Under the Circuit: Peter Sarsgaard


Born: March 7, 1971
Place: Belleville, Illinois
Major Awards and Citations:
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
Chlotrudis Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2004 (Kinsey)
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
San Francisco Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2003 (Shattered Glass)
Oscar Snubs: Boys Don’t Cry, Shattered Glass

There appears to be a trend regarding many recent Academy Award nominees (occasionally winners): give an acclaimed performance in an independent film, get recognized for it, and a superhero actioner is usually not far off.  Just this year, we’re seeing recent Oscar winner Natalie Portman in Thor, as well as nominees Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: First Class and Geoffrey Rush in Green Lantern.  We’re all aware, of course, of the casting of Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo in the upcoming Avengers movie, and Amy Adams announced as the new Lois Lane…I could go on.  Yes, it seems as though the Oscars have become a nifty platform for showcasing the next men in tights or the damsels in distress they must rescue.  Yet last weekend saw the release of a superhero film with Peter Sarsgaard, a man who should undoubtedly be at least an Oscar nominee, yet never has.

His trajectory seems like the typical UtC actor’s – small parts in dramas (his first feature film role was as Sean Penn’s murder victim in Dead Man Walking) before giving a breakout performance in a celebrated indie and rising from there.  Though to be fair, the reviews for his work as John Lotter in Kimberly Peirce’s outstanding Boys Don’t Cry were absolutely deserved, and not the usual breakout work.  Most people already knew that Brandon Teena (I don’t care what his “legal identity” was, Brandon was what he called himself and wanted to be referred as a he) was raped and murdered by John Lotter, so it’s tough to play a character whose loathsome actions are already known to the vast majority of the audience.  How does one make a compelling arc if it has already been revealed?  How does an actor not outright telegraph their character’s hideousness?  Sarsgaard answers that challenge by breaking the cardinal rule of playing villains: hating his own character.  No, he doesn’t adopt the Tucci-Lovely Bones method of becoming a cartoon villain; he instead makes his version of Lotter despise himself.

John Lotter is an utter failure of a human being.  An ex-convict with an illegitimate daughter, a destructive influence on the only family he’s ever loved, he knows all of these hard facts about himself and struggles with them.  Even his announced goal of “protecting” Lana and the others manifests itself in a childish and cowardly rejection of anything representing a change from his self-centered, narrow view of the world.  To have John possess the conscience to realize this, but lack the maturity to deal with it without becoming a debaser and a murderer, Sarsgaard throws us the chilling reminder that he’s not some monster or aberration; he’s just a man.  In doing so, he makes us face the fact that there are thousands of hateful John Lotters in America.

I mentioned in the Under the Circuit for Paul Bettany that the Academy prefers to nominate villains that they can “like” somewhat, and Sarsgaard’s snub for Boys Don’t Cry is no exception even as Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny were raking in awards that year for the same film.  It would seem surprising, though, that his career didn’t immediately take off following his stunning breakthrough.

But then again Sarsgaard is not the conventional movie thespian.  He entered the Aughts as the archetypical character actor – the kind of person you called for those unglamorous but necessary supporting roles – and it’s easy to see why.  He doesn’t have “movie star” qualities, but nevertheless contributes a cerebral, subtle style of acting not unlike Clifton Collins, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo.  His power is not screen charisma or emotional projection, but internal subtext and implications of complex characters.  In other words, the kind of shading that supporting characters need.

Actors like that are somewhat understandably hard for the industry to consistently take advantage of, but every now and then a role comes along that perfectly utilizes their strengths.  This is where Shattered Glass comes in.  Alas, the film, telling the true story of the fall of star reporter Stephen Glass over his fabricated articles, is (unlike Boys Don’t Cry) far less interesting than the true story it is based on; preferring to dictate a simplistic moral parable instead of genuinely exploring the journalistic environment that would allow such a charlatan to thrive for so long.  Hayden Christensen’s annoyingly one-note and totally implausible portrayal of Glass doesn’t help the film, either.  Luckily, in spite of its missed opportunities, Shattered Glass does have some compelling elements, almost all due to Charles Lane and Sarsgaard’s performance.  He does not enter the picture as some righteous crusader, but as a person he portrays as more unassuming.  Lane reluctantly takes on the position of Editor and is thrust into investigating one of his own co-workers against the wishes of everyone but his own professional conscience, and his depiction of gnawing suspicion evolving into moral indignation draws us into the story in an unexpected and ultimately uplifting way.  Like Marge Gunderson and Javier Rodriguez before him, Chuck Lane is an “everyman” movie hero, and Sarsgaard’s multifaceted, understated performance brings it to life in stirring fashion.

His snub at the 76th Academy Awards is, in my opinion, one of the most outrageous Oscar injustices of the last decade, mainly because it is so inexplicable.  He won the majority of critical plaudits that year and was nominated for the Golden Globe (so he certainly didn’t lack precursor support), and the performances that did make the Best Supporting Actor shortlist were mostly uninspiring (only Watanabe and del Toro were worthy of citation, to my mind).  Even more bizarre is that taking a look at his post-Shattered Glass career, one would think that he was nominated given how he exploded in the years immediately following.  He garnered major roles in high profile Oscar-baiting projects like Garden State, Kinsey, The Dying Gaul and Jarhead, strongly suggesting that Shattered Glass made several important studio execs sit up and take notice.  It is also, above all, an amazing performance that rose above and beyond the demands of the character and stood above just about every other supporting performance that year.  Forget being unjustly snubbed of a nomination, he should have won the whole thing that year.

Luckily, he doesn’t appear to be hurting that much in his career.  He’s recently forayed into blockbuster territory, with films like Knight and Day and Green Lantern; the latter film apparently having him play an unassuming, workaday scientist (see what I mean?) who becomes evil when his brain grows larger or something…and you all wonder why I’ve banned myself from superhero movies this year.  Oh well…who knows, he may yet have another chance to highlight his gifts with another subtly fascinating character, and remind us all of how overdue he is for Academy recognition.