Just as Oscar voters rewarded Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, and many others for roles that demanded body-shifting training or weight change, they also lean into performers who limit their mobility or twist themselves under duress. Perhaps the most infamous example is Daniel Day Lewis’s shoot-long stint in a wheelchair as cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” which earned Lewis his first Oscar and cost him two broken ribs.
Eddie Redmayne could barely articulate his dialogue as ALS survivor Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” and took home the 2015 Oscar. Mental hardship counts, too: Tom Hanks won as a mentally disabled hero in “Forrest Gump” and Julianne Moore won as an early-onset Alzheimer’s victim in “Still Alice.”
Now, joining a rather weak Best Actor field so far, here’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, the 2013 Boston marathon survivor whose lower legs were blown off at the finish line. This weekend, “Stronger” rode a surge of buzz off the Toronto Film Festival to a Top 10 opening and an A- Cinemascore. Sitting at a rather pretty 76 on Metacritic, “Stronger” manages to skirt the pitfalls of this genre with a terrific script from John Pollono and David Gordon Green’s edgy direction of an ace ensemble led by Gyllenhaal.
The actor’s real-life hero is vulnerable yet resilient. He hurts enough to escape via alcohol, but fights hard to stop depending on his loving mother (Miranda Richardson) and take on adult responsibility in a life with the woman he loves (Tatiana Maslany). Green’s camera reveals the up-close intimacy between Gyllenhaal and Maslany as they finally come together as a couple. It’s heartbreaking. Beyond affliction, this is the heroic stuff of which Oscar performances are made.
Even if “Stronger” may not become a box office star this fall, timing is on Gyllenhaal’s side, as critics groups, SAG and the acting branch can finally unify behind a role that would reward all his excellent efforts to date.
Maslany plays the girlfriend who helps Bauman to get through his recovery, deal with fellow Bostonians who need to believe in him as an iconic survivor, and learn to stand on his own again. Richardson portrays the hard-drinking, star-dazzled mom who wants him to do the Oprah Winfrey show; Green makes Bauman’s travails, as well as the Boston family and community around him, feel real in a way that Peter Berg’s 2016 “Patriots Day,” starring Mark Wahlberg as an unbelievably heroic cop, did not.
Gyllenhaal, who hung out with Bauman and researched heavily to get the “Stronger” details and his Bahwston accent right, is a fascinating example of a hard-working movie star. He often takes chances with demanding dramatic roles that earn upbeat notices, but has not been rewarded with an Oscar nomination since his Supporting Actor nod opposite Heath Ledger for Ang Lee’s tragic gay romance “Brokeback Mountain.”
Like Matthew McConaughey, for the past few years he’s let his own instincts and gut response to material and filmmakers dictate his choices. The results speak for themselves: a mix of studio and indie, from Duncan Jones’ time-travel thriller “Source Code” ($140 million worldwide) to David Ayer’s “End of Watch,” a visceral LA-cop two-hander opposite Michael Peña.
Gyllenhaal has also invested in two French-Canadian filmmakers, shooting two back-to-back dramas with Denis Villeneuve, one a studio hit (“Prisoners,” $113 million worldwide), the other an arthouse success d’estime (“Enemy”), as well as “Dallas Buyer’s Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2016 “Demolition,” an arthouse disappointment for Fox Searchlight. And Gyllenhaal did his part for Weinstein Co.’s workmanlike boxer movie “Southpaw,” directed by Antoine Fuqua ($52 million worldwide), and popped out of the ensemble as a jovial climber in Universal/Working Title’s survival thriller “Everest,” directed by Baltasar Kormákur ($221.6 million worldwide).
He’s also invested his time in the theater, from his acclaimed 2015 Broadway debut opposite Ruth Wilson in “Constellations,” his second go-round with playwright Nick Payne after off-Broadway’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” to 2016’s full-throated tenor display in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Awards recognition came again with a BAFTA nomination for last year’s supporting turn in “Nocturnal Animals,” but the Oscars went with Michael Shannon instead; and a Golden Globe nomination for his creepy role in “Nightcrawler” (2014) as a gaunt sociopathic charmer who chases after visceral and bloody video footage of fires, car crashes, and murder victims, a loser who wants to be a winner and doesn’t care what he does to get there.
The Globes also nominated him for playing Anne Hathaway’s drug-peddling boyfriend in “Love & Other Drugs” (2010), and critics praised his eager soldier in “Jarhead” and a rookie journalist tracking a serial killer in “Zodiac.” Many of his movies may have been too uncomfortably edgy or not mainstream enough for the Academy actors’ branch; Gyllenhaal started young and has been gaining gravitas as he grows.
Joining Gyllenhaal in the afflicted awards derby for 2018 are Andrew Garfield, who has been earning raves as polio survivor Robin Cavendish in Andy Serkis’s “Breathe” (Bleecker Street), Bryan Cranston as a millionaire quadriplegic in “The Upside” (the Weinstein Co.’s remake of “The Untouchables”) and Sally Hawkins in two roles: an arthritic primitive painter in “Maudie” (Sony Pictures Classics) and a mute lab worker in Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy fable “The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight).
For the full list of 59 actors who have been nominated in roles that centered on physical or emotional afflictions, click here.
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