Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is one of the best films of the year and Oscar Isaac gives an incredible performance as the title character. He is responsible for carrying the emotional weight of the film while remaining unaffected and cynical on the surface. At times both painfully funny and tragically poignant, Isaac’s performance and the direction of the Coen brothers are perfect examples of subtlety and of experts excelling at their respective crafts. That neither the movie nor the performance received Academy Award nominations* this year are ridiculous oversights. The self-congratulatory Oscar proceedings are flawed and generally stupid, but instead of ripping the Academy for once again blowing it, I want to celebrate their ignorance and the ways in which it actually elevates the film and particularly the performance of Oscar Isaac.
I first noticed Oscar Isaac in an ensemble movie called 10 Years (2011), a high-school reunion film starring and produced by Channing Tatum. Isaac had already established himself as a solid supporting actor in films like Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), but his performance in 10 Years stands out for the same reason he is so resonant in Inside Llewyn Davis. He plays a minor pop star returning for his ten-year reunion with his friends and seeking to reignite his relationship with the obligatory ‘one that got away’ (played by the always-enjoyable Kate Mara). The movie itself is pleasantly forgettable, but when Isaac confesses his love in the climactic scene it becomes clear that he is more than your typical character actor. He has a soulful voice that gives even the cheesy ‘Best I Ever Had’ some credibility. Watching the movie again, the seeds for his performance in Llewyn Davis are clearly visible.
The Coen brothers wrote and directed Inside Llewyn Davis and based the title character (loosely) on Dave von Ronk, a New York musician who never reached the popularity of his peers (Bob Dylan, Guthrie Thomas, Joni Mitchell, and Peter, Paul and Mary to name a few), but who had an enormous impact on the folk music movement of the 1960’s. Isaac played and sang his own music for the movie, and it gives the character a sense of authenticity that might have lacked with a different actor. Whether he is on stage alone, going into the booth with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver, or singing a heartfelt ballad to his father, Isaac’s unique abilities as a musician inform and heighten his performance as an actor.
All actors and filmmakers work to create beautiful, lasting art and would love to be recognized by the Academy Awards for that effort. But there is a long and storied history of breakthrough, genius performances being overlooked or underappreciated in their respective times. Martin Scorsese immediately leaps to mind as a Director who was better known for his snubs than for his victories, before eventually winning for The Departed in 2006. Alfred Hitchcock was never awarded a Best Director Oscar in his storied career despite four nominations. Great actors including Jeff Daniels, Alan Rickman, Meg Ryan and Mia Farrow were never even nominated.
This is not to say that Isaac will never win an Oscar. I am fully convinced that he will go on to earn nominations and awards in whatever films he chooses to make in the future (he has projects in line with Departed screenwriter William Monahan and 28 Days Later… (2002) writer Alex Garland). The Coens have done quite well already, and will certainly continue to earn accolades as long as they choose to make films. The beauty of the snub in this case is that the film is so clearly excellent, the story so well done and the acting as strong, that people will be appreciating it for years to come. That it was not nominated for an Oscar gives Inside Llewyn Davis instant ‘cult-status’ credibility, and it though it may limit the total number of people who see the movie, it could lead to a deeper appreciation in the future.
So congratulations on your respective snubs, Oscar Isaac and Inside Llewyn Davis.