john belushi: Party animal

- By Robyn Kilroy

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When hearing the word “party animal”, a few people throughout the history of Hollywood spring to mind. However, no one was quite as consistent and legendary in his role as a party animal, both on and off screen, as the great John Belushi. Belushi, probably best known for his roles in Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers, (1980) continues to make people laugh with his wild antics even now, thirty-six years after his death. He first rose to fame after landing a spot on the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live (1975-present). While on Saturday Night Live, Belushi created energetic, larger than life characters, such as Samurai Futaba, King Bee, and Jake Blues, who, along with Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues, formed The Blues Brothers. It was these vibrant and crazy characters that Belushi created that landed him roles in movies with equally vibrant and crazy characters. His larger than life persona came at a price however, as it led to Belushi’s tragic overdose in 1982. To this day, no one has matched Belushi’s party animal antics, not by a long mile.

My first introduction to John Belushi was through the film Animal House (1978). While this film is rather dated in the era of the #MeToo movement, as a young teenager I found it funny. Out of the whole movie, the moments that stuck with me were all involving Belushi’s John “Bluto Blutarsky”. What shocked me when re-watching the film recently was how little Bluto actually says or how little we actually see him on screen. All of Bluto’s funny moments are thanks to Belushi’s comedic physical presence. Whether it’s his simple, yet iconic eyebrow raise or his ridiculous dancing during Delta Tau Chi’s toga party, Belushi makes Bluto one of the film’s funniest and iconic characters. Even though other characters are given way more dialogue and screen time, characters like Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson) and Donald “Boon” Schoenstein (Peter Riegert), Belushi’s Bluto leaves them all in the dust when it comes to the viewer’s memory of Animal House. This is also partly down to Belushi’s star power at the time, having already been a favourite on Saturday Night Live. However, there’s a lot to be said about Belushi’s comedic talent, which is in full flare in this movie. Some of the film’s most iconic moments weren’t scripted; director John Landis would often point the camera at Belushi and let him go crazy. Belushi’s wild, often unexpected improvisation added to Animal House’s crazy charm, showing his true talent as a comedic artist. Without Belushi’s Bluto, the film wouldn’t have its iconic status.

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Another role that Belushi is well known for is his role as Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers. The band had already been successful prior to the film, with their album ‘Briefcase Full of Blues’ scoring a number spot on the Billboard 200 in 1979. Because of this success, both Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had a lot of hype to live up to. The duo knocked it out of the park, creating a wonderfully wacky ode to soul music. While Jake and Elwood Blues can both be considered to play the role as the crazy party animal, Belushi’s Jake is just that bit more eccentric. Once again, he steals every scene he’s in with his presence. This is established in the opening scene, where Jake is released from jail. As the prison gates open, we see the figure of Jake Blues, standing in front of angelic-like lighting. It’s then Jake who leads his brother Elwood on a crazy adventure as they reform their band and try to make $5,000 to save the orphanage they grew up in. Together, Jake and Elwood take down Nazis, the police, a gun-wielding Carrie Fisher, and a country music band, all in the name of their ‘mission from God.’ Once again, Belushi outshines all his co-stars (except for Aretha Franklin’s role as Mrs. Murphy, that performance is flawless), extenuating his true comedic power through his party animal persona.

Watching Belushi perform on multiple platforms, from a TV sketch show, to a film set, to his live performances on stage with a live band, it was obvious that he just loved to entertain. He is quoted as saying: “On stage is the only place where I really know what I’m doing.” He was born to entertain, making people laugh with his ridiculous and eccentric characters. However, while Belushi’s party animal persona in front of the camera may have seemed harmless, in real life it was dangerous and fatal. During his days on Saturday Night Live, Belushi and many other members of the cast began using cocaine in order to stay up and finish sketches. This use of cocaine and other drugs as an aid for creativity stayed with Belushi for the rest of his career. His social and free-spirit personality led him to be susceptible to drug culture. He was found dead on March 5th 1982 at the age of 33, the cause of death a combined drug intoxication of cocaine and heroin. While it is clear that Belushi’s death was a cause of an excessive party lifestyle, I do still believe that his career and work should be celebrated. His characters were reflective of who he was, someone who was fun, eccentric, but above all, wanted to make people laugh. While there have neem others who tried to portray the same image, none them match Belushi’s persona as an authentic party animal in the world of comedic acting.