When the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actor are announced next month, it will mark the end to a hard fought battle, and this is a fact, one of the boldest and most creative performances of the last twenty years could very well be on the outside looking in. The snub of Joaquin Phoenix by the Screen Actors Guild for his galvanizing performance in The Master was truly startling because one would hope actors would recognize the risk he took in that piece of acting, the boldness of the execution of what he attempted, and the genius in making it work. Phoenix walked a fine line between great acting and great overacting, never stepping into the latter, always managing to remain solid.
His comments about the Oscars a short while ago have not endeared him to those who do the nominating, and I wonder if more than a few actors and artists are still feeling stung over his leaving acting to become a rapper and then making a documentary supposedly about that very thing. Well, the joke was on us. Actors take their work very seriously, they take their craft as seriously as the Pope practices religion. Phoenix actually gave a very good performance in that documentary for his friend Casey Affleck, portraying an angry Phoenix walking away from acting and into the music industry where he is not embraced at once. We got to see a variation of the real Phoenix, a sometimes strange actor who is often beyond explanation, yet undeniably gifted. His performance for Paul Thomas Anderson as Freddie Quell in The Master was extraordinary, mesmerizing to watch, a masterpiece of physicality and deep emotion that was exciting in its boldness and courage. Speaking with a scowl and sneer, looking down on those around him, seemingly to hold the human race in contempt, he moved about a room with his hands on his hips, though backwards, ready to hurtle himself at anyone who defied him. The war chipped away at him, and what was left was rage, confusion and some hatred, with no patience for lies and falsehoods. He falls in with the master, portrayed with silky charm by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who has more in common with him than he initially realizes, though is in greater control of his emotions. Each actor was brilliant in the film, but Phoenix took a greater risk I think with the manner in which he chose to portray the character. For me, it is riveting, positively brilliant, but I understand why others struggle with what he was doing. Actors nominate actors for the Oscars, just as they the SAG Awards, so could he be left out of the race? Could the Academy truly leave off the list a performance as bold, and as daring as Phoenix?
You bet they could. They have done it before.
It is looking more and more like the final nominees will be Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, John Hawkes for The Sessions, Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, Denzel Washington in Flight and perhaps Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. Now, both Cooper and Washington could be bumped by Phoenix for The Master, or Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained (new to the race) or the dreaded sentimental nominee Richard Gere in Arbitrage.
Either way, however it goes, it has been a hell of a race, and like it or not at least one, perhaps two performances that will be remembered for years to come are not going to be nominated. Phoenix deserves to be there, he truly does.
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