The Big O: Oscar Could be Swayed by Leto’s Feminine Mystique

The Big O: Oscar Could be Swayed by Leto's Feminine Mystique

If
someone said a year ago that Jared Leto is expected to be a likely Oscar
nominee for his next film, most people who recognize his name would have said
one of three things:

  • You
    mean that cute guy who Claire Danes was hot for on the ’90s TV show My So-Called
    Life
    . Whatever happened to him?

  • You
    mean that cute guy who was in those cool movies like Girl, Interrupted, Fight
    Club, American Psycho
    and Requiem for a Dream? Whatever happened to him?

  • You
    mean the cute lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the rock band 30
    Seconds to Mars. When did he start doing movies?

With
this week’s arrival of Dallas Buyers Club, Leto continues to defy
pigeonholing in a role of a lifetime – his first since deciding to
concentrate on music for the past five years or so. He completely sinks
(and slinks) into the skin of Rayon, a HIV-positive transsexual junkie. She
serves as an alternative-lifestyle go-between for Matthew McConaughey’s real-life
hell-raising homophobic cowboy and AIDS patient Ron Woodruff as he starts a club
in the ’80s to provide experimental drugs that are extending his life span to
others.

While
Leto, 41, might be unrecognizable in his female guise, complete with a flowing
wig and tacky-chic wardrobe but minus eyebrows and nearly 30 pounds from his
slim frame, he re-confirms (and then some) his ability as a serious
performer.  He is acting with a capital A in a part that strikes many
of the academy voter’s buttons – weight loss, physical transformation,
struggling with illness and substance abuse — with only occasional
walks on the wild side of drag-queen camp, all filtered through a bittersweet
humorous world view.

However,
the scene that probably seals the deal Oscar-wise is when Leto has to strip off
his disguise:  Rayon swallows her pride and asks her disapproving rich
father for money on Ron’s behalf while dressed in a man’s suit sans wig
and makeup. It’s the ultimate heart-crushing moment in a movie filled with
them.  

McConaughey,
who is also practically guaranteed a spot in the Oscar race especially after
his recent run of stellar work in smaller films, will face stiff competition in
the lead category. His main rivals are expected to include the long-overdue
Robert Redford in All Is Lost and the
stellar Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a
Slave
.

But
the supporting-actor category is shaping up to be more of a free-for-all, and
Leto could easily take the trophy over his closest competitor, Michael
Fassbender. His sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave is one of the most despicable yet complex villains
ever to appear on the big screen since Ralph Fiennes’ SS officer in Schindler’s List

Tom
O’Neil, who runs the awards prediction site Gold Derby, gives the advantage to
Leto. “He will probably sweep the film critics awards,” he says of the year-end
honors handed out by professional reviewers in cities around the country. “A
cool, edgy actor taking big chances is something that critics love. On the
awards track, he could go all the way and win because he gives voters what they
want. The Academy loves the most of anything, whether it’s the
frilliest outfits in the costume category or the loudest movies taking the
sound award.  It’s not the best performance but the biggest.
Leto delivers all the crucial Oscar elements  — the dramatic weight
loss, playing against type, showy junkie elements.”

The
voters have also come a long way since handing the 2005 best-picture Oscar to Crash instead of the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain.  Since then,
there has been at least one actor nominated for playing a lesbian, gay,
bisexual or transgender character each year save for 2007. “They are much
more sensitive now and want to rally behind the cause,” O’Neil suggests. “That
includes transsexuals.”

Of
course, comparing the actor’s chances with past nominees who either were
disguised as the opposite sex onscreen or played a transsexual helps define
what exactly rings the academy’s bell when it comes to such gender-bending
roles. Here is a list of Oscar contenders who qualify:

  • Jack
    Lemmon, lead, Some Like It Hot
    (1959) Cross-dresser.

  • Chris
    Sarandon, supporting, Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
    Transsexual.

