IT SEEMS FITTING for an industry that awards gold-plated statuettes of a buff, naked, sword toting man standing atop a film reel, to cherish a certain kind of manhood. In years past Hollywood has handed Oscars to actors for playing men that are larger than life and fall into a handful of categories – the great leader, the phenomenal talent, the tortured antihero, the formidable champion. Consider the vaunted courage of Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln, Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill (The Darkest Hour) or Colin Firth’s Prince Albert (The King’s Speech). Rami Malek’s Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody and Eddie Redmayne’s Hawking in The Theory of Everything wowed by exalting genius. Matthew McConaughey’s foul-mouthed outlaw, Ron Woodroof, in Dallas Buyer’s Club was the transformative, tortured-hero role that elevated him from ‘dude’ to dramatic star. And what of the moment in The Revenant when frontiersman Hugh Glass is driven to eviscerate his horse and climb inside the carcass to survive the blistering terrain? Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for the role after several worthy nominations because Glass faced down death against unthinkable odds.
These Best Actor winners, all of the last decade, paint a picture of the kind of masculine greatness we elevated until we began to re-think patriarchy. Again. Hollywood’s most recent Best Actor trophy was awarded to Joaquin Phoenix for The Joker, a character who encapsulates toxic masculinity and is squarely rejected by society. In retrospect, perhaps the moment portended a change; Hollywood’s was coming around to the idea that the male aggression it had propped up was in fact, absurd, a joke. Recent discourse has fueled an examination of gender expectations, of the traits we encourage in boys and men and cleared the way for a bounty of performances from actors in 2020, and hopefully beyond, that strip the conventions of manhood from the man to reveal a more fragile humanity. As evidenced in portrayals from legends of screen to rising stars, male leads are shedding dual cloaks of invincibility and eminence. After having won an Oscar almost three decades ago for his chilling portrayal of a serial killer who skinned his female victims, Anthony Hopkins’ much-awaited performance in The Father sees the veteran actor play an aging man struggling with dementia, in what many believe to be his best role. In the wildly anticipated The White Tiger, newcomer Adarsh Gourav spectacularly inhabits the role of a lower-caste servant in Delhi, giving the lie to the Bollywood hero. These lauded performances shine by evoking an everyman in place of a great one.
Crucially, in a year where Trumpian became an adjective associated with belligerent machismo, cinema’s most illuminating male roles have been performances from men who have spent their careers examining vulnerability. Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun and Chadwick Boseman delivered by leaning into limitations, giving male leads features beyond prominence and power to look to. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone in Darius Marder’s feature debut Sound of Metal, an Amazon release that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. As a drummer who suffers hearing loss in his prime years, Stone’s life comes apart as his deafness threatens to tear him apart from it. Steven Yeun is unforgettable as Jacob Yi in Lee Isaac Chung’s soon-to-be-released Sundance winner Minari. He plays a father of two struggling to build a life in 1980s rural America, turning in a devastating portrait of a man dogged by failure. The late, great Chadwick Boseman is a stirring picture of one man’s struggle in the film adaptation of Pulitzer-winning, Black playwright August Wilson’s work Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix release. As Levee, an ambitious sessions musician, Boseman embodies the painful contradictions that shroud the Black experience. In exposing body, mind and soul, this trifecta lead us to reconsider the twenty-first century hero.
In the opening moments of Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed electrifies. We see a man fully and completely at home in himself and in control of his body as he thrashes his drum set under the spotlights of a pulsing concert while a woman roars out a tune. Ruben is all virility; torso and biceps throwing themselves into the music while his soulful eyes and angular jaw register the song’s momentum. Ahmed, who learned how to drum for the scene, which was filmed during an actual concert, inhabits the role so completely that the punk-metal sounds take on a trance-like quality. In the next sequence. the trance continues, albeit at a more meditative pace. Ruben wakes up the following morning aside the singer, who we learn is his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). In their cramped but homey RV, he performs a well-worn routine – making breakfast, putting on the coffee machine, doing squats. The sound design, a rich complex world brought to us by Nicolas Becker (Gravity and many more), is constructed to make us feel like we are living inside Ruben’s head. We hear the whirr of the smoothie maker, the drip, drip, drip of the coffee, the crack of his knees, the swish of the needle as he turns on the record player. We are right there with him until he wakes Lou and internal and external coalesce.
In the film’s subsequent sequences, we become aware that Ruben is losing his hearing as a parallel sonic experience. The next day there is no drip from the coffee machine, voices become muffled, there is a deafening silence between his ears making that night’s gig unbearably disorienting. Interior and exterior become dissonant as Ruben, a heroin addict who has been clean for four years as he established a life on the road with Lou, comes to the terrifying realization that in losing his hearing he stands to lose an identity and a reality he has fought hard for. Lou convinces him to visit a rural, sober clinic for deaf people run by the kindly but stoic Joe – a role that hits close to home for actor Paul Raci, who himself is the hearing son of deaf parents. When Ruben lapses into a rage during the trip, Lou aware and afraid that Ruben is slipping back into a dangerous cycle, leaves him at the center to grapple with the decisions he must make. In a tearful goodbye, where he promises to return to her, it is clear that the man on the other side of this won’t be the same.
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