Wish List: Brendan Gleeson – Best Actor for “Calvary”
“Wish List” is an ongoing column that explores our hopes and desires for the yearly onslaught that is awards season, while also occasionally looking back and fantasizing a rewrite of years past.
Someone had better give Brendan Gleeson the recognition he deserves this year for his work as Father James in John Michael McDonagh’s bleak, tragicomic “Calvary.” If there is any justice at all, he’ll at least be nominated. Of course it’s early, and there will be more and probably higher profile competition, but this is a wish list, and it’s the perfect time for Gleeson to actually win.
A character actor more frequently cast in a supporting role, Gleeson takes front and center stage in this film, the spotlight on him the entire time. He is one of those actors whose name you may not know, but when you see him you think, “oh yeah – that guy.” A go-to for period pieces because of his rugged looks and Irish accent (everyone has an accent in a period piece, even American ones; if we go by the movies, Americans didn’t lose their ancestral British accent until the 1920s or so, but I digress), he is also commonly used as an authority figure in contemporary Hollywood fare and/or as the comic relief. Regardless of the role, the amount of screen time, or the quality of the film, Gleeson is always memorable.
All of which speaks to Gleeson’s talent. One need only examine the two recent films he’s made with John Michael McDonagh: “The Guard” from 2011, and now this year’s “Calvary.” Both are lead roles and the two couldn’t be more different – yet Gleeson owns each of them thoroughly. In “The Guard” Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a cop in a small Irish town who gets caught up in a U.S. federal investigation into drug smuggling. It’s a largely comic role as Boyle comes off as a rube meddling with a haughty American FBI agent (played by Don Cheadle) who thinks Boyle is in over his head. But Boyle may or may not be as ignorant as he seems and Gleeson walks the line with such subtlety that even by the end you’re never really sure if he was playing dumb the whole time or just got lucky. It’s a testament to Gleeson that he never tips his hand either way.
In contrast, Gleeson’s Father James in “Calvary” is the straight man role – perhaps the only sane person in another small Irish town, this time teeming with hypocrites, misanthropes, and at least one future murderer who, during confession, vows to kill Father James in the opening scene. We never know who that person is (until the end) but as Father James goes about his business of trying to keep the faith and bring some peace to this troubled community, we realize that it could be any of them. Father James takes the threat in stride, even in the face of knowing that the sole motive for his potential murder is that he’s a good priest.
A good priest doesn’t pass judgment and it’s true that Father James is good at what he does, even more impressive because he wasn’t always a priest. As parishioner after parishioner insults, reviles, and generally spits venom at Father James, he remains calm, patient, forgiving. Gleeson wears it all on his face. This is not a showy performance, and it doesn’t need to be – because Gleeson has a great face and he’s able to say more with just a look than some actors could with all the grand gestures in the world.
Sometimes awards go to actors who have long deserved them, as a kind of career recognition for all they’ve done – even if their current film isn’t necessarily their best. Well, Gleeson’s been around for a while, he never disappoints, and this is a performance that may actually be his best so far. So it wouldn’t even be a charity award. It wouldn’t be because he’s a big star who dared to do something different. It wouldn’t be because his role or the film was “important.” Just as Gleeson makes the complexity of “Calvary” look so easy, giving him an award would be just as simple – Best Actor, for the best acting.
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