It was supposed to “happen” for Stephen Dorff a long time ago. Way back in 1992, to be precise. At the tender age of 18, Dorff was cast as the lead in movie that checked a hell of a lot of boxes. The Power of One was a boxing movie direct by the helmer of Rocky, John G. Avildsen. It took place in South Africa during World War II under the shadow of Apartheid. The film starred Morgan Freeman, Armin-Mueller-Stahl, John Gielgud, and a then unknown Daniel Craig. Once again, who was the star of that movie? Stephen Dorff. Name above the title, first in line.
Dorff even won something called the Young Artist Award as “Best Young Actor in a Motion Picture.” And no, I don’t what that is either and I’m pretty sure it’s no longer a thing. Still, it sounds good. Here’s the problem: the movie wasn’t any good. Even in the 90s, when white savior movies were more palatable, the critics savaged a film about a young white boy inspiring a nation of oppressed black people. To make matters worse, no one showed up for it at the turnstiles either.
Morgan Freeman has been quoted as saying, the film “wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be.” Clearly, Morgan had been practicing his understatements for the moment he would be asked about The Power of One.
Two years later, in the early years Beatles depiction, Backbeat, Dorff was terrific as their first bassist, Stu Sutcliffe. The film followed Sutcliffe’s brief dalliance with pop music history, his friendship with John Lennon (a terrific Ian Hart), and his girlfriend Astrid (well played by Sheryl Lee). It was fantastic, and so was Dorff. And no-damn-body saw it.
It got a bit dark for Dorff after that. Sure, he popped up in I Shot Andy Warhol, starred with Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine in the criminally underseen (once again) Blood and Wine, and played the villain in the first Blade movie. None of it really got him anywhere.
If that was the dark period, what came next was pitch black. No less than a dozen years of forgettable fare like Deuces Wild, Cold Creek Manor, and .45 followed. 2009 gave him a small part in Michael Mann’s fantastic Public Enemies, and even better, the next year brought him a starring role in Sophia Coppola’s small gem Somewhere. A fine film about a disenchanted Hollywood actor reconnecting with his 11-year-old daughter (a wonderful Elle Fanning). It’s a lovely movie that once again, you guessed it, no one saw.
Roll another nine years of nondescript credits.
Until True Detective.
This third season of True Detective from creator Nic Pizzolatto was hoped to be a comeback from season 2, which took a serious beating from critics. Confession: I’m in the minority that thinks season 2 was pretty damn good. Yeah, we’re out there. We’re just really quiet. Anyway, season 3 with the great Mahershala Ali brought it home after a slow burn. Unlike the first season built around two great actors (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), or season two – which was more of an ensemble piece, season three was centered around the character of Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays. Ali was easily the biggest name on this season’s roster, and he was everything you would hope him to be.
He had a partner though. Roland West. And Roland West was played by a never better Stephen Dorff. Alternately droll and tragic, Dorff was the colorful counterpart to Ali’s tightly-wound and forlorn “Purple” Hays. As good as Dorff is in the seven episodes that lead up to True Detective’s stellar conclusion, it’s that final episode where Dorff steps all the way into greatness. He has a remarkable scene in a biker bar where he hilariously picks a fight with a massive leather-jacketed beast of a man knowing that even though he can handle that big hoss, that fella’s buddies are going to batter him into submission. He does this because he believes he needs punishment for the failure to solve a horrendous case involving the death of one child and the disappearance of another. It’s the kind of a scene that plays on multiple levels – comedy, drama, and tragedy. Only an actor in top gear could take hold of a scene like that. And Dorff is gangbusters.
He’s great everywhere else in the finale too. Whether he’s consoling Hays as an older man battling dementia and still trying to solve the cold case that haunts them both. When he and Hays hit the road in an effort to close the loop on the mystery despite being retired and well into their social security and Medicare years, Hays turns to West and asks him what they’ll do if someone questions their authority while they are “acting” as officers of the law. Without missing a beat, West deadpans, “We’ll say we’re old…and confused.” Dorff’s delivery is so casually on the money that I’m laughing about it while I’m writing this out now. It could have been a throwaway. A nothing line. Not the way Dorff does it.
This season of True Detective has been hailed by critics as a return to the form of the classic first season. A comeback, if you will. You’ll get no argument from me that this season was tremendous. But the comeback I saw onscreen was that of an actor who was once upon a time targeted as the next big thing. It’s probably too late for the 45-year-old actor to become that which he once might have been – a star. What True Detective has proven is that he has become something special – something more: a great actor.
Which is why I would implore Emmy voters to nominate him as best supporting actor for the third season of True Detective. He is an actor in full bloom. And here’s the thing: This time, it looks like he’s actually been seen.