If you’re looking for me between now and Oscar night on February 24, I will be here at my desk, listening to Aretha Franklin and muttering “Will God forgive us for snubbing Ethan Hawke?” The leading man was an on-the-bubble contender for Best Actor who didn’t make the final five when this year’s Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday morning. In his place were four qualified performances — Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice, Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Bradley Cooper and his Tom Ford bronzer as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate — and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.
In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small, historic church in upstate New York. He’s half-reverend, half-groundskeeper: He fixes leaks and gives tours and delivers sermons to a dwindling congregation. He writes lengthy journal entries lamenting his inability to hear God’s voice or feel a divine presence in his life. “Who am I to talk about pride?” he journals. It’s a desperate kind of desire: Reverend Toller needs a place to channel his malaise when a young couple seeks his counsel. The husband is an extreme environmental activist, and even as Toller advises him against action, he begins to see the man’s point. The world really is wasting away, entirely due to human action. God shouldn’t forgive us. Toller’s dread and loneliness is ignited with a sense of purpose and Hawke transforms before our eyes: In the beginning he seems placid and somber. By the middle, he looks like he’s bursting at the seams of some invisible straightjacket. The tension in every scene in suffocating until one shot near the end that allows him to exhale. It’s like nothing Hawke has ever done: There’s no greasy hair, bedraggled slouch; he’s not playing a character particularly eloquent or erudite; there’s no charm.
The devil works hard — I know this firsthand from the number of nominations Vice got this morning, and also because I spilled one single drop of Josie Maran’s argan oil on my dress today — but Ethan Hawke’s forehead wrinkle works harder. So does Ethan Hawke. His performance in First Reformed was a marvel of manic restraint. When I talked to Hawke a few days before Christmas (I hope you didn’t trip over that name I just dropped!), he explained it thusly: “Most performances are trying to entertain you, to capture your imagination, thrill you, make you curious, make you laugh, make you cry. A recessive performance avoids the audience. If it works right, it draws you in and invites you in, and lets you participate, because it doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to think all the time.” Because it won’t, I will: You should’ve nominated it, you cowards!
Here is what would happen if Ethan Hawke won the Oscar he deserved for Best Actor: He would’ve thanked Paul Schrader, his family, and A24. He would’ve rubbed his glorious fecund beard deep in thought. He would’ve said something about having been acting for 30 years. He might’ve thanked God. He would no doubt issue a strongly worded rebuke of the Trump administration and bigotry and white nationalism, as he did at the Gotham Awards. He would’ve furrowed his brow and I would’ve smiled and I would’ve taken a car home from New York Media’s Tribeca offices warm and happy and listening to “My Man” by Barbra Streisand. Instead, someone else will win and I will take a car home from New York Media’s Tribeca offices annoyed and sleepy and cold. Academy, I hope you are happy.
In conclusion, I would trace Ethan Hawke’s forehead wrinkle the way Jackson Maine traced Ally’s nose in A Star Is Born. The forehead wrinkle deserves an Oscar. Please respect our privacy at this difficult time.