Released by USA Films, the film was nominated in three categories at the 72nd Academy Awards: Best Director for Jonze, Best Original Screenplay for Kaufman and Best Supporting Actress for Keener.
Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer in a forlorn marriage with his pet-obsessed wife Lotte. Gaining a file clerk job through Dr. Lester at LesterCorp, in the strange Floor 7½ low-ceiling offices of the Mertin-Flemmer Building in New York City, he develops an attraction to his coworker Maxine Lund, who does not return his affections. Craig enters a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet and finds himself in the mind of actor John Malkovich. Craig is able to observe and sense whatever Malkovich does for fifteen minutes before he is ejected and dropped into a ditch near the New Jersey Turnpike. He reveals the portal to Maxine and they let others use it for $200 a turn.
Craig tells Lotte, who becomes obsessed with the experience, allowing her to live out her transgender desires. Lotte becomes attracted to Maxine and they begin a sexual relationship via Lotte being inside Malkovich's head while Maxine has sex with Malkovich. Craig, forsaken by both women, binds and gags Lotte and locks her in a cage, then enters Malkovich's mind and has sex with Maxine. Craig discovers that he is able to control Malkovich's actions while in his head, causing the actor to become paranoid. After consulting with his friend Charlie Sheen, Malkovich trails Maxine to the Mertin-Flemmer building, where he tries the portal and is placed in a world where everyone looks like him and can only say "Malkovich". He is ejected and meets Craig by the turnpike. Malkovich demands that the portal be closed, but Craig refuses.
Lotte escapes with the help of the animals in the cage and phones Maxine, revealing that Craig was having sex with her. Maxine is annoyed but accepts it as she enjoyed the experience. Seeking help, Lotte finds Lester, who reveals himself to be Captain Mertin, the creator of LesterCorp. He is aware of the portal and has a room dedicated to Malkovich. Lester explains that the person connected to it becomes "ripe" for occupation on the eve of their 44th birthday. However, after the old host turns 44, the portal moves to its next host, an unborn child. The former allows one to increase their life before moving on to another host while the latter means being trapped within the unborn child. Lester, who has been using the portal to prolong his life, reveals his plan to use Malkovich for himself and several of his friends. Offered the chance to join Lester's group, Lotte warns him that Craig has control.
Craig finds he is able to remain in Malkovich indefinitely. He spends the next eight months in Malkovich's body, and through his control turns Malkovich into a world-famous puppeteer. Malkovich marries Maxine and learns that she is pregnant as their relationship grows distant. As Malkovich's 44th birthday approaches, Lester and his friends cut a deal with Maxine and fake her kidnapping. They call up Craig threatening to kill her if Craig does not leave Malkovich. Craig ends the call, causing Lester to think that he called their bluff. Lotte loses hope and attempts to kill Maxine, but they end up at the turnpike after falling through the portal and Malkovich's shame-ridden subconscious. Maxine reveals that she conceived when Lotte was inside Malkovich's body and kept the child because it is theirs. The revelation cements their love for each other.
Craig calls back Lester thinking Maxine is still in danger. Realizing his opportunity, Lester continues his bluff, convincing Craig to leave Malkovich's body. Lester and his friends enter the portal, taking control of Malkovich. Craig, discovering that Lotte and Maxine are together again, decides to enter the portal to become Malkovich and regain Maxine. Years later, an aging Malkovich, under the collective mind of Lester and his friends, reveals to Sheen a plan to prolong their lives through Maxine's daughter Emily, within whom Craig is now permanently trapped after entering the portal, powerless as he watches Maxine and Lotte living happily through Emily's eyes.
Kaufman's idea of Being John Malkovich originated simply as "a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife." Gradually he added further elements to the story which he found entertaining, such as floor 7½ of the Mertin Flemmer building; in his first ideas, Malkovich was "nowhere to be seen". He wrote the script on spec in 1994 and though it was widely read by production company and film studio executives, all turned it down. Hoping to find a producer, Kaufman sent the script to Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it on to his then-son-in-law Spike Jonze.
Jonze first read the script in 1996 and had agreed to direct the film by 1997. Jonze brought the script to Propaganda Films, which agreed to produce the film in partnership with production company Single Cell Pictures. Single Cell producers Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern pitched the film to numerous studios, including New Line Cinema, who dropped the project after chairman Robert Shaye asked: "Why the fuck can't it be Being Tom Cruise?". Jonze revealed in a September 2013 interview that Malkovich asked him the same question during their first meeting and also relayed Malkovich's attitude after filming commenced:
Either the movie's a bomb and it's got not only my name above the title but my name in the title, so I'm fucked that way; or it does well and I'm just forever associated with this character.
Jonze explained in the same interview that he didn't realize how brave Malkovich's performance in the film was.
With a budget of $10 million, principal photography of Being John Malkovich began on July 20, 1998, and continued through August. Filming took place primarily in Los Angeles; specific locations included the University of Southern California campus and the Observation Bar on board the RMS Queen Mary.
