By Cody Dericks
Widely regarded as one of the more daring and reliable character actors working today, Willem Dafoe has carved out a unique career over the past four decades. He has portrayed heroes, villains, anti-heroes, and everything in between. And with that varied filmography has come Oscar success with a total of, so far, three Best Supporting Actor nominations and one Best Actor nomination. His four nominations are indicative of his consistently distinctive choice of roles. They are also all surprising in their own way, whether because of a lack of precursor nominations, the unconventionality of the nominated performance compared to what the Academy usually favors, or a combination of these and other factors. In honor of his 65th birthday, let’s explore these four nominations and see what makes them so special.
His first nomination came for the darling of the 1986 Oscars, “Platoon”. Dafoe plays the sympathetic Sergeant Elias Grodin in this legendary Vietnam War film. He serves as a foil for the other Supporting Actor nominee from the same film: Tom Berenger’s Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes. Together, the two of them represent the angel and the devil, respectively, on the shoulders of the protagonist Private Chris Taylor, played by a very young Charlie Sheen. With only 16 minutes of screentime, Dafoe is an assured and idealistic presence who never shows naiveté. This balancing act is crucial to the film’s success. Whenever any of the seemingly constant scenes of military brutality occur, we the audience wait for Elias to appear and take control of the situation like a teacher handling an unruly classroom. His positive presence is established early in the film during a smoke session with him and his comrades. Director Oliver Stone frames Dafoe in an almost romantic light. When he approaches Private Taylor, the camera suddenly takes on Taylor’s point-of-view, and Dafoe walks right into a close-up and stares directly into the lens (the only time such a filmmaking tactic is used in the film). Dafoe sells this potentially unsettling moment with ease, looking into the camera, at us, with a mix of appreciation and friendliness which totally connects him with the audience. His character’s journey eventually ends in tragedy when he is betrayed by Barnes, and for the sake of the story, his death needs to feel shocking and demoralizing. Stone and Dafoe pull this off beautifully, using a combination of slow-motion filming and heart-wrenchingly brutal physical acting to achieve what would become the film’s signature image and make its mark as potentially the most iconic death in film history.
Despite the film’s overall Oscar success, Dafoe’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Platoon” was not an assured one. His only precursor nomination came from the Independent Spirit Awards in only their second year. While the film did well with critics’ groups, with nominations for Best Film and Best Director at the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, along with a Best Director win from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the film’s performances were not recognized in the same way. At the Golden Globes, his co-star Berenger won Best Supporting Actor which automatically made him the more likely of the two to be recognized by the Oscars. Luckily for them, the Academy nominated both men, and thus Dafoe’s impressive history with the Academy began.
Dafoe would have to wait fourteen years for his next nomination, and it would come for a type of performance that the Academy usually shuns. E. Elias Merhige’s film, “Shadow of the Vampire,” is a fictionalized telling of the making of the legendary early horror film, “Nosferatu”. Dafoe plays Max Schreck, the actor who famously brought the terrifying Dracula stand-in, Count Orlok, to life. The film shows the troubled production of “Nosferatu,” led by maniacal director F.W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich). As the shoot goes on, the cast and crew begin to grow suspicious of Schreck, who is always in character and wears Count Orlok’s full makeup and costume whether they are filming or not. As the suspected vampire, Dafoe is creepy, unsettling, and darkly funny. He delivers a fully committed performance, leaning into the creature-like physicality of his character in a way that is somehow both grounded and otherworldly. It’s a performance that makes good use of the actor’s ability to portray extremely menacing and villainous people, much like his performances in “Wild at Heart” and the yet-to-come “Spider-Man”.
Performances like this are rarely acknowledged by the Academy. Horror is historically the genre of film that the Oscars are the least interested in awarding, and Dafoe is delivering both a horror performance and a physical, monstrous performance that is a far cry from the typical fare seen at the Oscars. However, based on the precursor attention he received, Dafoe’s Best Supporting Actor nomination was not much of a surprise. He won the Independent Spirit Award and received nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, along with a host of critics’ group nominations. He even won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor, which is an important precursor that shows that a performance is truly on Oscar’s radar. Given the type of performance it is, Dafoe’s nomination for “Shadow of the Vampire” shows that this was truly a merit-based nomination. He is undeniably great in the role.
