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John Hawkes: America’s Best Actor?

January 22, 2013

The annual “Who got snubbed”-stakes after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced focused mainly on the Best Director category: How could big names like Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck get passed over  in favor of the lesser-known Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin and the just-plain-lesser David O. Russell? But to me, the most egregious omission was The Sessions‘ John Hawkes from the Best Actor race. He embodied polio-stricken poet Mark O’Brien in his quest to lose his virginity with humor, grace and realism and made it look easy; Hawkes literally didn’t lift a finger. That’s the thing about Hawkes—you never catch him acting. Maybe that’s why he’s overshadowed by the likes of his Lincoln costar Daniel Day-Lewis, who makes every role seem like a Herculean feat (Hawkes turns in a fine, subtle performance as Oklahoma Senator Robert Latham).

Hawkes stars as emotionally damaged dads in The Playroom and Arcadia, a pair of new indies available on VOD that showcase his Gene Hackman-like ability to ride the line between menace and sympathy. It’s a quality he’s displayed previously in his Oscar-nominated turn as protective meth-head Teardrop in Winter’s Bone and his shoulda-been-Oscar-nominated turn as a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Playroom, he’s a 1970’s suburban lawyer with an alcoholic wife (Molly Parker, one of Hawkes’ many talented Deadwood cohorts with whom he’s reunited) and four kids, including a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood (newcomer Olivia Harris, who also hauntingly sings “Up On the Roof” over the closing credits). Written and directed by sisters Gretchen and Julia Dyer, The Playroom feels a bit too reminiscent of The Ice Storm, but Hawkes—who enters 20 minutes into the slim, 75-minute film—brings an intriguing ambivalence to his character.

An even better performance—and an even better film—can be found in Arcadia (although you may have to search for it—unlike The Playroom, which is available on iTunes; I only stumbled across it while browsing through the “Digital Premieres” section of my cable system’s On Demand menu). No relation to the brainy Tom Stoppard play of the same name, Arcadia casts Hawkes as a harried, flawed father driving his three children across the country towards the prospect of a new job and a new life in California. The mysterious absence of the mother opens up the possibility that he may be kidnapping the kids—or perhaps something even more diabolical, and Hawkes toys with that prospect masterfully.

Lyrically written and directed by Olivia Silver, Arcadia features real-life siblings Ryan and Ty Simpkins as two of Hawkes’ kids, and their familial bond is palpable. With an understated score by the Low Anthem, Arcadia feels like a minor American classic, and Hawkes’ work stands with the finest American anti-star turns of the ’70s. His not- quite-movie star looks and explosive charisma are reminiscent of Hoffman, Pacino and De Niro in their primes, and when he tangles with a rude diner waitress, it’s hard not to be reminded of Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. And Oscar nominations be damned, that’s never been said about Bradley Cooper or Hugh Jackman.

Are Me and You and Everyone We Know John Hawkes fans? Post a comment!

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13 Comments
  1. Dirty Vicar permalink

    Tom “Close-up Boy” Hooper had no business being nominated for Best Director; and WHY didn’t you mention Kathryn Bigelow?

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Good call–I should’ve mentioned Bigelow. I’ll fix now. Thanks!

  2. S. m. Toole permalink

    So glad you enjoyed Arcadia! John is brilliant as an actor and a wonderful man!

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly after a screening of The Sessions, and he seemed like a very cool guy. Did you work on Arcadia?

      • S. m. Toole permalink

        Yes, he is! My daughter, Kendall, plays Caroline in Arcadia. He was amazing to work with and they had a great time filming!

      • bruceafretts permalink

        Oh, she was great in the movie, too!

  3. S. m. Toole permalink

    Oh, you are sweet! Thank you, I’ll pass it along…..

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Please do! And I’ll keep an eye out for her in future films.

      • S. m. Toole permalink

        Deal! And thank you so much!

      • bruceafretts permalink

        My pleasure! She really does have a lovely, naturalistic presence.

      • S. m. Toole permalink

        Thank you. Wow! What a wonderful thing to say!

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