Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2018)
It’s safe to say that, barring an upset, Joaquin Phoenix will take home this year’s Best Actor gong for his performance in Joker. However, there is one performance of his that, despite being just as brilliant, was unfairly snubbed by the Academy. That would be his turn as disturbed war veteran Joe in Lynn Ramsey’s crime drama You Were Never Really Here.
What is rather strange about Phoenix’s performance as Joe are the similarities to Joker. Both characters are emotionally damaged loners, haunted by their traumatic pasts, both live and take care of their ailing mothers and both are forced to contend with the corrupt society in which they live.
Unlike Arthur Fleck, however, Joe strives to do the right thing, even if doing the right thing involves committing brutal acts of violence against truly evil people, haunted by the horrible sights that his work often forces him to confront. Phoenix portrays this broken mind beautifully with an understated intensity that boils to the surface when he starts smashing some skulls, this brutality complimented by strangely poignant moments, such as a shared sing-along with a dying henchman.
It’s a haunting performance that ranks as one of Phoenix’s best and one that I feel should have received the same recognition from the Academy that was awarded to him by Cannes Festival Jury who awarded him the Best Actor trophy at that year’s Festival.
Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell in Destroyer (2018)
While we might sometimes mock stars when they go “make-up” free for a role, accusing them of doing in a cheap attempt to score an Oscar, sometimes they do turn in genuinely brilliant performances, albeit ones that are ironically overlooked when Oscar nominations are announced. Such was the fate of Nicole Kidman for her stark against-type performance in crime drama Destroyer.
Kidman is only barely recognisable as a mentally and physically exhausted detective, her painful shuffle and hardbitten voice making for a surprisingly dark and transformative performance. The character of Erin Bell is a complex one that Kidman dives into with both feet, inhabiting the role with tragic pathos and a disturbing, almost deranged, mania, especially when Bell needs to use violence to get what she needs. Yet, it’s the quieter moments that the actress excels, in particular during an emotional encounter with her daughter in which she tearfully bares all, admitting her failings as a parent and how every terrible thing she has done was merely in an attempt to do something good.
It’s a fascinating, layered and underrated performance that I would rank as one of Kidman’s finest. Perhaps this one was just a tad too morally dubious and dark for the Academy’s tastes.
Luptia Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson & Red in Us (2019)
If there is one genre that is all to often snubbed despite delivering some brilliant work, it’s horror. Case in point, a performance that many felt was an early if ultimately unsuccessful contender for the Best Actress trophy was Lupita Nyong’o’s dual turn in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed Us.
Nyong’o is faced with the challenge of not just bringing to life a single character with feelings, fears and desires of her own, but, instead, she has two. Many actors would struggle to stick this landing, but Nyong’o masterfully delivers with her performance as the heroine Adeline being one in which she projects motherly strength tinged with fear, albeit a kind of fear that, without spoiling too much, hints at more than merely fear for her life.
However, the real fun starts when we are introduced to Red, Adelaide’s psychotic scissor wielding doppelgänger. Red allows Nyong’o to tap into her dark side and deliver a performance that is carefully controlled with her every movement choreographed in a manner akin to a twisted ballet dancer, while also allowing the actresses to run riot with a range of ghoulish expressions and a raspy voice in which every word sounds painful to utter. It’s a fearsome creation that steals every scene, allowing Nyong’o more than a handful of chances to revel in upstaging herself.
It’s an immensely entertaining dual performance and one that demonstrates that sometimes the best performances are the ones lurking within this much-maligned genre.
These are merely a few of my picks of great performances being snubbed by the Academy, and hopefully we’ll take a look at more next year. Until that time however, I’d love to hear some of your favourite performances that were unfairly ignored by the Academy.
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments or you can follow me on Twitter at Graeme Robertson@robertsong93.