Tom Jolliffe looks at the career of Willem Dafoe, and why he should be held in even higher regard…
There are some actors who magnetise the limelight. Historically we’ve had the movie stars, those great headliners who would surf acclaim and awards as long as they were in good standing in a big studio. Further ahead, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a new breed of movie star more focused purely on the craft of character acting, and for a time, guys like De Niro and Pacino beautifully balanced movie icon allure with character actor chameleon-ism.
Now there are some actors who, for one reason or another, never quite got that consistent run as a lead. They would become the epitome of the character actor. Guys like Steve Buscemi and John Goodman. They’re fantastic, but all too rarely get centre stage. Willem Dafoe is of that ilk. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s lead the line on plenty of indie films and the occasional larger film, and he’s respected, but I feel like Dafoe, who is almost always exceptional, needs more appreciation. Dafoe has certainly had recognition through awards, with four Oscar nominations, but as yet, despite being the epitome of character actor (and that often in turn allows for scene stealing supporting turns) he’s not won an Oscar. To me, it’s a little big criminal, but more on one particularly glaring oversight from the Academy later.
Dafoe first came to attention in a role that would in large swathes of his career, become his niche, as an antagonist in Kathryn Bigelow’s debut, The Loveless. Dafoe’s got a certain quality. He’s not Hollywood handsome, but he plays a magnetic male lead well. He’s been the romantic lead (perhaps not so much in light and airy, romance films it must be said). The impossibly wide grin and slightly crazy eyes have managed to see him work equally as detestable villain, and alluring object of female (and indeed male) gaze. Point is, if he wants put out a handsome vibe, he can do that, and he has no airs of graces about getting ugly.
Through the 80’s his prominence rose in films like Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A. Perhaps one of Dafoe’s, nay cinema’s, most iconic moments (and the subject of countless parodies) is one particular histrionic moment from Platoon as Dafoe, making his way across battle field is cut down in slow motion by a hail of bullet fire. It’s iconic. He was nominated for his first Oscar for the role. He’s iconic. So why when people list GOAT’S (greatest of all time), do few list Willem?
Scorsese cast Dafoe as Jesus Christ in the controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe is exceptional of course and the film is often either unfairly forgotten, or remembered more for the controversy. It’s an enthralling piece of work if you’re not too caught up in the initial religious backlash it received. He shortly followed up with Mississippi Burning, Cry Baby and Born on The Fourth of July and then a standout role in Wild at Heart, but then hit the skids slightly.
Dafoe’s work was steady through the majority of the 90’s, if largely unspectacular. Some forgettable films like White Sands, some smaller roles in films like Clear and Present Danger, and perhaps the less said about Body Of Evidence (slaughtered by critics, predominantly for Madonna’s presence), the better. It would be an indie film in 1999, an unexpected success which brought Dafoe back into form. The Boondock Saints saw Dafoe given a good platform to shine again, and he did so. Whilst he wasn’t all too prominent in the next one, American Psycho, it was regardless another cult film that only helped Dafoe’s profile hit a peak again and cemented well and truly that same year with his first Oscar nomination as a leading man as Max Schrek in Shadow of The Vampire (based upon the filming of F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu).
2002 saw comic book films take a significant step forward with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. It really seemed to kick things off in a way which inevitably lead to the current movie output at Marvel particularly. Dafoe was in fine fettle as chief villain, with plenty of complexity, the Green Goblin. The rest of this decade would see a productive and interesting mix of indie film and support turns in big budget projects. I suppose if anything typifies great character actors, it’s that they show up, nail their landings in films that range in quality, but still retain their own consistency on the whole. Dafoe is better than XXX2: The Next Level, that’s for sure, but even in films of that ilk, he tends to be one of the better performers (see also Aquaman more recently).
2005 would see the beginning of a working relationship with Lars Von Trier with Manderlay. One of the least controversial of what would follow between Willem and Lars, with Antichrist and Nymphomaniac Vol.II. There’s a certain trust that great actors attain from Auteur directors too. Dafoe certainly has it, having worked more than once with a number including Scorsese and Wes Anderson.
Step forward to the last few years and we’ve seen another significant Dafoe-naissance. Beginning with The Florida Project, he received his first Oscar nomination in 17 years for the acclaimed indie project. A year later and another indie work saw Dafoe portray Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. It’s right up there as one of his best performances for sure, and deservedly he noticed up his second Oscar nod in as many years.
Now the Oscars just passed, as I mentioned earlier, had one major oversight. Brad Pitt won Best Supporting Actor for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It was his first win after his own run of nominations. Bradders was great, he easily stole that film (the best part of what I found largely forgettable, though enjoyable, if I’m being honest). One man in particular was overlooked, and not even given a nomination. It was Dafoe for his stellar, possibly career best (let me see it a few more times) work in The Lighthouse.
Here’s the thing: The Lighthouse is very odd. It’s a strange film. Despite the critical acclaim and a quickly established cult fandom (holds hand up), it’s too weird for the Oscars. Spoiler alert, Robert Pattinson, also at the absolute peak of his game, has a number of scenes and moments (ranging from mermaid love, self love and seagull brutality) that all but guarantee only indie-ccentric fests would consider this for major awards (it still managed a nod for its cinematography however).
Dafoe is amazing with a salty sea dog performance for the ages. He bounces off Pattinson brilliantly. The friction between the two on set, from their two differing approaches, only add to the overall feeling of discord. Dafoe is so consumed by his role too, utterly immersed and as great as say Brad was in Hollywood (even if much of that effortless cool mirrors his own persona), I don’t think anyone bar Joaquin Phoenix (who was in the leading category virtually alone), was as enveloped in their role as Dafoe in the past year of films. Perhaps having had that double whammy of The Florida Project and At Eternity’s Gate, worked against Dafoe getting another nod just a couple of years later (Along with the aforementioned style of the film itself).
Dafoe has interesting projects lined up including The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson) and a re-teaming with Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) in The Northman. We’ll see whether the near future might bring a long overdue Oscar win. Moreover, it’s further testament to see Dafoe forging perhaps another potential creative link with Eggaers, that his immense skill is so respected by his industry peers. Hopefully a more wider appreciation and a high standing in the pantheon awaits one of the best actors of his generation.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/