In his earlier roles, Ethan Hawke had a perpetual youthful spunk to him, but he was never just a punk, or a rebellious youth. In his best roles he felt contemplative, sort of sad. He was more placid and comely than his contemporaries Ben Stiller (who directed Hawke in “Reality Bites”) and Matthew McConaughey, and seemed more in touch with the Gen-X aesthetic, with those long, gel-slick locks and frosted tips. If you sit down and watch every Hawke movie in a row, you’ll see him growing as an actor as he ages, which may seem like an obvious observation, but consider this: whereas Stiller is still doing pretty much the same thing he’s always done, albeit now he has some gray mottling his black hair, Hawke has become a subtler, more nuanced performer; and McConaughey, as you probably know, spent a decade doing disposable rom-coms, but abruptly decided to switch to heavy dramas and interplanetary time travel. There was no casual progression. Hawke has been slowly evolving. He even helmed a warm, endearing documentary on beloved pianist Seymour Bernstein called “Seymour: An Introduction.” At his best, Hawke feels like a natural actor, someone who inhabits his character as if through osmosis; at his worst he’s stiff and controlling. To celebrate Hawke’s birthday, we’ve compiled his best and worst roles, to show how he’s progressed as an actor.
“Boyhood” (2014) directed by Richard Linklater
“Boyhood” is a fitting totem of Hawke’s career up to this point. He’s not the lead, but his is a presence that permeates virtually every scene. He’s the absent father who influences his ex-wife and his children no matter how far away he is. The inherent peculiarity with Linklater’s film, which was shot over the course of 12 years, is seeing Hawke’s growth as an actor. As Mason, Sr, the father of the main character, Hawke channels the internal delinquency of a boy in a man’s body. He’s quite good at the beginning, particularly when he asks his children to talk to him (his daughter amusingly requests the same of her father), but Hawke has a discernibly tighter grasp of his character’s nuances by the end. And this gradual progression works, since the character and Hawke seem to mature together. The way he talks slightly differently with his son in the bar, offering him typically poor dad advice on the ladies, and with his family in the mini-van is indicative of a man-child becoming a man.
“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight” (1994, 2004, 2013) directed by Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke are one of American cinema’s great director-actor pairs. Hopefully, down the road, they’ll be held in the same esteem as Scorsese-De Niro, or Hitchcock-Stewart, or Hitchcock-Grant. Not that Linklater has the same visual panache as Scorsese (but really, who does?), or Hawke the same prowess as De Niro, but they bring out the best in each other. In “Sunrise,” Hawke is a young romantic who finds self-realization through his interactions with Julie Delpy. Their marathon conversations are absorbing, with each performer playing off the other astutely. “Sunset” depicts Hawke as an older, perhaps wiser man with more pertinent and severe responsibilities, and once again eschews the usual contrivances and conveniences of movie dialog. And in “Midnight,” Hawke and Delpy manage to make carefully structured writing feel free-flowing and improvised. It shows Hawke letting go of his past tendency to internalize and control his reactions (see his “Hamlet,” which feels as tense and unwavering a clenched-fist).
“Training Day” (2001) directed by Antoine Fuqua
Fuqua’s melodrama is heavy-handed and strains to feel important, but the two leads, Denzel Washington (who deservedly nabbed the Oscar) and Hawke, are enthralling. Washington has the showier role, of course, and his “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” diatribe and penchant for theatrics tend to overshadow Hawke’s careful, naturalist work, which is unfortunate. Whereas everything and everyone in this movie says and does exactly what they need to say and do in order for Fuqua to get his desired affect (“Hey, before you kill this guy, let me get his wallet and subsequently find a conveniently placed picture of your niece, whom this guy happened to serendipitously save earlier in the movie, which will thus save his life and lead directly to the film’s climax!”), Hawke disappears into the role. He’s fidgety and anxious, a perfect foil to Washington’s cool, corrupt motherfucker. Notice how he can’t really look Washington in the eyes, and how he tries to fit in with Washington and his gang by laughing at jokes he doesn’t get.
“Gattaca” (1997) directed by Andrew Niccol
In a future where parents can genetically alter their unborn children and engender beautiful, brilliant, unflawed offspring, Hawke is one of the tainted ones. He’s an invalid in a valid world. He has medical conditions, and those who aren’t modified are deemed lower-class, and can only work menial jobs. But Hawke has loftier ambitions. Hawke nails the discomfort of hiding in a society that doesn’t want you, as well as the excitement of beating the system. This is an example of Hawke’s early habit of internalizing actually paying off.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007) directed by Sidney Lumet
Hawke, opposite a seedy, sleazy Philip Seymour Hoffman, is at his most vulnerable as the younger brother of Hoffman’s conniving conman. He has a sense of child-like loyalty to his brother, ignoring the obvious and following along the way younger siblings tend to do. Hoffman is monumental as the older brother, who doesn’t flinch at robbing his parents’ shop in order to pay back his debts, and Hawke wisely plays the passive one here. When Hoffman beats the shit out of a dealer, Hawke jumps backwards into a corner, throwing his arms in front of his face. And when Hoffman comes violently undone, Hawke seems to sink into twitchy despair at the loss of his role model.
“Daybreakers” (2009) directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
A mix of “Underworld” (the vampire movie, not the Don DeLillo novel) and “The Matrix,” the Spierig brothers’ flick is pretty forgettable B-grade stuff. Hawke signed up because, he claims, the script was about the over-consumption of natural resources, but really it’s just silly vampire sci-fi without wit. Hawke looks like he needs a nap. And maybe a hug.
“Dead Poets Society” (1989) directed by Peter Weir
Pauline Kael criticized the beloved family movie for its “middlebrow highmindedness,” and frankly she isn’t wrong. As good as Robin Williams is—and he’s very good—the movie, and the young actors surrounding Williams, are doused in syrupy sentimentality. Hawke seems to be counting the beats until it’s his turn to deliver a line. It’s a pious and self-important movie, and displays little of Weir’s usual visual style, and poor Hawke, only 18 at the time, is out of his element. His faux-crying is painful to watch, in the bad sense.
“Dad” (1989) directed by Gary David Goldberg
Jack Lemmon, hidden behind a bushy white mustache, is wonderful as an aging father. Ted Danson is adequate as Lemon’s son, and Ethan Hawke looks bored as Danson’s son. The movie is a pedantic tear-jerker, rescued only by an extraordinary turn from Lemmon (two years before his devastating performance in “Glengarry Glen Ross”). Hawke does that thing where he tries really hard to look like he’s not trying and it comes off stiff and strident.
“The Purge” (2013) directed by James DeMonaco
Ugh, this movie is stupid, stupid, stupid, and Hawke’s character, constantly unaware of his surroundings (seriously, the number of times someone ominously lurks over his shoulder in the scope framing is bewildering), matches the script stupid note for stupid note. Hawke sits around and looks like he’s waiting until the take ends so he can go practice his “Macbeth” lines. Occasionally he emotes, but it’s all artifice. He knows this stuff is garbage. The writer-director DeMonaco scripted the surprisingly good remake of “Assault on Precinct 13,” which also starred Hawke. In that movie, with its stellar supporting cast and clever twists, Hawke acts like a guy trying to cling to the last lingering glimpse of hope. Here he acts like a guy who wants his character to get killed so he can go back to his trailer.