The young actor’s vulnerability and nuance deserve recognition.
The Oscars are a lot like family dinner at Thanksgiving: both American traditions involve heaps of anticipation as well as begrudging attempts to lower expectations, and both leave many with a vague stomach ache and the feeling that everyone else is wrong. Unfortunately for most movie lovers, the most-anticipated award show of the season is also known for sharing the holiday’s over-reliance on comfort food. Thus, the award season deification of Gary Oldman’s physical transformation and embodiment of Winston Churchill’s mannerisms in Darkest Hour–easily the least interesting of this year’s best picture nominees–comes as little surprise. Biopics and visibly transformative roles have long been accepted as Oscar bait: four of the past seven best picture winners were historical dramas.
Two of the other best actor nominees, Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington, feel like actors for whom the academy has all but reserved a spot each year. Though their frequent inclusion doesn’t negate their considerable talent, it does make for a less exciting race. On the occasions where actors do seem to be nominated based on name rather than performance quality–as with Washington’s batty, lifeless turn in Roman J. Israel, Esq.–it’s hard not to be bitter about the deserving performers whose spots the Academy gave away the sake of familiarity.
Day-Lewis’ performance as Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock is as smooth and satisfying as that of a well-oiled machine, and made more effective by endless press coverage framing the film as containing his final onscreen role (I don’t doubt Day-Lewis’ will to retire, but rather his or any actor’s ability to stay retired). In a pleasant surprise, the nominees are rounded out by two relative newcomers, providing much-needed fresh blood in a category that almost always rewards seasoned actors. Daniel Kaluuya, who has actually been putting in work on screen for over a decade, delivered a breakout performance in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The film has rightfully become a part of the zeitgeist, but Kaluuya’s low-key performance as laid-back but wary Chris is only one element of many that made the film work so spectacularly.
So that leaves Timothée Chalamet. Most moviegoers first saw the 22-year-old actor inhabiting the role of a cool yet insufferable hipster in Lady Bird, then as himself, joyously star-struck and overeager while navigating his first award season circuit before his most buzzed-about film even hit theaters. I’ll admit, before seeing Call Me By Your Name I wasn’t initially impressed by these first two iterations of Timothée. But then I met Elio.
As the lovestruck teenager leading viewers through Luca Guadagnino’s lush adaptation of the novel of the same name, Chalamet commands the screen through pure, at times uncomfortable vulnerability. With a thin frame that courts the line between scrawniness and sexiness, and eyes capable of conveying emotions so muddled that they can’t be described with words, Chalamet is a physical revelation for a filmmaker whose stories thrive on the vitality, the inherent romance of the human form. Guadagnino’s film is above all sensual, tactile, and it’s clear that Chalamet is willing to bear every part of himself–from his tear-stained eyelashes to his summer-ready bare feet–to make Elio come to life.
Elio’s infatuation is reflected in every aspect of the film, from Sufjan Stevens’ ethereal soundtrack to Guadagnino’s and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s character framing, which pushes and pulls the two lovers within the frame like a hypnotic pair of magnets. All of Call Me By Your Name’s elements work in tandem to create the overall impression of butterflies in one’s stomach, beating their wings so hard it aches. And Chalamet’s performance, enriched by these elements but not dependent on them, makes the whole dreamy endeavor work by capturing each embarrassing and sincere facet of young lovesickness.
As Elio, Chalamet is as raw and unvarnished as Day-Lewis is precise and polished. If Day-Lewis’ performance is most at home in a perfectly arranged still shot a la Paul Thomas Anderson, it only makes sense that Chalamet’s exists in a sun-soaked blend of verisimilitude and near-fantasy, an artsy, lackadaisical version of Italy that seems ready-made for long-ago lovers. In Chalamet’s hands, each appearance of Elio–checking his watch in anticipation of a midnight rendezvous, smelling his forbidden crush’s swim trunks, forcefully scrawling down his feelings on a pad of paper and then abandoning it–feels as painful and familiar as revisiting an old diary entry.
First love and first heartbreak are tough things to represent on screen. Biopics can harness all of history as a guidebook, and genre films play with tropes established by their predecessors, but there’s no blueprint for the human heart. We so often get love and youth wrong on screen. Even some of the best coming-of-age films feel more like an echo of an experience than an experience itself, a mash-up of signifiers that don’t lead to a signified. So when a film like Call Me By Your Name comes along, and the feeling its young star evokes is immediate and accessible, it’s worth your attention. And when Timothée Chalamet’s final scene phone call leaves you feeling gut-punched, transported back to some memory of tearful vulnerability in your own life–when he manages to pull down the screen that divides him and you so that it feels like us, together without artifice in this fresh heartbreak–that’s something worth awarding.