The toughest Oscar race this year was for best actor. Right until the awards began, the race was almost certainly down to Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave and Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. (McConaughey was the eventual winner.) What also seemed certain was that Leonardo DiCaprio was not going to win this year, or possibly any time soon, unless he becomes a different kind of actor, a much less cool one. Cool guys don’t win Oscars.
Although modern coolness emerged out of jazz and spread through popular music, the movies brought cool to the masses by giving audiences unparalleled access to it. Where else can you sit and stare at cool people for hours? The movies have been good to cool, and cool has been good to the movies. So why is it that so few of the actors who have embodied cool have ever won the Academy Award for best actor?
Consider these icons of cool, all of them non-winners: Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Tom Cruise. Paul Newman and Humphrey Bogart won late in their careers, after age had worn away some of their cool. Two other cool winners, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, each received one of their two awards in their fifties.
Being cool does not mean that an actor isn’t great, successful, or popular—quite the opposite, actually. But it does mean that he will struggle to win the Academy Award for best actor. To understand why, we need a definition of cool (no easy task). For that we need to go to the coolest actor working today, Brad Pitt, who has never won an Oscar for acting (though he did accept one last night as a producer of 12 Years a Slave), and has only been nominated twice for best actor in over two decades of work.
How does Pitt embody cool? As the director Andrew Dominik noted in a DVD extra for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery. He doesn’t invite you to share his position somehow.”
He doesn’t invite you to share his position. That is as good a definition of movie cool as there is. The cool actor invites admiration, envy, and desire, much more than empathy, because he is unreadable. His characters leave you wondering what it would be like to be them, without ever imagining that you could.
On the other end of the continuum is Tom Hanks, an actor who almost always invites you to share his position. The power of Hanks’s performances lies in their ability to communicate exactly what it would be like to the character he is playing, which is why he has succeeded so much at the Oscars. He has been nominated five times for best actor and won it twice, one of only nine actors to do so.
This Pitt-Hanks Continuum can be used to predict how likely an actor is to win an Academy Award. The more like Pitt an actor’s style and roles are, the less likely he is to win. The continuum also explains why the Academy favors actors playing characters who are disabled, mentally ill, gay, or ugly. What is really being rewarded are roles in which actors stretched themselves in order to share a position that has been underrepresented on screen. Actors—who make up a large portion of Academy voters—are dedicated to becoming other people for a living, and have a natural bias toward the kinds of performances that invite audiences to imagine themselves, too, as someone different.
Which brings us to this year’s contest for the best actor award. The Pitt-Hanks Continuum clarifies why the race was down to Ejiofor and McConaughey. It even explains why Hanks, whom many critics expected to be nominated, was not.
Until the final minutes of Captain Phillips, Hanks was simply too close to the Pitt end of the Continuum. Anthony Lane pointed out in the New Yorker, “This most likable of actors deliberately presents us with a character who makes no effort to be liked. . . . The rubbery mug of the young Hanks is barely discernible.” Hanks’s costar Barkhad Abdi did receive a nomination for best supporting actor, one clearly predicted by The Pitt-Hanks Continuum. His role allows audiences to understand, if not quite sympathize with, a position that has never been represented in a Hollywood film. Had Hanks played his role with the excessive cheer he is sometimes prone to (see Saving Mr. Banks), he would have invited the audience to invest all its sympathy with Captain Phillips, sparing none for Abdi’s character. Unfortunately for Hanks, his reserve also ruined his chance for a nomination.
It was even tougher for Robert Redford, yet another iconic cool guy who has never won an Oscar for acting. He was even more remote and enigmatic than Captain Phillips in All Is Lost.
Bruce Dern manages a few words in Nebraska, but his taciturn performance did not bode well for Oscar night.
Leonardo DiCaprio certainly has plenty to say in The Wolf of Wall Street, and a good deal of it in a voice-over that would seem to invite audiences to step into the mind of Jordan Belfort. Nothing could be further from the truth. We find out everything we need to know about DiCaprio’s performance early in the movie, when Belfort takes a job selling penny stocks. As he makes his first call, the whole office goes silent and starts watching him, which is precisely what the audience is meant to do, too. We are an audience to this performance, not an audience sharing it. DiCaprio started out as a very open actor who achieved fame for roles that eschewed coolness, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Titanic. Like his Gilbert Grape co-star Johnny Depp, he has since given much of his career to playing spectacles, the kind to be watched rather than seen through. His performances in Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby, Catch Me If You Can, and The Aviator are all great, just not the kind of relatable, Hanks-ian great rewarded with an Oscar.
In most any other year, Christian Bale would have had a shot at the Oscar for his performance in American Hustle, even if it sometimes slips into a Pacino impression. He is voluble, charming, and gloriously ugly, brave enough to parade around a gut and a hairpiece that could have received its own nod for supporting actor. Stretch though he literally did, this was not Bale’s year, since Ejiofor’s and McConaughey’s performances invite the audience to share the positions of characters that have almost never been seen on screen before.
Ejiofor had a very strong chance to win an Oscar because, of all the nominated roles, he represents the position most radically different from the audience’s. His performance, firmly placed at the Hanks end of the acting continuum, demands we see the world of slavery through the character’s eyes. It is all the more marvelous since, as the film makes painfully clear, the economic functioning of slavery depended on denying that a slave even had a perspective. The problem for Ejiofor may have come with the power of his performance and the film itself, which so accurately represents slavery that Academy members may have been reluctant to experience that pain.
That is the first of many advantages for McConaughey, whose role as a homophobic, macho, straight male with AIDS plays almost as strongly on the Pitt-Hanks Continuum as Ejiofor’s. Although his role itself isn’t as much of a stretch for the actor or the audience, McConaughey puts more of his emotions on the screen than Ejiofor does. He lets the audience share all his rage, grief, and fear. Add to that the fact that he lost so much weight for the part. Most important of all, McConaughey has pulled off a perhaps unprecedented transformation. He has moved his position on the Pitt-Hanks Continuum toward the Hanks end, becoming less cool in a string of good films. The trajectory of his character in Dallas Buyers Club, from swagger to compassion, bears a resemblance to his own metamorphosis. McConaughey is no longer a cool guy, which is partly why he won the Oscar for best actor this year.
James S. Murphy is a freelance writer working on a book entitled The Way We Like Now: Aesthetics in the Age of the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @magmods.