Oscars Combat: Jared Leto vs. Michael Fassbender

Chrisoph Waltz may have won the award, but for me the Best Supporting Actor in any 2012 movie was Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus,” as the human-hating android David. I won’t elaborate; The Flip Side has already covered “Prometheus,” and David, here, here, here, here and here. I’m a fan.

Fassbender’s character Epps in “12 Years a Slave” changes the rules a bit when we think of movie villains. David wasn’t truly evil because he was a goofy character in a goofy movie. No such person exists. Epps, though. Epps is real. He’s a villain whose darkness permeates. You watch him and wonder “Could anyone really be like that?” The answer is frightening.

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“Strike her, Platt! STRIKE HERRRR!!!!” Then the gun comes out. “You will strike her. You will strike her until the flesh is ripped, and the meat and blood flow equal, or I will kill every n—– in my sight. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME! STRIKE HER! STRIKE HERRRRRR!!!”

Epps conjures visceral danger. He’s often drunk. He believes both God and the law are on his side. “Sin?” he responds to Solomon Northup’s pleas for mercy on Patsy. “There is no sin. A man does how he pleases with his property.” He represents torture, rape and death, and not in the abstract.

I left “12 Years a Slave” thinking Fassbender was going to win an Oscar.

Yet here comes Jared Leto, clinging to the supsonic Matthew McConaughey spaceship as it exits our atmosphere. Leto plays Rayon, a transgender AIDS patient. He’s usually in drag. Like McConaughey, Leto lost a lot of weight for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Unlike McConaughey, Leto looks ripped rather than scarily skeleton-like. Rail-thinness almost suits him.

Rayon has a hard edge. She’s necessarily tough because of prejudice she faces daily, but Leto also channels femininity and sweetness as someone who wants to be a pretty girl. It’s a good performance.

But it isn’t Best-Supporting. Partly, I think, Leto isn’t served by a bold-artist director the way Fassbender is in “12 Years a Slave.” When Fassbender is screaming in Solomon’s face, the camera gets close enough for us to almost smell his boozy breath. When he’s sprinting after someone or stomping across his plantation, the shot moves back to encompass the entire set he’s devouring.

Leto doesn’t have the same physical challenges, but some dashes of art would have helped. When he tells his dad he has AIDS, for instance, the camera doesn’t get in close or do anything to accentuate this powerful experience. It holds him in a medium-long shot. Rayon is wearing a suit (men’s clothes, which he hates).

“It wasn’t a choice, dad,” Rayon says of becoming the person his father seems so repulsed by. “Long time no see.”

“I suppose I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes, and not embarassing me.”

“Are you ashamed of me, because I hadn’t realized that.”

“Huuuuh. God help me.”

“He is helping you. I have AIDS.”

He stares at his dad from across the desk and he’s vibrating and his head’s bobbing a bit. He starts crying and apologizes.

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It’s all on Leto to pull this off, and as good as he is he never quite transcends the material like McConaughey does. The tricky part of being in a movie that’s all talking is that you have to—duh—keep talking. McConaughey finds a rhythm and holds on as it ebbs. I think I can see Leto working. He nailed the part, but he didn’t master it. There’s a difference.

Leto’s nomination is the start of something. He’s been a recognizable face in TV, music and movies. Now he’s a star, with Oscar cred.

Fassbender’s performance is the next step up for a brilliant actor who already deserved one of these. To be that scary is mastery. If he doesn’t win, I’ll always think he should have.

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