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From ‘The Big Sick’ to ‘The Disaster Artist,’ 2017’s Best Performances Find Actors Playing Themselves

Playing a historical figure might be the surest way to win an Oscar, but 2017's most exciting performances are flipping that upside down.

“The Big Sick”

Of course, the great ones make it look so easy. Case in point: The immortal Agnès Varda, who’s always played herself better to perfection. Yes, “Faces Places” is a documentary, but Varda — the most enduringly irrepressible of the French New Wave’s many iconoclasts — uses her cinematic farewell to deliver the performance of a lifetime. Collaborating with young visual artist JR, the odd couple drive through the heart of France in a van-sized Polaroid camera. Varda knowingly weaponizes her winsome screen persona in a movie about the power of our own self-images.

As she and JR make massive print-outs of the people they meet along the way, looking at unexamined lives with a degree of love and attention that’s usually reserved for historical figures, cinema’s littlest giant illustrates how all of us are bigger than our bodies. Varda is receiving an honorary Oscar this year, and the Best Documentary category is her only legitimate hope for a second, but her performance in “Faces Places” is every bit as worthy of discussion as Margot Robbie’s in “I, Tonya” or Saoirse Ronan’s in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.”

Speaking of Saoirse Ronan, a 23-year-old actress who’s already on the cusp of her third Oscar nomination, her mind-scramblingly incredible performance in the first indie sensation of the fall is possessed by a meta element of its own. As Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a Sacramento teen whose relationship with her home town is almost as fraught as her relationship with her mother, Ronan may not be playing herself, but she’s doing something — maybe the only thing — that could be even scarier for an actor: She’s playing her director. Kind of. Sort of. It’s a definite maybe.

“Lady Bird”

A24

A former Sacramento teen whose trajectory Lady Bird traces at full speed, Gerwig insists that her solo directorial debut isn’t autobiographical, per se (“Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life,” she’s said, “but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know”). But Ronan’s turn hums with the same frantic, scattered realness that Gerwig has always brought to the screen. It would be impossible to parse where Gerwig ends and Lady Bird begins, but Ronan renders that point moot; she makes the character a true original, highlighting Gerwig’s unique gift for self-expression while also becoming a sui generis force of nature unto herself. Ronan is playing Gerwig, and she’s also playing our idea of Gerwig — by melding them both into neither, she delivers the most singularly thrilling performance of her young career.

And then there’s James Franco. There’s always James Franco. A notoriously restless multi-hyphenate who could use a chance to rewrite his relationship to the Oscars, Franco is back in the fray with one of the best and most baldly confessional turns of the year. He’s not literally playing himself in “The Disaster Artist,” a gut-busting showbiz satire about the making of “The Worst Movie Ever Made,” but he might as well be. More than just a glorified inside joke about the most unlikely cult hit of the 21st Century, the film is a sobering portrait of a misunderstood artist who just wants to share his vision with the world, regardless of how the world might respond to it.

“The Room” auteur Tommy Wiseau is a human cartoon who raises a thousand questions every time he opens his mouth, but never feels like he owes anyone so much as a single answer; few people in entertainment history have been so easy to laugh at and hard to ignore. Franco is one of them. The simple uncanniness with which he becomes Tommy Wiseau is itself worthy of a Best Actor nomination (eat your heart out, Daniel Day-Lewis!), but there’s so much more to it than that. Franco brings an extraordinary depth of feeling to a role that could easily have been played without one, using his own experience as a punchline to hit back at anyone who’s ever mocked him for having the audacity to put himself out there.

Yes, there’s a certain amount of caution with which we should approach a triumphant story about a male director who essentially manhandled his way to a film maudit. And yet, Franco’s performance here is endowed with a bottomless reservoir of empathy. Franco knows what it feels like when your reach exceeds your grasp, but it never stops him from stretching himself to the breaking point and beyond. “The Disaster Artist” may be a biopic, but it’s also a singular testament to the idea that great acting isn’t about becoming someone else so much as it’s about becoming who you really are. That’s always been the case, but some of this year’s great performances have risked letting us see that for ourselves.

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