Under the Circuit: Guy Pearce

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Born: October 5, 1967
Place: Cambridgeshire, England
Major Awards and Citations:
Gotham Award for Best Ensemble Cast of 2008 (The Hurt Locker)
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Best Actor of 2001 (Memento)
San Diego Film Critics Society Award for Best Actor of 2001 (Memento)
SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture of 2010 (The King’s Speech)
Oscar Snubs: Memento

For someone who has been personally ignored by the Oscars his whole career, Australian actor Guy Pearce has become somewhat of a recent ubiquitous presence at the Academy Awards.  Rarely taking on lead roles (but usually succeeding brilliantly when he does), Pearce seems more at home making an impression on audiences with smaller parts.  Despite his talent and appearing in several award-winning films, mainstream stardom and Academy recognition have eluded him so far.

While the man is typically referred to as Australian, he was actually born in Cambridgeshire, England and moved down under when he was three years old.  It wasn’t until his teen years when he pursued acting, along with competitive bodybuilding (!).  His debut as a screen actor began in the mid-80s as a young heartthrob in the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours.

After stints on other television shows and a few minor movie parts, Pearce got his breakout role in the eccentric road trip saga The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Part of an Australian “New Wave” of quirky and inventive independent films, it became a sleeper hit worldwide and has achieved status as a bit of a cult film among the gay community, and why not?  After all, Terrence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving are not exactly the first people who you think of when hearing the word “drag queens,” and yet they all make it work with a peculiar and fun odyssey across the Australian Outback.  Pearce was Adam Whitely – sorry, I mean Felicia Jollygoodfellow – the youngest, most flamboyant and most obnoxious of the three friends; it was a performance that became typical of his best qualities: energetic, detailed and grounded, yet compulsively watchable.  As an interesting side note, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert also became the first Academy Award-winning film of Pearce’s career, winning for Best Costume Design.

Three years of minor made-for-TV movie roles later, and Pearce starred in an even bigger box office and critical success with the best film of 1997: L.A. Confidential.  A throwback to 1940s film noirs and police procedurals that evolves into a poignant character study, the production boasted a marvelous ensemble that included Russell Crowe as brawny and volatile yet noble Bud White, Pearce as punctilious and by-the-book Edmund Exley, and Kevin Spacey in one of his least self-regarding performances as the slick, narcissistic Jack Vincennes.  All of the principle male actors inhabit these different characters with a life force that reveals new sides of masculine anxieties and inner tensions, reacting to the discovery that they are part of a corrupt system they once trusted.  Shamefully, only one of the performers in that film received an Academy Award nomination (who actually won – Kim Basinger for Best Supporting Actress), but the film proved to elevate the profiles of Crowe and Pearce considerably.

Then, another three years later, Pearce starred in what would become his most signature role as the vengeful widow afflicted with anterograde amnesia in Christopher Nolan’s beloved mystery thriller Memento.  It strikes me every time I revisit that film how vital he was to keeping our interest throughout the story, which is strange considering that Leonard Shelby is one of the few (only?) well-written movie characters without an arc.  Again he shows his best qualities of injecting a highly focused energy with a grounded and believable vulnerability, and as he progresses through an increasingly convoluted journey, he comes to the tragic realization (that never sticks, of course) that he is hopelessly and willingly trapped in a fruitless quest for vengeance.  Nolan may have given Memento its intelligence and verve, but Pearce gave the film its heart, and should have received his first Academy Award nomination for his accomplishment.

Sadly, he became victim to the media hype machine, which gave the impression that only two male lead performances – Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington – were worth discussing in 2001.  Pretty much any actor was guaranteed a nod just for playing Muhammad Ali, no matter how uneven Will Smith’s portrayal ended up being.  Tom Wilkinson (not undeservedly) captured the indie darling slot, and, in perhaps one of their worst displays of judgment in the last decade, AMPAS decided to single out one of Sean Penn’s weakest performances in the mawkish, cheap I Am Sam.  Many great male lead performances were ignored that year, but thankfully Pearce’s contribution was eventually widely recognized by posterity.

The film raised his profile even more, but unfortunately the two starring roles he subsequently received did not end up becoming successful.  Not his fault, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Time Machine weren’t that good.  Still, the quest to make him a movie star didn’t go as planned, and he returned to smaller projects.

He continued to give superlative work throughout the years, including his unhinged performance in the bleak western The Proposition, as Andy Warhol in Factory Girl (an actor’s dream if ever there was one), and his mysterious portrayal of escapologist Harry Houdini in Death Defying Acts.

Recently, he’s become a bit of a good luck charm for Best Picture winners, appearing in back-to-back victors The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech.  While his role in the former film was essentially a cameo, he made a great and once again underappreciated contribution to the latter Oscar winner as the defiant King Edward VIII.  Any movie that portrays his story will inevitably stack the deck against the abdicating royal (which The King’s Speech, not having an original thought in its story, predictably does), but Pearce once again rises above the material by portraying his character as a loose cannon but also movingly smitten with Wallis Simpson.  In a film that desperately wants you to hate Edward VIII’s fecklessness, Pearce admirably shades him as someone who disdains the idea of royal duty above love.  Unfortunately, category fraud reared its ugly head and everyone went lock-step with the idea that Geoffrey Rush was a “supporting” actor in that film, despite his relationship with Bertie being central to The King’s Speech.  Pearce’s chances were once again dashed.

This year, he became part of the ensemble of Todd Haynes’ recently concluded miniseries Mildred Pierce.  On the big screen, he has a number of upcoming projects including the supernatural horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a revenge drama called The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, and a re-teaming with The Proposition director John Hillcoat for his newest project The Wettest County in the World.

Pearce always seems to be on the cusp of stardom but never quite makes it, despite a number of seminal movies that have served as breakthroughs for other actors.  One must ask why his career didn’t explode the way Russell Crowe’s did post-L.A. Confidential, or why Christopher Nolan has yet to work with him again despite often reusing actors from previous films?  I hope he one day gets the recognition he deserves; he is simply too good to be under the radar for much longer.