The puppets in the film were created by Kamela Portuges and Images in Motion. Phillip Huber animated the puppets.
Diaz's make-up artist Gucci Westman described styling Diaz in the role as "a challenge, to make her look homely." The script included minimal physical descriptions of characters, and thus when Diaz took up the role she did not know that "people weren't going to recognize me."
Cusack read the film's script after he had asked his agent to present him with the "craziest, most unproduceable script you can find." Impressed with the script, he asked his agent to follow its progress and book him an audition, with which he won the role.
Keener cited Being John Malkovich as an instance of her taking up a role based on the director's previous work. She had heard about Jonze's experience with music videos and took up the part of Maxine although she initially disliked the character and did not feel that she was right for the part.
Charlie Kaufman said that there was never another actor in Malkovich's place in the script: "The screenplay was always "Being John Malkovich", even before I had any expectation that John Malkovich would even read the script." He chose Malkovich because he believed there to be "an enigmatic quality about him that works", though Malkovich was partly chosen because of the sound of his name in repetition. Kaufman explained that "When we were thinking of alternatives, we found that a lot of them weren't fun to say." Jonze's then-father-in-law Francis Ford Coppola was able to contact Malkovich, and Jonze flew with producer Sandy Stern to Malkovich's home in France. Stern said that Malkovich was "half intrigued and half horrified" when he first read the script, but he eventually agreed to star in the film.
Spike Jonze makes a cameo appearance as Derek Mantini's assistant. Brad Pitt also has a half-second-long cameo, as a miffed star in the documentary on Malkovich's career, who seems to be on the verge of saying something before the shot ends. Sean Penn appears as a fictionalized version of himself and a fan of Malkovich's puppeteer work. Film director David Fincher makes an uncredited appearance as Christopher Bing in the American Arts & Culture pseudo-documentary on John Malkovich. Winona Ryder, Andy Dick, and the members of Hanson can be seen in the audience of a Malkovich puppet show.
Being John Malkovich was given limited release in the United States theatres on October 22, 1999, and opened across 25 screens. On its opening weekend, the film grossed US$637,731 across 25 screens with a per-screen average of $25,495. It expanded to another 150 screens the following week, bringing in $1.9 million with a per-screen average of $10,857. In its third week, the film's release widened to 467 locations and grossed $2.4 million, averaging a lower $5,041 per screen with a cumulative gross of $6.1 million. It moved into a wide release the next week, expanding to 591 screens, and grossed $1.9 million with a 20% drop in ticket sales. Its fifth week brought in $2.2 million with a 17% increase in ticket sales, which dropped a further 33% the following week despite further expansion to 624 screens. It finished its theatrical run after 26 weeks with a total gross of $22,863,596.
The film opened in the United Kingdom in March 2000, earning £296,282 in its debut week and closing after fifteen weeks with a total gross of £1,098,927. In France, the film opened in December 1999 with a gross of US$546,000 from 94 venues and went on to further success due to positive reviews and word of mouth. It grossed $205,100 from 109 screens on its opening weekend in Italy and ticket sales dropped by 37% the following week with a cumulative gross of $480,000 from 82 screens. Its German release brought in a total of $243,071. Being John Malkovich had a total foreign gross of $9,523,455, combined with its domestic gross to give an international total of over $32 million.
Being John Malkovich was initially released in 2000 on VHS, both as a regular edition and a limited edition collector's set, and on DVD, with special features including a theatrical trailer, TV spots, cast and crew biographies, the director's photo album and featurettes on floor 7½ and puppeteering. A special edition DVD, released later the same year, included the aforementioned features, an interview with Jonze and two behind-the-scenes featurettes. It was released on HD DVD in 2008. The Criterion Collection released a special edition of the film on Blu-ray and DVD in 2012.
All tracks written by Carter Burwell, except where noted.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating, based on 123 reviews, with an average rating of 8.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Being John Malkovich is both funny and smart, featuring a highly original script." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 90 out of 100, based on 36 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim." The film ranked 441st on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest films of all time.
In his review, Roger Ebert awarded the film a full four stars; he would later name it the best film of 1999. His comments of praise included: "Rare is the movie where the last half hour surprises you just as much as the first, and in ways you're not expecting. The movie has ideas enough for half a dozen films, but Jonze and his cast handle them so surely that we never feel hard-pressed; we're enchanted by one development after the next" and he also felt that "Either Being John Malkovich gets nominated for best picture, or the members of the Academy need portals into their brains." Another top critic Peter Rainer, writing for New York, commented that "dazzlingly singular movies aren't often this much fun" in his review, and Owen Gleiberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly, called it "the most excitingly original movie of the year."
John Malkovich's performance as himself in Being John Malkovich is ranked No. 90 on Premiere Magazine's '100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time'.