Ford v Ferrari seems to be mostly talked about in awards circles for its tremendous craft work and lead performance by Christian Bale as great racer Ken Miles. Which, in my mind, is a narrow view of the film’s many pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, the crafts are indeed outstanding. The sound design, cinematography, production design, and editing all work in a beautiful symmetry to make the audience feel as if they’re literally in those pulsing, speeding cars. And Bale is as great as he usually is.
But one cog in the great wheel that is Ford v Ferrari is the great, unsung performance by Tracy Letts. In fact, his performance may be one of the most underrated turns by an actor this year, and I urge voting members of the Academy to take a second (or even a third) look at what Letts does in the film. He’s absolutely as critical to its success as leads Bale and Matt Damon.
Tracy Letts is best known for his immense contributions to the theater world. Raised as an actor in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, Letts received a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his masterpiece play August: Osage County. He also received a Tony Award for playing George in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Given his extensive background in the theater, naturally, his performances in film and in television feel muted by comparison to his broader, larger-than-life counterparts. He creates smaller, tightly wound performances.
Perhaps that’s why his work in Ford v Ferrari has gone relatively unnoticed in awards circles. I would also argue that he, among others, suffers from the curse of lead performances masquerading in the supporting races. So many big-named actors this year have arguably given lead performances but are being campaigned in the less crowded supporting races. The side effect of this category fraud is that truly great, truly supporting, performances are pushed aside.
That’s the case with Tracy Letts.
Letts shines as Henry Ford II, the grandson of legendary American innovator Henry Ford. Initially, Letts plays the white guy heavy, the white face of the 1960s Ford corporate environment. His first scene, in fact, is a stereotypical one in which he addresses the underprivileged workers in a Ford assembly line. Things are bad. Times are tough. Their jobs are on the line, even the middle-tier white executives. On the surface, there’s nothing overwhelming about Letts’s early scenes. They’re completely within his range as an actor – the white face of upper management threatening cost-cutting (people-cutting) measures to save a buck. Although if you do want to see what great, subtle acting is all about, watch the scene where Ford demands to know what the people at Ferrari said about him. Just watch what he does with his eyes there.
But you need the earlier factory sequence and this character of Henry Ford II to make the film sing. It sets up a beautifully executed sequence later in the film in which Letts undoes the character.
Halfway through the film, Matt Damon (playing Carroll Shelby) and Bale are threatened by establishment forces embodied by Letts and Josh Lucas (playing Leo Beebe) who deem their experimental Ford racing vehicle too risky and expensive. Letts’s Henry Ford II has become too far removed from the blood, sweat and tears of the car industry. He’s obsessed with numbers and the minutiae of running a major corporation. Shelby knows how to win this fight, though. He has to pull Ford back into the beating heart of this world, behind the wheel of a very fast car. By doing that, Shelby thinks he can keep the operation going.
So, Shelby pulls Ford into the prototype car, buckles him in, and takes him for a ride. And what a ride it is.
Carroll Shelby: You ready?
Henry Ford II: I was born ready, Mr. Shelby. Hit it.
The scene is brilliantly filmed as an interior scene with as few exterior shots as possible. That’s exactly the right way to handle it because Letts carries this scene brilliantly. It’s the only way it would work. Letts’s Ford – shocked by the speed of the vehicle, thrilled by its turns, and probably scared out of his mind – breaks down into a sobbing child. The veneer of the heartless corporate executive has worn away, worn away by good old fashion American ingenuity and drive. And a really fast fucking car.
At a Q&A in Los Angeles, Matt Damon was asked whether or not it was difficult to stay in character and avoid laughing during this scene. Damon said he was so wrapped up in watching the transformation it that never occurred to him to laugh. This is high praise.
Letts’s performance gives us a stripped away Henry Ford II. The number crunching erodes into an emotional appreciation for what Americans can do focusing their best minds on a problem. It’s a Henry Ford who experiences something he more powerful than he ever could have imagined. It’s a Henry Ford reduced to the primal sensations that make up the human experience – fear, love, excitement, and sadness. It’s an experience that, when it’s over, Letts’s Henry Ford wishes he could have shared with his grandfather.
Ford v Ferrari is a classically made and acted American film. Among many things, it’s a story about American greatness – about truly making America Great Again – not through useless slogans or jingoistic attitudes. It’s about winning through hard work and problem solving. It’s about changing the minds of those staid individuals who say, “No, you can’t,” when our heroes (in this case, Shelby and Miles) say, “Yes, we can.”
Tracy Letts deserves an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor because he embodies that mind shift away from the cold, calculating world of corporate American values toward the rubber-hitting-the-road greatness of old-fashioned American bad ass race cars.
What could be more American than that?