Anyone who sees “Darkest Hour” this weekend will come away with at least one certainty: Gary Oldman is a shoo-in to receive an Oscar nomination, and might even win for his portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Fair enough: Oldman’s performance is nothing if not awards-worthy, as he slips with uncanny ease — and the help of some seamless prosthetics and makeup — into both the exterior and interior lives of a man who seems to reincarnate before our eyes as the movie unspools.
If early awards chatter has any predictive value, Oldman will be joined by the likes of Timothée Chalamet (“Lady Bird,” “Call Me by Your Name”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Phantom Thread”) and Tom Hanks (“The Post”) when Academy Award nominations are announced on Jan. 23. But there’s a name that deserves to be called and probably won’t — not because the performance was lacking, but that the film surrounding it just didn’t have the stuff.
As breathtaking screen performances go, there’s no doubt that James McAvoy delivered one in “Split.” In that film he portrayed a young man with multiple personality disorder, a role that called on him to shape-shift into myriad personae, often within a single scene — sometimes within a single line reading. McAvoy is best known for his work in the “X-Men” franchise, but he’s proved his chops in higher-toned material, including “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
In “Split,” he gives what is arguably his finest performance yet, convincingly conveying vulnerability, menace, engaging humor and psychotic threat in a turn that’s memorable for its gracefulness, even amid growing carnage. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan with a combination of smarts and shameless pulp, “Split” did well at the box office, along with such horror-genre brethren as “It” and “Annabelle: Creation.” But as an awards vehicle, it’s a nonstarter: too exploitative, too lurid, too sadistically out-there for tuxedos and red carpets.
McAvoy joins a proud lineage of good actors who delivered great performances in movies that were too marginal to gain awards traction, whether by dint of quality or snobbery on the part of pseudo-highbrow gatekeepers. Although Amy Adams has been nominated for an Oscar five times, she missed out on a deserved slot for 2007’s “Enchanted,” simply because the movie was (unfairly) perceived as comic commercial fluff; the crowd-pleasing Olympics underdog story “Eddie the Eagle” was never intended to be awards material, but lead actor Taron Egerton completely submerged his baby-faced good looks to channel a nearsighted, physically awkward, thoroughly unlikely championship skier. Poor Tom Hiddleston no doubt signed on to the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” with visions of gold statues dancing in his head; unfortunately the film was a turgid, episodic parade of cliches that even his accomplished performance couldn’t save.
We can all name fine actors who punched far above their weight while slumming in paycheck films or well-intentioned misfires: Denzel Washington, Liam Neeson and Woody Harrelson have made careers of it. But perhaps no actor has transcended marginal material as often or as successfully as Nicole Kidman, who shone in such recent films as “Grace of Monaco,” “The Paperboy” and “Queen of the Desert,” despite their often glaring weaknesses.
In many ways, the great-performance-in-a-bad-film phenomenon is an index of an actor’s courage, his or her willingness to take a chance on a weird or wobbly script simply for the chance to work with a director of singular vision. If the end product didn’t quite come together, the risk was worth taking, either for the actor’s own evolution or to create something outside the tentpoles and superheroes that now have Hollywood in a stranglehold.
But even those behemoths can often feature performances of subtlety and emotional nuance: witness Gal Gadot’s sensitive portrayal of the title character in “Wonder Woman,” or the layers that Mark Ruffalo brings to the Hulk in the Avengers movies. Maybe not Oscar bait, but these performances are what enrich otherwise banal exercises in fan service into films that audiences immerse themselves in and care about. Arguably, those performances are all the more impressive for being achieved while fitted out with image-capture technology and only a green screen or verbal cue to respond to. (Alas, this looks like another year when the great Andy Serkis will be overlooked for his expressive embodiment of the soulful simian leader Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” movies.)
The great sound designer and editor Walter Murch once suggested that the Oscar for best editing should rightfully go to the person who took a disastrously incoherent movie and made it releasable. Perhaps we need a similar new standard for actors who manage to overcome weak material, self-indulgent direction or the conventions of the genre they’re working in to deliver credible, emotionally grounded performances.
The Oscar race has become a crucial vehicle for drawing attention to films that might otherwise be overlooked in the marketplace; but as often as not, the year’s best work has been hiding in plain sight all along.