[8 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ewan McGregor not being nominated for an Oscar is a most curious case given that he just seems to get better and better as the years go by. High profile projects with high profile directors? Check. Big name co-stars? Check. High grosses? Check. Art house cred? Check. Affable and good-looking. For sure. Bonus actorly-cred points for being a Brit? Yes. What has gone so terribly wrong in this world that McGregor has, to date, not once been nominated for an Oscar? Ewan has done it all right, yet Oscar has done him so wrong.
Today we explore this terrible reality of a nominationless Ewan McGregor, who by Statuesque’s count should have a whopping, staggering total of seven career nominations from the Academy and we think two wins, but probably not for the roles you’d think…
#1 – Best Supporting Actor, Shallow Grave (1994)
McGregor has a devilish, charmingly rogue spirit in Danny Boyles’ slick, scary thriller. He plays the part with a twinkle in his eye, like he’s in on the joke in a way. But when things get intense, his performance gets physically demanding as he gets beat mercilessly and someone tries to kill him as he convalesces. Part Jimmy Stewart inRear Window, part Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, McGregor brings a cutting humor to what could have devolved into a genre mess. PopMatters added this performance to our 2012 Essential Performances update http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/160225-essential-film-performances-2012-edition-part-six/ , and author Daniel Tovrov noted that “As an actor, McGregor jumps at the challenge of playing a character at this emotional threshold. Alex wants to and tries to remain in control, but he is also terrified, and McGregor’s job is to figure out how Alex will react when his previously quite friend begins drilling holes in the attic ceiling to spy on him day and night.” In the real-life Oscar race, McGregor probably couldn’t have cracked past heavy-hitters in iconic performances like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction and eventual winner Martin Landau in Ed Wood but when you consider the other nominees were Chazz Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway), Paul Scofield (Quiz Show) and Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump), I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that in terms of quality of performance alone McGregor should have been a bigger contender this year.
#2 – Best Supporting Actor, Trainspotting (1996)
As Renton in Danny Boyle’s true breakthrough film, McGregor is the standout in a cast of terrific actors, playing a troubled, sardonic junkie who eventually becomes the film’s heart and conscience. In a year that saw Cuba Gooding Jr. win an Oscar for Jerry Maguire (one of the category’s worst wins of all time), and perplexing nominations for Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine) and James Woods (bad work in an even worse film, The Ghosts of Mississippi), excluding McGregor’s fresh, attention-grabbing work as the film’s narrator, in what is still one of Boyle’s best films, feels very wrong.
#3 – Best Actor, Moulin Rouge! (2001)
This movie is legendary for many reasons. But one that has always sort of stuck out for me is that most people I know believe that this is the only film where the leading man of a Nicole Kidman film isn’t acted off the screen by her. Watch the film again, you’ll notice how McGregor’s confidence is boundless and his energy so bright and shining that Kidman, in some scenes comes off at perhaps her softest and most enraptured. It is a love story after all, and for that you obviously need two leads with charisma and chemistry. Kidman and McGregor make an old love story truly sing, come alive and feel magical. The audience gets lost with them, lost in their passion and old school melodramatics. The only truly worthy nominee for me in 2001 was Tom Wilkinson, who should have won the award for In the Bedroom, but in a year where voters, in their infinite wisdom, chose to nominate Sean Penn’s obviousness in the patience-grating I Am Sam, I suppose we should all just be grateful Nicole got a Best Actress nod. McGregor was never going to make it past the Golden Globes for this one, but he did more interesting work than four of the actual nominees. I guess actors from musicals typically are often overlooked, as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and even Richard Gere could probably tell you, not that that would make this snub feel any better!
