Michael Stuhlbarg is the Supporting Actor to Appreciate Most in This Year’s Awards Season Fare
This cinematic awards season kind of feels like an onslaught of the same (white, male) faces. Watch enough of the most critically adored films of the year and you’ll see the same people popping up, including:
• Bradley Whitford in Get Out and The Post
• Nick Searcy in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water
• Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, and Hostiles
• Jesse Plemons in Hostiles and The Post
• Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
• Caleb Landry Jones in Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
There is a noticeable amount of white guy overlap in these ensemble films this year, but much of it is solid. [SPOILERS FOR SOME OF THOSE MOVIES AHEAD] Jordan Peele casting West Wing do-gooder Whitford as a racist patriarch in Get Out was obviously a masterstroke in a brilliant film that was Pajiba’s best of 2017. That final shot of Chalamet fighting back tears to Sufjan Stevens’s “Visions of Gideon” is a gorgeous way to end Call Me By Your Name; similarly moving is Hedges collapsing into Saoirse Ronan’s arms in Lady Bird as he begs her not to out him. Jones’s twitchy energy is the first sign that something is deeply wrong in Get Out, while Plemons’s calm authoritativeness, even as he pokes holes in whether Ben Bradlee should publish the Pentagon Papers, make him a shockingly likeable lawyer in The Post.
These are all familiar faces, and props to their agents, who are clearly working overtime to get them in the right rooms to read for the right parts. But I don’t think any of them compare to Michael Stuhlbarg, who appears in Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, and The Post, with sizable roles in the first two and a particular purpose in the third, and who is flat-out perfect in all three. Of all the actors pulling double and triple duty this awards season, Stuhlbarg is the one doing the most across all the films he’s in, making Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, and The Post all better because he’s in them. [Aside: Do I think he should win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, though? No. In a just world, that would go to Jason Mitchell for Mudbound, my pick for best movie of 2017, which I worry will continue to get overlooked because it’s a Netflix release. And that’s the very briefest of my grumbling about that.]
Anyway, you’ve seen Stuhlbarg before: His supporting turn as the gambler Arnold Rothstein in the increasingly exhausting Boardwalk Empire was an excellent mix of threatening and bemused, he was a regular in the latest divisive season of FX’s Fargo, and he’s popped up in one prestigious film after another, whether it was Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln or Danny Boyle’s and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs or Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo or Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead or Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival or Jessica Chastain’s Miss Sloane. He’s a slow talker with wonderfully expressive eyes; he can convey sympathetic patience, as he did as a film expert befriending a movie-loving orphan in Hugo, or a no-nonsense assassin, as he did with a cameo in Seven Psychopaths. Stuhlbarg possesses phenomenal range in a way that never seems show-offy, and his turns in Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water seem simultaneously naturalistic and emotionally generous.
In Call Me By Your Name, Stuhlbarg (giving off strong Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting vibes, with slicked-back hair and an exuberant beard) plays the father of Chalamet’s Elio, an archeology professor who invites graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) to stay with his family in the Italian countryside for a summer. Mr. Perlman has a gentle touch: He is often encouraging Elio and Oliver to spend time together, taking them on a trip to view submerged sculptures in a nearby town, but he is interested in his son as an individual, too, urging him to spend time composing and refusing to let him exhibit any kind of prejudice or snottiness. “You’re too old not to accept people for who they are,” he tells Elio when the teen seems to mock a gay couple who are friends with Mr. Perlman and his wife, and notes that with his jokes about the couple, “the only person that reflects badly on is you.” He’s kind about correcting Elio (“It is because they’re gay, or because they’re ridiculous?” he asks his son) but firm about it, telling his son that with open-mindedness and acceptance, Elio will be “a credit to me.” He gives Elio space to explore who he is, but won’t let that journey include disrespecting or harming others. It’s a brief conversation that makes clear the kind of father Mr. Perlman has been, and will continue to be.
The Stuhlbarg standout of the film comes later, when Oliver has returned to the United States and a clearly heartbroken Elio has been moping around, not eating and not interacting with anyone. Mr. Perlman (reading a book and smoking a cigarette on a leather couch in his gorgeous office, a combination that totally makes sense for a humanities professor living in Europe in the 1980s) initiates a conversation with Elio that at first seems somewhat generic (“You two had a nice friendship … how rare, how special,” he says), but their exchange slowly becomes more intimate and more honest, a demonstration of not only Mr. Perlman’s unconditional love for his clearly struggling son but of Stuhlbarg’s exquisite compassion as an actor.
Director Luca Guadagnino first composes the scene with Mr. Perlman on one end of the couch and Elio on the other, but as they continue talking—as the father tells his son “You were both lucky to have found each other, because you two are good”—Elio moves closer to his father and Guadagnino switches the perspective so that we see Mr. Perlman from Elio’s point of view and Elio from Mr. Perlman’s, both head-on, instead of from the distant doorway. That closeness gives us a better look at Stuhlbarg’s face as he delivers Mr. Perlman’s words of love and support to his son, as he maintains eye contact and speaks slowly and deliberately and tells him that he knew about Elio and Oliver’s affair and that he hopes that lost love won’t decay Elio, but will open his life up further: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste. … Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it—and with it, the joy you felt.”
