[The Oscar countdown continues with new contributor Matthew Eng - he wrote that popular Jennifer Lawrence piece! -- making a fascinating cross gender lines comparison to 13 years back]
Thirteen years ago, the only acting prize Matthew McConaughey seemed likely to ever win was a Razzie*. Or, you know, at least a Teen Choice Award. And yet, here we are, thirteen years later, all those Wedding Planners and Failure to Launches gone (but not forgotten), and Matthew McConaughey just so happens to be:
- an Oscar nominee
- the indisputable frontrunner of the Best Actor race, and
- a presumable Oscar winner.
It’s the Second Coming of McConaughey, a shockingly successful, rule-breaking career reversal that approximately zero people saw coming. But can you really blame us, especially considering that pre-Magic Mike McConaughey seemed pretty intent on solidifying his status as a Hopeless Hollywood Himbo, continually submerging his skills behind a pair of wide-eyed peepers, a self-satisfied smirk, and a notorious, Southern-fried catchphrase that may have made for one great Matt Damon impression but which can still send even some of the more willing McConaughey converts up the wall?
It’s always nice to see a performer sizably step up their game, to start choosing roles for the challenge, rather than the check. Maybe it’s the nature of the Dallas Buyers Club role or maybe it’s the inconsistent reputation of the genre he spent the better part of the past decade residing in, but McConaughey’s performance and subsequent awards trajectory have been giving me major flashbacks to Julia Roberts and the 2000 Best Actress Race, which culminated with Roberts’ inevitable coronation nearly thirteen years ago. [More...]
Roberts and McConaughey’s performances force us to rethink the performer him/herself and to firmly reconsider their reliable if occasionally misguided talents, right at the moment when everyone began to wonder if that was all there is. That isn’t to say that the output of 90s-era Roberts was even remotely near the dire condition of McConaughey’s Aughts-period career; Roberts didn’t exactly need Erin Brockovich as a career preserver in the same way that McConaughey needed Dallas Buyers Club. And My Best Friend’s Wedding is definitely not Ghosts of Girlfriends Past… although Runaway Bride very well might be.
However, much like McConaughey, Roberts’ nomination initially seems like a longtime celebrity going through the standard biopic motions in order to finally grab a golden boy. But for many, myself included, Roberts’ Erin Brockovich and McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof are both stellar, indelible examples of two time-tested and admittedly type-cast stars giving peak performances by using the vitality of their respective star personas (McConaughey’s rowdy, good-time Charlie charm, Roberts’ effortless exuberance and bracing standoffishness), an enviable surfeit of charisma, an eager, exhilarating willingness to work within and against type, and a masterful commitment to character that makes you forget the type even existed. Dallas Buyers Club, like Erin Brockovich before it, has proven to be a farther-reaching favorite with Oscar than even its most avid supporters had anticipated, but I’d still wager that neither project would have had even half of their compulsive watchability, furious excitement, or hard-fought emotional resonance were it not for the efforts of its two marquee stars. Although Roberts’ post-win performances haven’t entirely been the acting barn-burners that Erin Brockovich seemingly indicated were to come, McConaughey seems thankfully keen on continuing his recent string of good work, which, with HBO’s buzzy True Detective, now extends to screens both big and small.
But that’s not all!
As I got to thinking of the kinship between McConaughey and Roberts’ pack-leading, respect-commanding nominations, I began to see some admittedly random but nonetheless interesting similarities between this year’s Best Actor field and the ladies-in-waiting who comprised 2000’s Best Actress race.
If McConaughey, like Roberts, is the rejuvenated movie star doing career-best work, then Bruce Dern might as well be his Ellen Burstyn, aka the current dark horse who also happens to be a well-respected if somewhat-forgotten and long-misused icon of 70s American cinema, handpicked, like Burstyn, by an indie auteur with an intriguing casting idea to take the lead of his project, introducing him to an entirely new generation of moviegoers in the process. Save for the occasional Emmy nominations she picks up every few years for playing shaky and/or saucy mamas, the fire of Burstyn’s Requiem for a Dream performance was extinguished all too quickly, so here’s hoping that Dern’s Nebraska triumph will help him avoid playing characters with names like “Creepy Carl” in dubious-sounding titles such as Coffin Baby and Swamp Devil for the time being.
I wouldn’t call Leonardo DiCaprio quite the thespian that I consider Joan Allen to be and The Wolf of Wall Street is surely a much bigger deal than The Contender was during its year, however DiCaprio’s relationship with Oscar (0-for-4 at this point, at least acting-wise) mirrors Allen’s 0-for-3 run with Oscar from 1995-2000. Like Allen during her peak period, DiCaprio’s a respected performer and an easy ballot filler, who, alas, has come up short during each of his dates with Oscar. DiCaprio’s fiercest fanatics and some bold awards pundits may be hoping otherwise, but I think DiCaprio’s likely an Oscar also-ran this year as well, although it wouldn’t be hard in, say, an alternate Oscar universe to imagine DiCaprio occupying the position McConaughey currently holds, of rewarding a long-lasting celebrity for stepping outside his comfort zone. Whatever the outcome, his career probably won’t ever come close to dying down in the same, upsetting way that Joan Allen’s has ever since The Contender. Although with her starring role in A Good Marriage recently wrapped and an upcoming guest arc on that undying zombie of a TV show, The Killing, now’s as good a time as any for more Joan Allen on our screens. (As if there were ever a bad time…)
I wouldn’t say that Christian Bale should just be happy to be invited, although I would say that there’s probably no need for him to carry a speech in his tux pocket, which is the sentiment that was applied to undeniable fifth-placer Juliette Binoche, who, thanks to the inordinate hawking of the Weinsteins, found herself sitting in Bjork’s seat at the Shrine thirteen years ago for a film that many consider to be featherweight fare. Chocolat wasn’t nearly the nomination powerhouse that American Hustle currently is, although five citations, including a Best Picture nod amongst a field of five, is pretty damn impressive for a film about a sexy French chocolatier. Besides, Bale will show up at the ceremony, as Binoche did, with a recent supporting win already under his belt. Hope the seat’s comfy.
Like Laura Linney, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s acting roots stretch to both the big and small screen, as well as the stage, most notably in the West End as a young schizophrenic patient in Joe Penhall’s prize-winnerBlue/Orange, as well as in an Olivier-winning turn as Othello at the Donmar. But further to the point, and in a way very similar to Linney before the You Can Count on Me breakthrough, during those bland Truman Show/Primal Fear years, Ejiofor has always been this close to breaking out, in projects as varied as the British drag-themed uplifter Kinky Boots (which earned him a Globe nod even though it made barely a blip stateside) and David Mamet’s unusual martial-arts drama Redbelt. He has been an admirable straight man and an expert second banana in everything from Dirty Pretty Things to Children of Men to American Gangster to his Indie Spirit Award-winning work in Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me. With 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor has at long last been given the opportunity to carry an entire movie, with staggering, soul-shattering results. I wouldn’t say the Linney similarities run too deep beyond that, but I for one am just as taken and gladly surprised to see Ejiofor fully exhibit his profound and poetic abilities while slowly but steadily rethinking his humanity before participating in “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as I was to see Linney beautifully try and fail and try again to check her emotions while sitting on that bus bench with Mark Ruffalo. It’s a revelatory, front-and-center performance from an actor who has up until now obligingly stayed on the sidelines, which makes winning Oscar’s attention that much sweeter.
* Surprise! He’s never been nominated. That’s right. Not even for Fool’s Gold.