Character Actors michael stuhlbarg

Michael Stuhlbarg

Though he had acted steadily on television and the stage, Michael Stuhlbarg first became widely known when he starred as the hapless lead in Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man eight years ago. Since then, Stuhlbarg has played a real-life gangster on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as well as starred in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Barry Sonnenfeld, Don Cheadle, Danny Boyle, and others. But 2017 might be his single best year; like Caleb Landry Jones, Stuhlbarg is co-starring in three films that might wind up as Best Picture Oscar nominees. (Notably, he’s in three different films from Jones. It might be an Oscar first for two different actors to each appear in three separate Best Picture nominees, in the same year.) Though he’s playing wildly different characters in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Stuhlbarg shines through in each one.

His smallest part comes in The Post, where he plays Abe Rosenthal, the editor of The New York Times as it’s being attacked by the United States government for publishing information it considers damaging and private. (Yes, The Post’s relevance is impossible to ignore.) Rosenthal, in the early going, mostly seems like a figure that Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is envious of, because of his newspaper’s ability to break major news stories, while the Post can only follow in its wake. By the end, Rosenthal and the Times are less rivals and more equal partners with the Post as they face off against the Supreme Court; even though he has a small amount of screen time among the massive ensemble, Stuhlbarg’s presence is established quickly and firmly.

The Shape of Water offers Stuhlbarg the opportunity to play both a savvier riff on his pathetic protagonist in A Serious Man, as well as that of a double agent hiding in plain sight and struggling to gain respect from his superiors. Among his many strengths as an actor, Stuhlbarg is able to perfectly capture the bottled-up sense of impotence in henpecked middle-aged men, which works well with his character Dr. Hofstettler. That impotence is part of his performance even after it’s revealed that the doctor — who aids the deaf Elisa (Sally Hawkins) because he believes the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) that a government heavy has captured should be treated humanely — is also a Russian agent in disguise. Most of Stuhlbarg’s scenes in The Shape of Water are shared with his old co-star from Boardwalk Empire, Michael Shannon (as said government heavy). Both Shannon and Stuhlbarg are working within familiar contexts, but del Toro smartly gives them nuances to their characters. They each do an excellent job, though Stuhlbarg’s ability to play Hofstettler as someone whose failure to convince his American and Russian superiors of the value of the Amphibious Man gives him just an extra bit of pained, bittersweet context.

“Pained” and “bittersweet” are equally apt terms to describe Call Me By Your Name, the movie for which Stuhlbarg is (correctly) receiving the highest praise. In truth, much of the praise is focused on a big monologue Stuhlbarg delivers in the final minutes of the period romance. Guadagnino’s adaptation tells the story of Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a teenager spending the summer of 1983 in northern Italy who unexpectedly falls in love with his father’s graduate-student assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). Though Elio and Oliver engage in a fairly torrid affair, it inevitably must conclude when Oliver leaves Italy for America after his six-week stay. As Elio handles the heartbreak in secret, having attempted to keep the relationship as quiet as possible, his father (Stuhlbarg) approaches him in surprising, bracing fashion. He makes clear that he and Elio’s mother both knew of the romance, and did what they could to encourage its flowering. Professor Perlman also implies that he, too, engaged in a similar homosexual affair as a younger man, and while it ended too soon, the passion he felt was something he wanted his son to feel as well.

Stuhlbarg is already an incredible actor, but the monologue (from the James Ivory-written screenplay) is, on its own, enough to earn him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The empathy he displays here is almost as heartbreaking as the truncated romance between young Elio and Oliver. Call Me By Your Name does not end on an uplifting note, as Elio learns that Oliver is engaged back to a woman in the States even as they continue to share feelings for each other. But the moment where Professor Perlman reaches out to Elio is one of the film’s high points, the shared sense of heartache and its long-lasting power embodied so touchingly by the elder actor. Like Jones, especially, Stuhlbarg has so much range as a performer, and his work in Call Me By Your Name is proof enough of that.

Character Actors bradley whitford

Bradley Whitford

Though he’s still best known for playing Josh Lyman on NBC’s The West Wing, Bradley Whitford tapped back into the douchey style evinced by some of his earlier film characters in his two standout parts in 2017. (Remember him in Billy Madison?) Whitford’s marquee part is in Get Out, where he starred opposite the aforementioned Caleb Landry Jones as Dean Armitage, the seemingly friendly but genuinely scary practitioner of the medical procedure that places White people into Black people’s bodies. (A video that the film’s lead, Chris, is forced to watch in the final act makes it clear that Dean was encouraged in this act by his father, who now resides in the estate’s groundskeeper.) But in the same way that Whitford traffics in his outwardly genial but not-so-secretly nasty side in Get Out, it’s present in his role in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.

Where the former film focuses primarily on racism (as when Dean calls the relationship between Chris and his daughter “this thang”), Whitford is an embodiment of the ingrained, visibly toxic sexism that pervaded (and still pervades) the newspaper industry. He plays Arthur Parsons, a Washington Post board member in 1971 who makes his doubts about the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, known as early as possible. By the end of the film, Parsons clashes even more with Graham, the latter of whom approves her investigative journalists to pursue a story about the Pentagon Papers that might send them to jail if the Supreme Court rules against them. Parsons, focused more on the Post being traded publicly on the American stock exchange, sees Graham as a weak-willed leader failing to step out of the shadow of her dead husband.

In both films, arguably, Whitford is playing something akin to a straw man. Just as it’s viscerally satisfying for Dean Armitage to be taken out by Chris in the climax of Get Out, it’s rousing when Graham gets to calmly, but firmly, tell Parsons where to stick his sexist viewpoints. (It also may be Hollywood finessing, as opposed to whatever Graham did to push back against the members of her paper’s board back in the early 1970s.) Whitford helps both characters stand out, though the loaded dialogue in Get Out where Dean tries to tell Chris he would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could have helps there, too. Just as Whitford used his prep-school looks to traffic in playing douchebags in his earlier career, he’s doing something similar in 2017, utilizing his shift into later-middle-age as paternal characters whose privilege is firmly curdled into something terrifying. Whitford stands out in these films, as an avatar of white status gone very wrong.

Wrapping It Up

The timing and release of any movie can, in some respect, be chalked up to coincidence. The Post, as an example, was filmed and finalized during the post-production period of Steven Spielberg’s next film, Ready Player One, while Get Out has gained massive resonance despite having been written and filmed while Barack Obama was President. So in reality, it’s more coincidental that this year has offered so many standout character-actor performances in such disparate films. But even if a trend occurs accidentally, it’s still a trend. These four actors aren’t the only great character actors to stand out in 2017 (if you think of people like Willem Dafoe and Sam Rockwell as character actors of a sort, it’s been a good year for them, too). However, their very presence in so many of the year’s films has consistently been a sign of good things to come.

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