  • Dustin
    Hoffman, lead, Tootsie  (1982)
    Cross-dresser.

  • Julie
    Andrews, lead, Victor/Victoria
    (1982). A woman posing as a male cross-dresser.

  • John
    Lithgow, supporting, The World According
    to Garp
    (1982) Transsexual.

  • Linda
    Hunt, supporting, The Year of Living
    Dangerously
    (1983) Played a man.

  • William
    Hurt, lead, The Kiss of the Spiderwoman
    (1985) Flamboyant gay man

  • Jaye
    Davidson, supporting, The Crying Game
    (1992). Transsexual

  • Gwyneth
    Paltrow, lead, Shakespeare in Love
    (1998). Cross-dresser

  • Hilary
    Swank, lead, Boys Don’t Cry (1998)
    Transsexual.

  • Felicity
    Hoffman, lead, Transamerica (2005)
    Transsexual.

  • Cate
    Blanchett, supporting, I’m Not There
    (2007). Played a man. Bob Dylan, no less.

 

Looking at
this list, the first observation that comes to mind is, what was happening in
1982? Androgyny certainly was taking hold in the music world with David Bowie,
Boy George, Annie Lennox and the advent of MTV. One character in three acting
categories fits the description – but in remarkably varied ways. None of them
won the Oscar, however, but clearly the year was a ground-breaker for such
performances. Meanwhile,  Andrews might have opened the door for more
women to get into the he-or-she act.

But winning
is what counts most. Hunt impressed voters by actually playing a man, which is
more of a stunt than a statement. Hurt triumphed although his part as a
flamboyant sex offender in a Brazilian prison is a bit of a cheat since he is
defined as a homosexual albeit one with eyeliner and flowy robes. Paltrow
followed Andrews’ showbiz-route lead in Victor/Victoria by
posing as a male actor to get around the Elizabethan ban on women performing
onstage. 
 

Swank
is the true pioneer, however, playing a real-life transsexual who passes as a
male with deadly results. The acceptance of her work as Brandon Teena led
to Huffman’s switcheroo as a man undergoing a sex change and bodes well for
Leto’s chances as well. 

These
portraits are different than those defined as being gay or lesbian. Besides the
innate theatricality of the parts, there is a heightened opportunity for
both comedy and tragedy. Leto, who did his research by talking to actual
transsexuals rather than looking to similar performances from the past, has
said he wanted to avoid the usual cliches: “It’s usually someone dancing
on the table with high heels on, the butt of every joke, or has a one-liner and
they run out of the room screaming. I thought there was an opportunity to flesh
out a real person.”  

**Spoiler
alert**

Actors
who win as gay or trans characters share one major trait. They die onscreen.
Besides Hurt and Swank, that includes Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Ed Harris in The
Hours
, Charlize Theron in Monster
and Sean Penn in Milk and Christopher
Plummer in Beginners.

Yes,
Rayon does expire before our eyes. And O’Neil suggests that could be Leto’s ace
in the hole. Not that the actor is making
awards a priority necessarily. Leto, who seems to be a rare actor who started
out young and kept his priorities straight by not playing the fame game, would
be satisfied if the movie simply opened up more minds and hearts.

As he
told me after Dallas Buyers Club had its premiere at the Toronto International
Film Festival, “As far as the character goes, I hope people get to know
someone and they have a little more understanding and empathy. We all know
there are a lot of Rons out there. They may see the movie and change their
minds.”

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Comments

James S.

Tom O'Neill is such a bitter, lonely a**hole. He basically makes a living by rendering screen performances down to meaningless statistics. In this case, he says Leto (who is f***ing extraordinary in Dallas Buyers Club, by the way) will win an Oscar not because he gave the best performance, but because he played to academy voters' weaknesses. How insulting is that? That's essentially saying Leto didn't act, but pandered. Lonely and bitter, with nothing better to do than try to strip the achievements of others away from them.

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