to actually do any retail campaigning, such as taking photos. Dixon warns Hart to be wary of the press, advice that Hart of course ignores, resulting in a sex scandal that helps to unravel his campaign. “The Front Runner” is Simmons’ sixth film with director Jason Reitman, a partnership that has proven to be very fruitful for them both.
4. UP IN THE AIR (2009)
Director: Jason Reitman. Writers: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner. Starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons.
Arguably one of Simmons’ most powerful scenes on film is as Bob, a company man who has been told by termination assistant Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) that he has been fired from his longtime job. Now jobless, Bob angrily lists the many things that his family will have to do without, including medical benefits. Ryan then reminds Bob that he has been trained as a chef — why not see this as an opportunity to start fresh and live out your dream? The range of emotion that stretches from anger to fear to hope that’s visible on Simmons’ face in a single scene is breathtaking.
3. THE SPIDER-MAN series (2002, 2004, 2007)
Director: Sam Raimi. Writers: Various. Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons.
Simmons’ face became more widely known to moviegoers around the world through his performances as J. Jonah Jameson, the owner/publisher of NY’s Daily Bugle in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. In the great tradition of grumpy and clueless newspaper editors, such as “Superman’s” Perry White, Simmons’ Jameson, always scowling with an ever-present cigar in his mouth, despises Spider-Man and all that he stands for. Yet unwittingly, he hires Peter Parker (Spider-Man) to be the paper’s photojournalist. Go figure. It’s a wonderful comedy performance.
2. JUNO (2007)
Director: Jason Reitman. Writer: Diablo Cody. Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney.
The best of Simmons’ collaborations with director Jason Reitman would have to be his performance as Mac MacGuff, the father of an unmarried pregnant teen in “Juno.” When they learn that their daughter Juno (Ellen Page) is with child, Mac and his second wife Bren (Allison Janney) offer their full support, but Juno is still confused as to whether to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. It is only after a heartfelt talk with her father (in a scene beautifully played by Simmons) that Juno realizes that she truly loves Paulie (Michael Cera), the baby’s father and Juno’s best friend.
1. WHIPLASH (2014)
Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist.
For Simmons, this is the one that made all the difference. For his supporting performance as merciless jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” Simmons won the Academy Award, the Golden Globe Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Award. Young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is thrilled to be invited to join Fletcher’s conservatory class, but that thrill is soon replaced by abject terror as Fletcher, who may see a bit of himself in Andrew, rides him hard, throwing cymbals and chairs at him at every perceived misstep and slapping him across the face repeatedly. Simmons goes places that many actors might dare not go, and, in so doing, he delivered one of the most memorable film performances of this decade.