Academy of One: Best Actor 2018

These are my opinions and feelings. I do not represent the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and I have no power to revoke or award Academy Awards. Consider this an alternate universe, where everything is the same except which movies get recognition and which should fade out. Also, SPOILER ALERT! I may be spilling major details about several films.

What constitutes imitation, impression, or interpretation? I ask this question because four of the five performances in this category are of men playing real people. With more 20th and 21st century popular figures getting the biopic treatment, there's a wealth of media for the actor to parse through to help with mannerisms, movements, and inflections.

With all of that information readily available, there's little wiggle room where a performance can be elevated toward inspiration, an antecedent to the three types of performances above. It's especially difficult to achieve with people continuously pointing and saying, "[Figure] wouldn't say that," "[Figure] wouldn't do that." Both during production and after the finished film comes out, there is this nitpicking from the community at large.

I'm not immune to that nitpicking, but what I try and do is see if I can get lost in it, see if I can lose all traces of the actor beneath the makeup. I think that's one of the bellwethers of a great performance. That's the inspiration that can transcend the truth and make for a better film.

So, I present for review the actors as nominated by the Academy.

  • Christian Bale - Vice

  • Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born

  • Willem Dafoe - At Eternity's Gate

  • Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

  • Viggo Mortensen - Green Book

I don't want to play my hand too much, but I can say without a doubt, I don't like these performances. I like several other performances far more. Here's my list of who I'm considering as possibilities to replace several (or all) of the original nominees.

  • Ryan Gosling - First Man

  • Ethan Hawke - First Reformed

  • Stephan James - If Beale Street Could Talk

  • Joaquin Phoenix - You Were Never Really Here

  • Robert Redford - The Old Man and the Gun

  • Lakeith Stanfield - Sorry to Bother You

  • John David Washington - BlackKklansman

I love a thoughtful understated performance where the emotions of the character play out in bursts over a slow burn rather than at the heights of emotion all the time. Ryan Gosling puts in an incredibly restrained performance to play famously reticent about being famous Neil Armstrong in First Man.

Character studies can be hard to pull off, but Ethan Hawke so embodies Toller that his personality gets lost in the majesty of his performance. He makes scratching in a journal riveting.

I think if you were trying to convey subtle emotions to an alien who doesn't understand them, you could show them Stephan James' performance. He's able to express all the information about his emotional state in those closeups of his face. It's incredible to watch as the expression changes as his emotions change with new information.

Joaquin Phoenix has played any number of dark characters, but he rarely gets to imbue that darkness on a sort of heroic role. As a killer for hire taking on a child prostitution ring, Phoenix is brutal, devastating, physical, darkly funny, and somehow charming. It's a strange, beautiful performance.

Robert Redford has claimed this as his last movie role. What a great one to go out on. This performance reminds us why we fell in love with him as a movie star and why he's stayed at the top so long. It's a charming, sweet, funny performance that's also subtle and driven.

If you've followed this blog for long, you know Lakeith Stanfield is one of my absolute favorite actors. He's a fearless performer and here he takes it to the next level with great comedic timing and commitment to bits.

It's hard to live up to a name your father has firmly established in the acting community, but John David Washington is making his own name here. He's funny, physical and charming. Have no fear that he'll be able to carry on the legacy of the name.

Well, here is that list of original nominees again. I have in mind which ones I want to cull from the record, so let's get started.

  • Christian Bale - Vice

  • Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born

  • Willem Dafoe - At Eternity's Gate

  • Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody

  • Viggo Mortensen - Green Book

I see five names on here I can remove right away. Yeah, you read that right. I'm taking them all off. Here's why.

A series of grunts and physical movements does not a performance make. Yes, Bale may be capturing what Dick Cheney is actually like, but what he's like is boring and banal. The cuts made by the filmmakers seem to have cut out all his scenes of doing anything for more than a few seconds at a time. If they wanted us to watch an old, fat, bald unspeakably vile human walk around while some voiceover talks about what they're doing, they should have hired that old, bald, fat guy and saved some money on the prosthetics. This is a performance that could have come out of a basic cable dramatization.

Bradley Cooper is acting in his own movie. I want you to not read that sentence too literally because as producer, director, writer, yes, that statement is a fact, but what my intention is, is to say that his character is outside of the world he's built. He didn't reign his performance in and it's obvious he's going off and improvising in scenes. The improvisations are too far off the mark and it's clear his scene partners are thrown off their rhythms more than once and it ruins whatever that scene was meant to accomplish because they're trying to catch up to him. It's been my suspicion he may actually have been drunk because that could explain why he thought some of those choices were a good idea.

It doesn't help that I really didn't like the whole of At Eternity's Gate, but seeing how ridiculously miscast Willem Dafoe is laughable. At 63, he's supposed to be the youngest and most inexperienced character on screen. It just doesn't work and it takes away from the performance. I don't find anything groundbreaking in it or truly mesmerizing. He's doing everything he's done so well before and was ignored for it in previous competitions. It's too far afield of a movie to make me think the performance is worthy of praise.

A truly great performance would have had the actor playing a singer, singing. Rami Malek is imitating and not embodying Freddie Mercury. He can hit his mark and make the right moves, but what do the right moves matter if the performance lacks a choice to take it beyond that? What does it matter if he can't plumb the depths of this character freely? What would this performance have looked like if the preconceived notion of who Freddie Mercury was wasn't forced on him by the producers who thought they knew everything about him? I think it could have been more and he was too willing to let it be what it was.

Take every Italian stereotype, mix it together with an easy story about someone learning African-Americans are people too and you have Viggo Mortensen's Tony "Lip" Vallelonga. Pasta fazool, this is a ridiculous performance that has no depth to it at all. Mamma mia, Tony Lip is shallow and even with a strange subplot about a bunch of wiseguys attempting to recruit him, his "nobility" is still just common sense and not a character moment. Oof da doof yer breakin' my balls with this BS.

O.K., now that I have offended any one who has liked those movies or performances (again). Here are my five nominees for the newly reformed Best Actor category.

  • Ryan Gosling - First Man

  • Ethan Hawke - First Reformed

  • Stephan James - If Beale Street Could Talk

  • Joaquin Phoenix - You Were Never Really Here

  • Robert Redford - The Old Man and the Gun

With the winner and any nominee from the original list out of the contest it's anyone's game, right? Short answer: no.

There was never any doubt after seeing First Reformed that Ethan Hawke is operating at another level. He's an actor that will take jobs for money only so he has the clout and the opportunity to sink his teeth into a performance like this.

As Reverend Toller, Hawke channels the character Paul Schrader has been writing and struggling with for decades. Hawke finds and transforms into the misanthrope, the cynical man slowly killing himself with no regard for how people perceive his death or his life. He's captured the lost faith of his character and the twinkle in his eye when radical environmentalism renews his spirit. Hawke makes us believe every word of this quest and this idealism.

The deep emotional well Hawke accesses is unfathomable. He's playing the part of all of us, screaming at the unfeeling powers that be to do something, to say something, and finding apathy.

Hawke embodies the spirit of any one pushed toward extreme behavior because every rational approach they've ever taken has resulted in no action. The vigilantism is completely believable in Hawke's capable performance. It's something to behold.

All right, it looks like they’ve started the music. That wraps us up for this edition. So, between now and next time you can find me on Twitter @zyoungs108, you can like my Facebook page @zachyoungswrites, and visit the links on this site to where you can buy my self-published works.

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