Last night’s screening of Fences has stayed with me long past the point I expected it to. Its characters and language have lodged themselves inside my head and my heart and I find myself thinking about them, remembering things they said, unforgettable moments. Though Fences is distinctly a piece of theater, the actors make it a piece of cinema. All of the performances are outstanding — and I mean all of them. But it’s hard to walk away from Fences without thinking about Denzel Washington maybe winning his third Oscar for this exceptional performance. What sort of dawned on me as I woke up very early this morning still thinking about him was how interesting it is that both Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea have given us two of the best performances of the year, and what they have in common.
The first thing to know about Denzel Washington’s Troy in Fences is that we just don’t see characters of this kind of complexity much anymore. We don’t see them because in many ways younger audiences need more of a literal interpretation of good and bad so that they can categorize them the way they see fit. Good man, bad man, hero, loser, rapist, victim. We seem less comfortable dwelling in the area of what most people really are — a little bit of everything. A struggle against bad things, a fight for good things. Most people are flawed, with mistakes in their past. Movies, though, movies tend to take away much of that internal conflict because it’s just easier to have them be archetypes who won’t let us down.
Both characters in these two films, arguably the Best Actor frontrunners, are fathers. Both have been tasked with the enormous responsibility of taking care of a family — a wife and kids. Working, bringing home the paycheck and keeping them safe. It’s interesting to see how these two films, and these two roles, tackle that idea of keeping the family unit safe. So yes, in Fences, Troy must carry the legacy and burden of slavery passed down a couple of generations by then, that still looms as a dark force, still an oppressive force. Troy is unkind to his children because he himself was raised that way. The conflict of Fences, beautifully written as it is, is how your children become better than you, in spite of you sometimes. Whereas in Manchester by the Sea, a conflicted, damaged man simply can’t live with a mistake he made, can’t move beyond it, despite how much those around him root for him to do just that.
And of course, there is Joel Edgerton who plays a white man in the deep South whose wife is black and whose children are mixed race. In trying to preserve and protect his family, he has to face the dangers of confrontation and fears of change. When he’s arrested, it is then up to his wife, Ruth Negga, to fight for justice and acceptance. Likewise, in Fences, it falls to Rose to hold the family together, including Troy’s children by other mothers, and Troy’s brother Gabriel. In Manchester by the Sea, it is ultimately up to Michelle Williams, as his wife, to try to reach in and bring Affleck’s Lee back from the brink. Flawed men often need heroic women.
Some may call these men failures as fathers, failures as men. But what stands out to me is that they are fathers, or in Manchester’s case, father figures — flawed, destructive, but not evil. I started thinking about other performances this year that might fit with this theme. Chris Pine in Hell or High Water plays a father who is trying to save his family’s farm by robbing the same bank that threatens to take his farm because of a crappy loan. There is Warren Beatty in Rules Don’t Apply whose through-line is that of a man who realizes far too late that the good stuff in life, the worthwhile stuff, is about the children you bring into the world.
Beyond that, however, Best Actor this season tends to dwell in the more traditional zone of heroic figures, with Tom Hanks giving one of his best performances in Sully, Andrew Garfield playing a pacifist doctor in Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Gosling, a brooding jazz musician in La La Land, Robert De Niro in The Comedian, and whomever else will be considered for the top five slots.
But I suspect that the race could be down to Washington and Affleck, two very flawed father figures. Washington’s performance is a towering one. It will be talked about for years to come. Actors will go to school on it. The only thing that will prevent him from winning is that he’s won twice. Otherwise, this would not be a contest.
Current Best Actor predictions:
1. Denzel Washington, Fences
2. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
3. Warren Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply
4. Joel Edgerton, Loving
5. Tom Hanks, Sully
Spoilers: Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge or Silence, Robert De Niro, The Comedian, Ryan Gosling in La La Land