Under the Circuit: Paul Bettany


Born: May 27, 1971
Place: London, England
Major Awards and Citations:
London Critics Circle Film Award for British Supporting Actor of the Year 2001 (A Knight’s Tale)
Evening Standard British Film Awards for Best Actor of 2003 (The Heart of Me and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)
London Critics Circle Film Award for British Actor of the Year 2003 (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)
Oscar Snubs: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Dogville

What happened to this guy?  He started the decade as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new actors, but now has been relegated to flat supporting characters or in some cases starring in outright duds.  Someone give this guy a comeback role, stat!

Born to a theater family, it’s no surprise that he got his start on the stage.  His debut was in Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, and also had credits with Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar.  He simultaneously took on small roles in television shows and films throughout the 90s and built up a name for himself.

It was not until the year 2000 that he enjoyed breakout success in the United Kingdom with Gangster No. 1.  The film itself is, for my money, too disjointed and derivative to stand toe-to-toe with the great Brit crime thrillers.  However, Bettany gives his first of many subtly menacing performances as the titular button man obsessed with his boss.  Oddly enough, his older self in the same film was played by a very over-the-top Malcolm McDowell, whose breakout performance in A Clockwork Orange recalls the same creepiness.  Bettany was nominated for Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards and British Newcomer of the Year from the London Film Critics Circle Awards, firmly establishing himself as one to watch.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking.  Specifically, L.A. Confidential scribe Brian Helgeland came knocking with offers for two films he was working on at the time.  Luckily, Bettany did not end up doing The Order (though, sadly, it sucked in Heath Ledger).  But Helgeland lobbied hard for him to be cast in the period action-comedy A Knight’s Tale, eventually writing the part of Geoffrey Chaucer just for him.  A Knight’s Tale is characterized by its odd anachronistic humor, and frankly it was surprising to see audiences embrace the film as much as they did.  Yet it works, in no small part due to Bettany’s high-energy comedic performance as the English poet – beginning with his hilarious nude introduction on to acting as Ledger’s hype-man (“Thank you, I’ll be here all week!”).  His performance was not only entertaining to audiences, but acclaimed by critics as well, winning the London Critics Circle Film Award for British Supporting Actor of the Year.

Such good reviews did not materialize into an Oscar nomination, but he was no stranger to the Academy Awards that year.  Helgeland believed that Bettany was poised to be a star, so he showed his audition tape to a number of his associates during production of A Knight’s Tale, including a director named Ron Howard just as he was preparing A Beautiful Mind.  That film ended up with several Academy Awards including Best Picture, and although his performance as John Nash’s imaginary friend Charles was not among those honored, he did win the heart of Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Connelly.

2003 would end up being his peak year, as he not only married the beautiful Connelly but also acted in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Dogville, the two best performances of his career.

In the former, Bettany was Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon.  But his true role was as Captain Aubrey’s confidant and brutally honest advisor.  While they frequently butt heads on strategy and the ship’s priorities, there is a clear trust and deep camaraderie between the two.  It takes two talented actors to convey a lifetime’s worth of friendship, and Bettany fulfills the role of the only man who can speak plainly to the skipper brilliantly.  He also conveys a true doctor’s bedside manner even as he’s engaging in primitive surgical practices.  Kudos should go to director Peter Weir for never letting the ship battles and action sequences get in the way of the film’s insights into a sailor’s life, and the strongly-written, believable characters that allowed for such excellent performances from its cast.  I have long complained about the relatively weak roster of Best Supporting Actor nominees for the year 2003.  I’ll go even further in saying that with the possible exception of Benicio del Toro, Bettany was more deserving than all of the nominees that year.

He had a far greater challenge in Dogville, Lars von Trier’s three-hour drama viciously attacking…well, everything.  What is so amazing about his performance as Tom is how much of his true evil sneaks up on you.  Oh sure, he acts as the only one genuinely concerned for Grace, and aspires to be the moral leader of the town.  But then slowly it becomes very clear that he is the most selfish and petty of all the townspeople, using his influence to manipulate Grace and the town to his ends, and implicates everyone but himself as the situation worsens.  Tom is truly one of the most vile movie characters of the last decade, and it is to Bettany’s enormous credit that he plays him with subtlety and without an ounce of self-regard.  His snub for 2004 is not nearly as surprising as last year’s injustice.  After all, a film like Dogville – whatever one’s personal feelings on the film itself – is just never going to reach a wide acceptance from the Academy.  Plus, portrayals of irredeemably loathsome characters generally do not receive Oscar nominations.  The Academy wants to “like” their villains just a little bit.

Sadly, that spectacular one-two punch has not yet been duplicated or even approached by him since.  He starred in the romantic sports comedy Wimbledon, a film treasured and beloved by virtually no one today, before going on to be the go-to guy for creepy villains in bad movies in 2006.  He played a, what, terrorist?  Thief?  I forget…anyway the Bad Guy in Firewall and took the then-coveted role of the albino assassin (ugh) Silas in The Da Vinci Code.  Both films were terrible and gave him virtually nothing interesting to do.  You may have also recognized him as the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man and as Lord Melbourne in The Young Victoria.  He attempted a major dramatic starring role in the Charles Darwin biopic Creation with his wife, and was even whispered as a Best Actor possibility before the film premiered at Toronto and promptly bored everyone to death.

Crazy to think of now, but he was actually David Seidler’s first choice to play King George VI in The King’s Speech!  That’s right; the role that won Colin Firth the Oscar might have been played by Bettany instead.  He passed on it because he felt he needed to spend more time with his family after working for five straight months prior to being offered the part.  Though I commend him for his dedication as a family man, I can’t help but feel bad at a missed opportunity for him to be nominated…or possibly win.

So what does he have coming up?  Well, he’s the star of the horror/thriller/western/sci-fi film Priest opening this weekend, which looks, well, awful.  He also has a major supporting role as an irresponsible boss of a Wall Street firm on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis in the upcoming Margin Call.  His performance has been singled out by a number of early reviews and could be his ticket for a long overdue nomination.

But aside from that, and almost certainly reprising his role as J.A.R.V.I.S. in the upcoming Avengers movie, nothing else.  I don’t get it.  Here was an actor who blazed through the first half of the previous decade with a number of exciting, diverse performances, absolutely deserving an Oscar nomination for at least one of them, but then descended into flat characters in mostly bad movies.  I can only chalk it up to Hollywood not figuring out what to do with him.  He’s a cerebral, odd actor who opts for slowly revealing the motivations of his characters to the audience, which is not something that can easily be cast.  I for one anticipate the day when he reminds us all of how great he can be.