Last night, Jean Dujardin took home the Best Actor Oscar for his work as George Valentin in The Artist—an almost entirely silent role. And although I’ve not yet had the pleasure of watching that film, I couldn’t be happier. Considering sound basically killed the art of cinematic pantomime, it’s refreshing to see the Academy acknowledge its merit—especially since “Best Actor” seems to mean “gives the most sincere and passionate monologues” these days. All in all, the decision should thrill fans of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Takeshi Sakamoto (lazy Kihachi in so many of Yasujiro Ozu’s silent masterpieces).
Unfortunately, the Academy’s failure to recognize some of 2011’s other less verbal performances diminishes the boldness of its ultimate choice. Any great actor can convey his character’s emotional state through dialogue; the best actor knows how to utilize the moments of silence. The following three performers excelled in this area… making their omission from the list of nominees all the more perplexing.
Ryan Gosling, Drive: The unnamed “hero” of this ‘70s/’80s throwback epitomizes economy of character. Like Travis Bickle, he seems to step into the narrative fully-formed—no past, no future, defined entirely by his immediate actions. In the hands of a lesser actor, the Driver might have been unbearably flat, but Gosling communicates so much through body language and subtle glances, allowing the viewer to glimpse the love, compassion, and sympathy beneath his cold, tough-guy exterior.
Tom Hardy, Warrior: Hardy admirably handles his share of impassioned speeches as the tortured co-protagonist of this Rocky-esque MMA epic, but he really shines when he steps into the octagon. His smoldering eyes communicate raw savagery and determination more clearly than the dialogue ever could; they’re the eyes of a predator, sizing up his opponents and breaking them before the first blow even connects.
Michael Fassbender, Shame: Every time Brandon Sullivan succumbs to the urge of physical pleasure—and he succumbs frequently—his face contorts into a mask of agony, disgust, and self-loathing. Fassbender’s embodiment of the eponymous emotion transcends the need for dialogue; he has lines, but muting the film would hardly soften the impact of his performance. He inhabits Brandon so thoroughly, memories of his other characters—Magneto, Archie Hicox, Bobby Sands—fade away. If that’s not Best Actor material…
[Originally written February 27, 2012.]