In all the post-Oscar celebration and hangovers, I would like us all to pause for a moment and remember Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar this year and few noticed. It was almost as if the world saw it as a pat on the head, a recognition that Aragorn, son of Arathorn, could act without hobbits. "Oh yeah -- that guy. He was in Lord of the Rings. Huh."
This was an amazing year for dramas -- but perhaps unfortunate for Eastern Promises, which would have screamed Best Picture-Director-Actor in a Coen-less year. Cronenberg delivered a film as haunting and claustrophobic as a Russian novel, and no one even remembered. A year of such incredible films should be celebrated, but how do we manage to lose one by Cronenberg along the way?
And with that film's blink-and-you-miss-it buzz (and it received almost nothing but rave reviews), Mortensen's incredible performance was lost. Mortensen is about as Daniel Day as you can get. To prepare for his role as Nikolai, Mortensen traveled alone to Russia, lost himself up in the Siberian region to learn his character's regional accent, and met real Russian criminals. He studied the vory v zakone, the tattoos, the body language. With his knack for languages, he picked up Russian and Ukrainian. He decorated his trailer with Russian icons and even managed to score a once-in-a-lifetime prop, a set of worry beads made in a Russian prison from melted cigarette lighters. He can be seen flipping them as his vory v zakone stars are tattooed on, as well as his haunting final shot.
So complete was the transformation that when he left the set, with his hair still slicked back and his tattoos prominent, he was mistaken for the real thing on the streets of London.
Mortensen's performance had the misfortune to go up against Daniel Day Lewis, but you think he still could have earned a bit of buzz. Even Day Lewis was acutely aware of the snub as they did the red carpet rounds -- would they have dared to openly dismiss George Clooney to his face? The man did a vicious fight scene completely naked, surely that deserves a dark horse mention?
It was uncharacteristic of Mortensen to embrace the awards at all. He was dismissive of the Oscar hype surrounding The Return of the King and has decidedly removed himself from mainstream Hollywood. Accolades do not seem to interest him. But he was quite vocal this year in praising Cronenberg and criticizing the media for ignoring the film come awards time. On his website, Perceval Press, Mortensen wrote: "As the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award ceremony is this Sunday in London, and the movie Eastern Promises is nominated for Best British Film, I take this opportunity to thank and salute the incomparable David Cronenberg and his entire team for the beautiful professional work done to tell this story. Since our movie unfortunately did not receive (much deserved, in my opinion) nominations for Directing or Best Picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars), this seems like an appropriate moment to say goodbye and wish continued good travelling to all involved.
Win or lose, this movie is unique and will stand the test of time as a thought-provoking and finely-crafted piece of storytelling. History will show that David Cronenberg has been the rare top-level movie director that has improved from project to project, decade after decade, and never really looked back. There is no director alive in the world today who is working at a higher level technically, artistically, philosophically, or in terms of consistently delivering stories as entertaining as they are unsettling. A master. They do not come along very often, and some of us have taken note. There are many among our actors and technical crew who also ought to have been recognised by the various prize-giving organisations for the excellence of their creative contributions. Their exclusion takes nothing away from their enduring accomplishments. I am proud to represent our team just a little longer."
He tried, but no one really cared. Maybe I just move in different circles, but I consider Mortensen to be a pretty big name. And yet he looked rather sad and lost on that red carpet -- the media didn't seem to know what to make of his appearance. Maybe it was that scary wild man beard he was sporting, or his lack of a date. (Mortensen was accompanied by his niece, Sidney.) Either way, everyone seemed to be praying they wouldn't have to interview him. "Oh no, what is he up for? I don't remember. Isn't he the guy from Lord of the Rings?"
And so while he graces the cover of Men's Vogue this month, Mortensen's performance in Eastern Promises is doomed to be forgotten and rediscovered in ten years. I hope this is the first of many nominations for him, but I wonder if he's destined to be another Peter O'Toole, turning in a legendary performance year after year, only to walk away empty handed. Thankfully, performances live on longer than the award ceremonies -- and in the end, perhaps an Oscar is just, to borrow a line from Mortensen's Nikolai, "sentimental value."