ELIO, OSCAR… OSCAR, ELIO

Timothée Chalamet – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Let’s cut to the chase: 22 year old Timothée Chalamet delivered, hands down, the year’s best performance by any actor in a leading role. He did it not by imitating a renowned historical character, there’s no heavy make-up or latex involved, no scene-devouring histrionics, sentimental physical hardships or handicaps… not even a death scene. His characterization is as pure and raw and honest as anything we have seen since, well, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it.

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Call Me by Your Name has basically one simple location. That of the peaceful, laid-back summertime setting in the Italian countryside, where the only distractions are hot days at the lake and humid evening dinner parties under the stars. There are no major external events or crises to direct the plot. No internal traumas by which to chart character development or motivation. Nobody is chasing a medal, fighting a war, facing down adversity or seeking revenge.

The entire arc of the film emanates from Elio (Chalamet) and his very first encounter with that trickster of nature, as his father implies, and with love. Chalamet’s ability to share every personal nuance in the kaleidoscope of feelings he encounters along the way –  before, during, and after his experience – is a remarkable achievement for any actor of any age.

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We first encounter the teenager flopping about in that summertime boredom we all wistfully remember as being more idyllic than it actually was. Hormones rage, stimulated by the heat and routine activities. Only to be interrupted by an interloper – Oliver (Armie Hammer) – a post-grad working with Elio’s professor father for the summer. His mild contempt – even adolescent mockery, at times – of the guy who has taken his room turns into an attraction Elio is neither looking for nor expecting. And it knocks him off balance. His reaction is to test its limitations, make the occasional jab while still being polite. And running off with a local girlfriend to relieve the sexual tension that has taken control of him.

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Chalamet handles all these conflicting feelings like a juggler with four torches. He is flirtatious one minute, confrontational the next, eyes watching Oliver’s every move leading up to the film’s pivotal scene where the two young men bike into town together. Once Elio explains to Oliver the origin of a statue in the town center, they begin to circle it on opposite sides – as if they are trapped a gravitational orbit – bantering about Elio’s seemingly endless knowledge of the trivial. Oliver creates an opening by asking if there is anything that Elio does not know. Elio, drawing on a previously discussed fable with the catch line “speak or die”, admits there are some things that matter that he does not know.

“What things that matter?” Oliver’s instinctively bait Elio. “You know what things,” is Elio’s reply. That line, as delivered by Chalamet with such direct purpose and finality, slams one door shut and blasts another off its hinges. It’s a both a first and a final step from which there is no return.

Director Luca Guadagnino and writer James Ivory deserve much credit for eschewing the usual labels for the romance that follows. Mercifully gone is that thingamabob LGBTQ drawer into which are tossed all relationships that step outside the breeder/straight standard. Instead, they provide the actors with a blueprint of attraction and a short, finite affair between two human beings, one of them a neophyte discovering for the first time what real feelings are. Complete with all the euphoria, embarrassment, intimacy and heartbreak that comes with it. It’s because of this freedom from stereotype that Chalamet (and Hammer) can operate on a level of trust and abandon that physically and emotionally exceeds what we are used to seeing in any romance.

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Chalamet, in particular, wins us over so easily that, when a train whistle announces the inevitable goodbye scene. We fully anticipate his pain. In the subsequent scenes when Elio slouches in a phone booth to call his mother to ask her to pick him up after Oliver’s departure and his facial reactions and body language during his father’s calmingly brilliant one-sided discussion about passion are a master class performance.

Then, watching his face change from hurt to anger to sad acceptance, with the hint of a smile and tears streaming down his face as the finality sinks in after that last phone call, Chalamet meets head on and exceeds the skills demanded. It is simply the best – most genuine, nuanced and complete – performance by an actor this year.

Now back to Oscar.

The title of the award is “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role”. But Oscar attaches so much baggage to the honor that, by the time one sifts through all of the reasons for awarding it, one is left to wonder how much weight the actual performance actually has in the decision. Status in the industry, body of work, relevance and “importance” of the character, and, ultimately, how the Academy wants to be viewed, all come into play. All are understandable, with one exception – that is the reverse ageism that exists specifically targeted at male actors. Unlike the other three acting categories, there is not a single portrayal of a character under 30 in Oscar’s Best Lead Actor lexicon.

When, in 2012, the 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence beat 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, nobody was surprised. A few of us griped, but it was something we have grown used to as eight Best Actress statues have been bestowed to female actors the age of 25 or under. Nobody said that the nomination for Grace Kelly (25) or Marlee Matlin (21) should suffice given their age and experience. Or that, regardless of how skilled the performances of Audrey Hepburn (24) or Hilary Swank (25) this time around, they should wait until they’ve built a body of work; i.e. “prove yourself first and come back when you turn 30”.

Yet, when it comes to the male counterpart, only one actor under the age of 30 has ever won – Adrien Brody (29) for The Pianist. Timothy Hutton (20) was arguably the lead in Ordinary People but was relegated to supporting to ensure a win. The argument has always been, well, he’s brilliant but he’s young – receiving a nomination for an actor under 30 is a major feat in itself. “He has lots of time – a great future ahead” is an argument that worked out well for the likes of River Phoenix and Sal Mineo, don’t you think? James Dean could be another example – twice – had he not gotten behind the wheel that fateful September day.

The odds-on-bet-the-farm favorite this year is Gary Oldman, one of our most brilliant and admired character actors that Oscar has ignored since the 80s. Two of my personal favorite performances of his were Sid & Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, in which he portrayed Sid Vicious (at age 28) and playwright Joe Orton (at age 29). True, they were biopics, which are right up Oscar’s alley, but I guess they thought he was too young, maybe? There will likely be another “sunset Oscar” that is so common that it has become part of Oscar’s regimen with regards to male actors.

Wouldn’t it be great, though, if they could break the mold and recognize a true tour-de-force from a young actor – portraying a young man – and designate it as their choice for 2017?

And the domino effect continues.

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3 thoughts on “ELIO, OSCAR… OSCAR, ELIO

  1. Excellent, excellent analysis of Timothée Chalamet’s outstanding performance, and astute assessment of the old guard historic odds checklist against him being such a young actor being rightfully awarded a Best Actor Oscar! I’ve almost become resigned to the fact that the Academy will GIVE Oldman this Oscar because the industry has dictated that this be the case. It’s disheartening how predictable the Oscars have become in being political and in the Best Actor category specifically, completely and deliberately indifferent to honoring young male actors under 30, let alone 25. Timmy can still change that in the next couple of years if not this year.

    1. A good word of mouth campaign helped Adrien Brody (spearheaded by his primary opponent, Jack), but I doubt TC would get that kind of support from Oldman who has been overlooked himself so often. Thanks for the comment, Simone!

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