In the 2010s, Dafoe experienced a resurgence of awards attention. In this past decade, he would go on to receive two Oscar nominations in a row in 2017 and 2018 (and he was very nearly nominated for a third consecutive time with last year’s “The Lighthouse”). The first of these came in the form of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the critically adored film, “The Florida Project”. It’s a slice of life portrayal of several poverty-stricken people who live in a budget motel on the outskirts of Walt Disney World in Florida. Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the motel who cares deeply for the well-being of the residents, even if his sympathy isn’t always recognized or appreciated. It is a role that is inherently not showy, given the realistic tone of the film and the down-to-earth personality of the character; and in it, Dafoe is simply magnificent. With his naturally gruff voice and concerned face, Dafoe is so believable as the unendingly patient father figure of the motel that it’s almost as if the actor had actually been working there on the side. One can practically see the weight of this job on his face. Dafoe brings a sense of natural integrity to the role, and not dissimilar from his character in “Platoon”, we are always put slightly at ease whenever he appears in any of the numerous stressful set pieces. The best moment of his performance comes when his character restores electricity to the motel after the child at the center of the film mischievously turns it off. As he is walking triumphantly from the electrical closet, the motel residents show their thanks by applauding and whistling. An unseen tenant yells, “Love you, Bobby!”, and we see a momentary flash of shock-joy pass over Dafoe’s face as he looks back at the appreciator. He responds by shouting back, “I love you too!”, with his voice breaking ever so slightly. It’s the perfect distillation of a character down to a moment – he cannot show that he cares too much for fear of being taken advantage of, but he also cannot help from feeling moved by a recognition of his hard work and attentiveness. Dafoe’s Bobby is a fully rounded character performed appropriately given the world of the film, and to my mind, it is his best work yet.
This adoration was shown by film critics during the 2017 awards season. Dafoe practically swept the critics’ prizes for Best Supporting Actor, including the rare triple crown of wins from arguably the most important groups: the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review. When it came to the televised awards, he similarly received love in the form of nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, the BAFTAs, the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars. But, in what is probably the strongest reminder in modern awards season history of the fact that critics’ groups don’t always determine eventual winners, he lost all five of these major nominations to Sam Rockwell for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. It was not too surprising given these awards’ history of not always appreciating more subtle work from actors. In hindsight, the critics guaranteed Dafoe’s nomination, but it would have been a huge surprise if this type of performance went on to be rewarded by the bigger awards bodies.
His most recent Oscar nomination, and his first for Best Actor, came from 2018’s “At Eternity’s Gate” in which he plays the tortured painter Vincent van Gogh. The film follows the artist in a non-linear fashion through the latter period of his life. Director Julian Schnabel puts the audience firmly in the perspective of van Gogh, either through the use of close-ups on Dafoe’s tortured face or by using a point-of-view camera to literally show us the world as the painter sees it. Through said close-ups, Dafoe is allowed to perform using his most carefully crafted techniques. His theatre background comes in handy in this film, with these close-ups and the films many long takes of dialogue scenes serving as a stage for his gifts of minute physical performance abilities and the way he easily inhabits a character, bringing a lived-in quality to these long stretches of pure acting. Dafoe was a bit of an unusual choice to play the Dutch artist – he doesn’t quite look like him, he retains his American accent, and at the time of the film’s release, he was 26 years older than van Gogh ever lived to be. And yet, he is fully believable. The heartbreak and the insecurities of the painter are expertly portrayed by Dafoe.
The 2018 Best Actor race was an uncharacteristically competitive one. When it came to the major televised awards, a quartet of men from eventual Best Picture nominees were always present: Christian Bale for “Vice,” Bradley Cooper for “A Star is Born,” Viggo Mortensen for “Green Book,” and Rami Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” who would go on to win the Oscar. The fifth Oscar nominee would come down to a group of actors who received nominations from just one or two of these precursor awards. The major contenders were John David Washington for “BlacKkKlansman,” Ethan Hawke for “First Reformed,” Ryan Gosling for “First Man,” and Dafoe. Most pundits predicted Washington given his showing at both the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, along with the fact that his film was one of the stronger contenders for Best Picture. The nomination would, somewhat surprisingly, eventually go to Dafoe. Dafoe’s major precursor nominations came from the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards – two awards groups that allow for more nominees than the traditional five slots seen at the Oscars. This gave the impression that Dafoe was less of a threat since he had only competed in wider fields. He also received some nominations from various critics’ groups, but not nearly as many as he did for his previous Oscar-nominated performances. So how did he get in? It could have been residual love from his nomination for “The Florida Project” the year prior. It could also be the fact that he delivered the kind of performance that actors admire and yearn to play themselves. It is a theatrical yet not over-the-top performance, with long stretches where it is just Dafoe and the camera working together. Since the actors’ branch of the Academy is in charge of nominating acting performances, it’s likely that the actors specifically admired Dafoe’s performance and wanted to reward his type of sparse work that is not always an obvious awards magnet.
Willem Dafoe has proven to be one of the most versatile and consistently impressive actors working today. With his extensive history with the Academy, and especially given the fact that half of his nominations came recently, it only seems like a matter of time before he is finally given an Oscar of his own. And as evidenced from the history of the roles he chooses to play, it is very likely that it will be a type of performance that we would not expect the Academy to embrace. His eventual triumph will only be all the more exciting.
What is your favorite Willem Dafoe performance? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91