Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hey Girl, Why doesn't the Academy love me like I love you?

Figure freaking A.
All right, now I'm pissed. By my reckoning, the Academy owes Ryan Gosling four nominations and counting. Since 2006's Half Nelson (for which he was nominated), he has appeared in Lars and the Real Girl and Blue Valentine, not to mention Ides of March and Drive this year alone. What's up, Oscars? Gosling too pretty for you?

Actually, I think that's part of the problem. Actors like Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio had a hard time being taken seriously until they got older, and they shared the same sort of ethereal beauty of face (rather than the more rugged handsomeness of a young Paul Newman or Marlon Brando) currently displayed by the thirty-one-year-old Gosling [see Figure A]. But this isn't a gushing tribute to the flawless planes of Ryan Gosling's face, this is a rant, and I think that what he does with that face (and that body) is more interesting than anything Redford, Pitt, or DiCaprio did, or are doing, with their pulchritudinous gifts from a generous god.

Gosling acts with an awareness of his physical self that I haven't seen matched since the early work of Al Pacino. It's not just that he's cognizant of his remarkable good looks, but more so that his performances are saturated with the way human beings communicate through their bodies and faces. A good point of comparison is another actor with a face that makes one question agnosticism: George Clooney. Clooney (also a good bit older than Gosling) takes roles in which his handsomeness is crucial to his character, but also an obstacle to that character's self-actualization. His roles in Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, and even The Descendants are all men who in some ways have been blessed with a disarming physical presence that allows them to get away with things that mere mortals cannot, and each character's arc is in some ways a reckoning with that cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card. Ryan Gosling doesn't choose those same sorts of roles, nor does he make his handsomeness a grotesque mask, as Brad Pitt did in Twelve Monkeys, or even, in a way, Fight Club.

Rather, he shows a remarkable capacity for hollowing out his features, giving his face and body a studied blankness that is shaped and formed by the role he's playing as he's playing it. This is most apparent in Blue Valentine, where his character ages from a cute kid to a slightly gone-to-seed man, but it also happens in his latest stand-out performances: Ides of March and Drive. I've gone to bat for Ides already, so let me focus on the latter. The man he plays in Drive has no stable signifiers whatsoever: He hardly speaks, he has no steady occupation, no personal history, no name for heaven's sake. Our connection with the character depends entirely on Ryan Gosling's physical self, and he pulls it off. A widening of the eyes, a tilting of the head, a clenching of the fist. These gestures flesh out (pun intended) the development and inner life of a character who does not, to put it mildly, always act in a sympathetic manner, and who is portrayed as at least part machine.

This sort of thing isn't easy, Academy! I know Ryan Gosling is prettier than the law allows, but it's time he won something other than a MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Though I will admit I enjoyed his acceptance of that honor a great deal.

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