Under the Circuit: Jeff Daniels


Born: February 19, 1955
Place: Athens, Georgia
Major Awards and Citations:
Saturn Award for Best Actor of 1990 (Arachnophobia)
International Fantasy Film Award for Best Actor of 1992 (Timescape)
Chlotrudis Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2005 (The Squid and the Whale)
Gotham Award for Best Ensemble Cast of 2005 (The Squid and the Whale)
Oscar Snubs: Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Something Wild, The Squid and the Whale

Joey Magidson has recently postulated that Gary Oldman – frequently cited as the Greatest Actor Never Nominated for An Oscar – as possibly receiving a long-overdue nod for the upcoming Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  While the reality of that has yet to play out, it made me wonder who would take that title if the Academy really did honor Oldman.  Try as I could to come up with a list of names, the one that kept sticking with me was a man who’s had a longer career, a lower profile, and (arguably) more unjustly ignored individual work: Jeff Daniels.

His debut in Hollywood was Miloš Forman’s Ragtime, the film that, in a strange twist of fate, ended up being James Cagney’s final performance.  He moved on from there to his breakout role as Debra Winger’s philandering husband in the Best Picture-winning Terms of Endearment.  Although Jack Nicholson received the lion’s share of praise (and awards) for his excellent supporting performance, I’ve always found Daniels to be the unsung hero of that ensemble.

Luckily, his acting caught the attention of none other than Woody Allen himself, who offered Daniels his first starring role after realizing that Michael Keaton just wasn’t right for his next film’s reality-bending dual role.  This role became one of Daniels’ most iconic in The Purple Rose of Cairo.  Playing both naïve movie character Tom Baxter and his arrogant actor Gil Shepherd, Daniels created a hilarious, utterly winning character(s) and one of the most fully realized creations of Woody Allen’s filmography.  It was a role so near and dear to his heart that Daniels would eventually establish the non-profit Purple Rose Theatre Company as homage.  The Academy made a huge blunder in not only ignoring him for Best Actor, but also failing to nominate the film itself for anything other than Best Original Screenplay.

But that didn’t stop him from turning in yet another comically deft performance in Jonathan Demme’s strangely compelling Something Wild in 1986.  Despite garnering rave reviews and a second Golden Globe nomination, the Academy once again ignored him to make room for Paul Newman’s barely concealed “career honor” Oscar.

In 1994 he teamed up with Jim Carrey (Yet another frequent snubee.  Coincidence?) in his biggest box office success yet, Dumb and Dumber.  While the whole film is basically The Jim Carrey Show, Daniels acquits himself well as his dolt friend, understanding the inherent stupidity of the film and playing it up as much as possible.  He did not get stuck in a rut playing goofy roles, however.  Quite the opposite, he turned in small but no less commendable work in such films as Speed, Fly Away Home and Pleasantville (we’ll forgive him for My Favorite Martian).

But it wasn’t until 2005, with Noah Baumbach’s painfully honest divorce drama The Squid and the Whale, that audiences were treated to his best work since Purple Rose twenty years earlier.  As Bernard Berkman, the narcissistic and myopic father of a crumbling family, Daniels cuts into an unlikable character with such precision that his connection to the audience is almost chilling.  We all know (or knew) a Bernard Berkman in our lives.  Daniels understood this, and used that characterization to entertain, repulse, and captivate the audience in equal measure.  Unfortunately, he gave that amazing performance in one of the most competitive years for Best Actor in a long time.  Despite being more than worthy of a nomination, when the media hype machine was finished, there was just no way anyone was going to budge Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, David Strathairn, and Joaquin Phoenix from their positions as virtual locks, and the potential spoiler slot went to the admittedly very impressive Terrence Howard.

Since then, Daniels has seemingly redefined himself playing pretentious jerks.  State of Play is a most recent example, and despite being a “good guy,” his character in The Lookout had virtually the same voice and physical ticks as Bernard Berkman.  I remember Richard Roeper predicting a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the latter role, and had it released later in the year he might have been right.  His next film is Right Angle, about a salesman played by Tom Berenger who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident, with a release date possibly set for this year.

So why has he never been nominated, despite such brilliant work?  Perhaps, like Oldman, such an honor never really mattered to him.  He’s an unassuming, humble man who is still married to his high school sweetheart for over thirty years.  Supposedly, he once said that of all the awards he’s been nominated for, his greatest honor was when Woody Allen commended his acting abilities after production of The Purple Rose of Cairo, and to this day he is still Executive Director of the theater company named after it.  Perhaps he realizes, and some of us forget, that the performance is the true reward.