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Over the course of a 30-year career that includes work on over 70 films, Willem Dafoe has demonstrated an eclectic range in role selection. A quick glance at his IMDB page illustrates the variance in his cinematic range. The top four “known for” films that the site has pulled out for him are “Spider-Man,” “Finding-Nemo,” “The Boondock Saints” and “The English Patient.”
The upcoming “John Carter” reunited Dafoe with “Finding-Nemo” helmer Andrew Stanton and provided the actor with a fresh opportunity to be “turned on” as an artist: performing in a motion-capture suit on stilts. His character in the film, Tars Tarkas, is a 9-foot-tall alien from Barsoom (Mars). While speaking about his career at the recent Tempe, Arizona press event for the film, Dafoe mused about the somewhat capricious nature of cinema.
As most actors do, he recognizes the limits of his control on a film’s final outcome, as well as the audience and critical response, saying you have to be an “idiot” to use box office as a barometer for merit.
“Some movies I’ve made have done well when they’ve opened and then they’re largely forgotten,” he said. “Other ones have been disasters when they’ve opened and have gone on to have a long life and really lived or been important to other filmmakers or contributed in a special way. So you never know. Every film has its little story.”
What is interesting is that during the course of the dialogue, Dafoe acknowledged some of the intangible elements that play into both awards success and larger audience reach. As has often been discussed, Kenneth Lonergan's “Margaret" was besieged with distribution challenges. But the actor also noted that, because his schedule allowed for it this year, he was able to truly watch nearly all of the “for your consideration” screeners that the studios released, and thus, “Margaret” was brought to his attention.
“It basically got lost in the shuffle,” he said of the film. “But it was beautifully written and beautifully performed. I thought it really captured something of New York, a certain kind of people, a certain kind of political problem. I thought it was really interesting as a movie, but again, it totally got lost.”
A few key members of the filmmaking world did see “Margaret,” however, and had the timing been different, perhaps they would have championed it. Accepting her Golden Bear award for lifetime achievement at the Berlinale recently, Meryl Streep highlighted Anna Paquin’s performance in the film as what should have been the one to beat.
"This year, particularly for women, there have been so many wonderful performances, many of them not even nominated,” the actress said. “For instance, our co-star Olivia Colman, in a film called 'Tyrannosaur,' which is absolutely breathtaking, and she has not been recognized for it. Anna Paquin made a film called 'Margaret' that very few people have seen. Again, in any other year, it would have won every single award."
Interestingly enough, in our interview with Anna Paquin, the actress reflected on her own commitment to focusing on her work sans an eye to the outer world results. It's a pragmatic (and likely sanity-saving) attitude given the variables under discussion here, but one that must be, upon occasion, challenging to maintain. Certainly, in his conversation with Kris, Lonergan expressed a deep sense of gratitude to those who have demonstrated an appreciation for his film.
“Listen, if you think something is beautiful, you want to share that,” Dafoe said of his own body of work. “Particularly if there is something inspiring about it or particularly smart. You want people to share that. It makes you feel good about the world; it makes you feel like you’re in the world. But it doesn’t always happen.”
No. Sadly, it does not.
Offerings come and go and only a rare few endure the test of time. It is far too early to predict “Margaret”’s chances for a lasting impact on the cinematic landscape and it would be really nice if we could still be discussing it in terms of an awards season that shines a brighter spotlight than anything else the rest of the year. For now, what many consider Lonergan’s (almost in spite of itself) masterwork remains a bitter-sweet example of an Oscar “if only."
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