Every so often, the film cuts back to Elio, watching his father and holding back tears, but the scene is all Stuhlbarg’s: The steady way he delivers his speech, so principled and composed in the guidance and affection he provides to his son; his final smile of reassurance to Elio, an invitation for his son to be whomever he wants to be; and the way he leans over to close the final distance between them, to rub his son’s hair and to breach that last gap. Stuhlbarg projects profundity and wisdom at the most important moment of the film for his character, and he nails it.
He has a similar sort of balancing act in The Shape of Water, playing a Russian physician and scientist, Dimitri, going undercover as American Dr. Bob Hoffstetler in the Baltimore Occam Aerospace Research Center, tasked with learning more about the “Asset,” the mysterious underwater animal stolen from its native habitat by the violent, fascistic Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). In the Cold War environment of the 1960s, Dimitri’s Soviet handlers want him to extract the creature and send it back to the USSR for research and testing, while on the American side, Strickland hates the thing and wants to torture it more than he wants to learn from it. For Dimitri, though, an initial curiosity in the creature gives way to a sort of wonder, an understanding that this being—with its ability to communicate and its attachment to Sally Hawkins’s mute janitor Elisa—is worthy of more than being a glorified lab rat for either the Soviets or the Americans.
As a double agent, Dimitri/Bob has to police his emotions at all times, and Stuhlbarg does this thing with his face where he holds his mouth in a perpetual half-smirk, slightly upturned on the left-hand side, like he’s giving himself a head start toward fully smiling or fully frowning, depending on the identity he’s portraying at the time. He keeps his eyes wide but somewhat blank; he speaks neutrally and politely; he rarely gives any sort of true emotion away. It’s only when others refuse to truly see the Asset in the same way he does that his feelings get the better of him, and Stuhlbarg demonstrates those slips in composure quite well. There’s a trace of yearning and desperation when he tells his Soviet handler, “It responds to language, music. Will you please pass that up also?”, and disgust when the man then speaks lustfully of eating a lobster, “so soft and sweet”—another helpless animal snatched from its home for our human amusement. And when he finally snaps back at Strickland, it’s in defense of the Asset (“You cannot under any circumstance kill this creature!”) and an undermining of the other man’s ugly authoritarianism.
Overall, his doctor character is very similar to the physician aiding the rebels in director Guillermo del Toro’s prior masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, who stood up to the murderous Capitán Vidal with the retort “But Captain, to obey just like that—for obedience’s sake, without questioning—that’s something only people like you do.” He is an individual caught between two impossible demands, two sides who would both rather destroy something than try to understand it, and so it’s not a surprise when Stuhlbarg’s Dimitri ends up purposefully failing his Soviet mission. Instead, he helps Elisa take the creature from the laboratory, and later—when she tells him he’s a good man—he is compelled to come clean about his true identity. The little bow he gives both her and Octavia Butler’s Zelda after introducing himself as Dimitri and telling them both he’s “honored” to meet them is a perfect precursor for his later dig at Col. Strickland, when he mocks the man’s theory that an entire team took the Asset. “No names, no ranks, they just clean,” he tells Strickland of the women who bested him, throwing his own dismissal of those women back in his face, and Stuhlbarg’s blood-soaked laugh at Strickland’s look of shock is a fitting end to a character whose ultimate kinship wasn’t with his country or his clandestine mission but with a woman who appreciated the thrill of discovery and the magic of the creature as much as he did.
Compared with both those characters, Stuhlbarg’s role in The Post is certainly smaller, but he’s steady in it. As New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, Stuhlbarg is the kind of newspaper man American was used to in the 1970s: When we first see him, he’s toiling in a newsroom, getting a top-secret article shoved in his face, and later on he’s lunching at a private club where everyone knows him by name and he has his own tab. Stuhlbarg carries himself with a kind of moneyed authority in those brief scenes, and he does enough to demonstrate a profound contrast with Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham, who the film initially presents in settings where she is surrounded by male doubt, not treated with the same kind of immediate deference as Rosenthal. He’s aware of his own dominance in the field (demonstrated with how he cheekily tells Katherine, “If you’re nervous and need a distraction, I do happen to have a copy of today’s Times”) and totally comfortable with it, but when we see him again in the Supreme Court, sitting down alongside Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee and Streep’s Graham as they defend their publication of the Pentagon Papers, he’s suitably humbled, talking curtly about “what’s at stake.” It’s not a lot of screentime, but Stuhlberg is commanding enough to make you respect the New York Times almost immediately.
There is a connection between these three characters, of course—each of them is a defender, whether by being an advocate for self-truth (Mr. Perlman in Call Me By Your Name) or a rebel against tyranny (Dimitri in The Shape of Water) or a bastion of the free press (Rosenthal in The Post). And Stuhlbarg is pretty damn good at walking that line between gentleness and steeliness, of either lending a reassuring hand or a justifiable fist. In this awards season where so many of the same faces are popping up throughout the most critically hyped films, Stuhlbarg’s is the one I welcome most.