#4 – Best Actor, Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Most people I know not only think this is one of Woody Allen’s worst movies, but actually outright hate Cassandra’s Dream. I applaud Allen for making a risky, nasty noir set in London where two brothers (McGregor and Colin Farrell) fall neck-deep into some extremely unsettling, unsavory business. McGregor’s character Ian is a livewire with big dreams stuck, much to his great dissatisfaction, shoveling shit in a job he hates. When he sees an opportunity to make more money by breaking a few laws, he seizes it, pulling in his brother Terry along with him. Soon, the brothers are entangled in a spider web of deadly lies that soon spins out of their control. Allen spares no one in this film, and it is bleaker than almost anything else he’s done, and McGregor takes this opportunity to create a character that riffs on his charming persona and then plumbs into darkness of the human psyche, asking the seemingly simple question “how far would you go if you needed money badly?” McGregor’s Ian is willing to do anything and that is what makes his performance so haunting and unforgettable.
#5 – Best Actor (WIN #1), Beginners (2011)
Christopher Plummer’s Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor for playing an elderly man who comes out of the closet late in life is a scene-stealer in every way. His win is completely deserved. But to actually hold the entire film together, weaving each strand of the story with sensitivity and believability (yet still-commanding presence) as McGregor does here is a truly the work of a subtle genius. Romantic in a vulnerable, manly and sexy way that few contemporary leading men are able to pull off, McGregor feels ageless in the film. In the starry-eyed love scenes opposite Melanie Laurent the actor shows us what it’s like to be the age when you first fall in love, while in his later, tender scenes with Plummer he shows the incredible, awful transition most people make when their parents are dying and they go from being children to being almost like the parents in a sense, comforting and soothing. McGregor’s work here is quietly devastating in every way, were voters so distracted by Plummer’s much more flamboyant turn that they missed the nuance behind his work? That must be the only explanation given the uninspired lineup. I’d say Ewan deserved to win alongside his much-lauded co-star, he matched him measure for measure with actorly bravado and fearlessness. The chemistry shared by the two actors is remarkable, and to me, one couldn’t have really succeeded in such a big way without the other.
#6 – Best Supporting Actor (WIN #2) The Impossible (2012)
All due respect to the five men nominated in this category last year at the Oscars, and to Christoph Waltz (who won for Django Unchained), but McGregor gave probably his most emotionally-demanding performance to date in The Impossible, delivering work far stronger and more interesting than the nominated performances. Co-star Naomi Watts managed to land a much-deserved Best Actress nomination (her second), so it is completely inexplicable to me that McGregor was not a stronger candidate for at least a nomination in year where all five of the eventual nominees were former winners in roles that ranged from thinly-drawn to predictable to co-leads. McGregor’s work is rich and emotionally complex yet also brutal physically. Playing Henry, a husband and father who happens to be on vacation with his wife and three kids in the wrong place at the wrong time (Thailand, during the 2004 tsunami), the actor displays a dynamic range of imagination, playing scenes in very surprising, almost instinctual ways. Watching his reactions in the aftermath of the disaster is riveting; his utter shock is completely believable. And don’t get me going on his big phone scene where he’s sobbing, let’s just go ahead and say he should have gotten win number two!
Other notable roles: Many critics would probably cite McGregor for his supporting work opposite Jim Carey in I Love You Philip Morris, but to me the film lacks cohesion and expressivity. Something is off-key. Some might argue his work for Roman Polanski in The Ghost Writer (2010) warranted Best Actor consideration. While he was very good in this tense, taut thriller, his work was perhaps a bit too coolly low-key to gain traction, and a bit overshadowed by co-stars Olivia Williams and Pierce Bronsnan, who both had much showier roles. In 1998’s Little Voice McGregor played a straight role in a cast of hambones and came out of it with one of the most gentle, affecting supporting performances of his career. That same year he was also utterly memorable as a slinky, depressed rock god in Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic Velvet Goldmine, where the actor had several riveting music performance scenes.
I was thisclose to adding one more nod to Ewan’s fantasy nomination roster, as his work in the glossy trifle Down with Love is truly expert work if you take a closer look: playing “Catcher Block”/”Zip Martin” opposite a vivacious Renee Zellweger, McGregor’s take on the suave, Cary Grant-esque playboy is a delight to watch and the chemistry between the co-stars is excellent. Riffing on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies of the 1960s, the film allows McGregor to play two roles and to show off not only his romantic side, but also his musical and comedic chops, all McGregor specialties.