Winning an Academy Award is widely assumed to be the peak of an actor’s career. You put in years of work and hard graft, padding out your filmography with bit-parts in little-seen indie movies and TV guest roles, in the hopes of being spotted by the one who will make you a star. Then you play the game, moving slowly up the ladder and doing all that you can to establish yourself as one to watch in the hopes that your perfect role will come along. That part will blow everyone away and show your colleagues the breadth of your talents to the point where they cannot help but herald you publicly for your efforts. Add to that a few months of red-carpet victory laps and the climax of a standing ovation as you receive your little gold man, and the final chapter of your memoir is guaranteed to be a good one.
What happens next is where things get more interesting for me. What do you do with that increased attention and demand? Do you continue to hone your craft and wield your Hollywood privilege for good, choosing only the best filmmakers and top scripts? Do you use the attention to catapult yourself into megastar status? The world is meant to be your oyster, or at least it is if you’re a white man. And that brings me to Jared Leto.
Leto had been an industry mainstay for over 20 years when he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, a victory that was all but guaranteed for the entirety of that awards season. He was never a box office draw, but he had successfully evolved from teen heartthrob to indie favorite and worked with the likes of Darren Aronofksy, Terrence Malick, and David Fincher. His love life, with ex-girlfriends including Scarlett Johansson and Cameron Diaz, was frequent tabloid fodder and he had made a successful leap into music with his band 30 Seconds to Mars, which is no mean feat for an established actor (just ask Bruce Willis and Jeremy Renner.) As he focused more on music, his acting choices became more selective, although they were seldom critical or financial hits. It was one of these films, however, that began the shift in public perceptions of Leto and have led to the rather cynical and exhausting understanding we have of him today.
In Chapter 27, released in 2007, Leto played Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon on the doorsteps outside his apartment building. It was the directorial debut of one Jarrett Schaefer, and the cast included Lindsay Lohan during the most tempestuous period of her career. The tabloids were overloaded with images of Leto in character, gawking over his ‘method transformation.’ He had gained around 67 pounds for the role by drinking microwaved pints of ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil every night, a move that led to an outbreak of gout. As with all conventionally handsome actors who undergo some sort of physical change for their work, the headlines were all about the shock and grotesque notion of Jared Leto choosing to get fat in the name of art.
Leto’s career, from this point onward, became heavily defined by his seeming embrace of modern pop culture’s bastardized understanding of method acting. Arguably it is Leto more than any other actor of his level of fame, with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio, that helped to cement this definition in our minds. I’m not talking about the reality of the method, which was merely an acting tool designed to encourage authentic emotional reactions rooted in personal experience. That’s a pretty commonplace tool in the industry. I’m talking more about the wholly immersive kind of method where actors (and it is almost exclusively men who do this) stay in character for weeks or months on end and perform all manner of ridiculous stunts as a way to ‘inhabit the role.’ Think of DiCaprio’s self-flagellation while making The Revenant or every borderline fantastical story you heard about Daniel Day Lewis’s commitment to his craft. Leto’s brand of method is cut from that cloth and never in a positive way.
For the role he won his Oscar for, as a trans sex worker and HIV patient in Dallas Buyers Club, a dishearteningly large portion of the press coverage was focused on Leto and co-star Matthew McConaughey’s ‘brave’ transformations. Leto admitted he simply stopped eating so he could lose 30 pounds quicker. He refused to break character for the entire month of shooting, and his colleagues fawned over the fact that they ‘never really met’ Leto until months after filming wrapped. Of course, Hollywood ate it up, especially as the industry has always fetishized the notion of cis men playing trans women in tragic roles for prestige bait. It was the perfect Oscar narrative, but it was nothing compared to his next role.
Leto didn’t appear in another film for three years after winning his Oscar, but he certainly chose a role that, at least on paper, seemed like the perfect step up to future A-List fervor: The Joker. I could be here all dang day discussing the exhausting chaos and questionable workplace practices of Leto’s so-called prep for playing DC Comics’ most famous villain. We’ve talked about this a lot over the years: the rats, the dead pigs, the used condoms and anal beads, the general terrorizing of colleagues in the name of verisimilitude, and so on. Indeed, it seemed that most of the publicity surrounding the deeply misguided Suicide Squad focused on celebrating Leto’s nonsense as the ultimate blending of actorly commitment and Joker-esque carnage. Even if it had paid off with a brilliant movie and lauded performance, I’m not sure it would have justified Leto’s behavior in the eyes of its intended audience. That it crashed and burned with the critics only further rubbed salt in the wound (which was made hilariously worse by Joaquin Phoenix then taking on the role and winning an Oscar for it.) It also dented Leto’s image irrevocably, and it may have been the performance that helped to kill our societal fetish for this messy appropriation of method acting. Nowadays, when we discuss an actor ‘going method’, we’re more likely to roll our eyes and discuss how such antics feel like poorly veiled excuses for sh*tty men to wreak havoc under the veil of professional commitment. Leto didn’t create this but that he went to such nasty efforts for a terrible performance exposed the cheapness of these stunts.
Leto’s filmography after his Oscar win is unusually sparse. This is in part because he still tours with 30 Seconds to Mars (whose own critical clout has taken a serious hit with their last album, 2018’s America, considered one of the worst of the year by many reviewers.) His choices continue to be sparse and bounce between high-profile (Blade Runner 2049) and ignorable (The Outsider.) With The Little Things, available to watch on HBO Max now, even the involvement of two other Oscar winners doesn’t seem to be enough to drum up major enthusiasm for what has been written off as a minor effort for everyone involved. With the upcoming Morbius, which saw its release pushed back to 2022, Leto is trying to return to comic book movie leading man domination, although that character is decidedly less well-known than the Joker. One aspect of Leto’s post-Oscar acting career that intrigues me is how that uber-method nonsense rose and fell in dramatic fashion. He threw it all on the table for Suicide Squad and was laughed out of the room, then his follow-up work greatly downplayed his preparation techniques. You don’t see coverage of The Little Things hyping up the lengths he went to in order to play a killer. Hell, with Morbius, we haven’t heard a peep about how deeply invested and haunted he is by playing a science vampire and thank f**k for that.
The film industry has changed a lot over the past five years. Hollywood still prizes certain kinds of men and justifies their terrible behavior more than we care to admit, but in the post-Weinstein world, audiences’ patience has worn thin for the grandstanding of so-called geniuses. When we read the lawsuit that FKA Twigs filed against her allegedly abusive boyfriend Shia LaBeouf and note how he claimed he killed stray dogs to ‘get into character’ for a role, we consider the power dynamics at play. There’s a reason that Leto and his team scrambled to deny all the Joker method crap after the film crashed with critics, even though Leto himself was the one spreading these claims on record. Whatever aspirations Leto had to be an important cultural figure, a bastion of acting prowess and Day Lewis-esque commitment, he can’t do them now. Perhaps that means he’s ready to settle down with his career.
Of course, I say all of this and then remember that Leto basically has his own cult now, so scrap all of that.
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