It’s time for Peter Sarsgaard to finally shatter the Oscar glass.
Once upon a time, actor Peter Sarsgaard won the most precursors prizes during the 2003-2004 awards season for his supporting turn in Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass.” In the film, he plays Charles Lane, a newly promoted editor who suspects one of his revered writers (played by Hayden Christensen) could have fabricated some of his stories. It was a breakout performance in the early days of online Oscar punditry that had everyone buzzing. However, when it came time for the major televised ceremonies, he was only able to muster a Golden Globe nod, then to be followed by shocking snubs from SAG, BAFTA and eventually the Academy Awards.
It was one of the few times in recent awards history where the leader of critics’ acting prizes failed to nab Oscar recognition (others include Ethan Hawke for “First Reformed”). The industry spent the past two decades trying to make it up to him, as he flirted with potential Oscar attention for “Kinsey” (2004), “Jarhead” (2005), “An Education” (2009) and “Experimenter” (2014). None would result in his name being called. It was only last year he nabbed his first ever Emmy nom for his work in Hulu’s “Dopesick.”
And now, he adds a new potential contender in Michel Franco’s romantic drama “Memory,” which premiered at Venice and screened for critics and audiences at TIFF. In the movie, Sarsgaard plays Saul, a man battling early onset dimensia who turns the world of a social worker named Sylvia (played by Jessica Chastain) upside down, challenging them both to confront their pasts.
With a blend of Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Still Alice,” the film is an actor’s showcase, with Chastain and Sarsgaard delivering two of their most raw and powerful performances.
For his work, Sarsgaard won the prestigious Volpi Cup for best actor, joining the ranks of past honorees such as Brad Pitt (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) and River Phoenix (“My Own Private Idaho”). Without Venice handing out “supporting acting” prizes, one shouldn’t assume Sarsgaard should be campaigned in the lead actor race, already brimming with names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeffrey Wright. In fact, with the narrative focusing heavily on Chastain’s character, it would be far more appropriate and viable to submit him for supporting actor consideration, if the film is acquired.
The Venice win has gotten the attention of many in the industry, including the acquisitions teams of Neon (including CEO Tom Quinn) and streaming giant Netflix, who were in attendance at the press and industry screening on Sunday afternoon. There’s obviously curiosity for a potential awards push given the tour-de-force deliveries of its two principals, in addition to a stellar cast that includes Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher and Jessica Harper. Chastain, an Oscar winner for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is astonishing, which is unsurprising nowadays. Like best actor, a crowded lead actress field is ahead, and will be difficult to break through.
For Sarsgaard, he will find a clearer road in supporting, despite Robert Downey Jr., Robert DeNiro and Ryan Gosling already seemingly locked and loaded. The key to Sarsgaard’s success will be ensuring the film can get recognized in other categories. Sole supporting noms are difficult to achieve, albeit not impossible. For every success for Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), you find the stories of omissions like Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”) and last year’s Eddie Redmayne (“The Good Nurse”), who all missed Oscars after Globe and SAG noms.
In the last 20 years, the Venice prizes including their coveted Golden Lion, has matched the Oscars’ choice for best picture only two times: “The Shape of Water” and “Nomadland.” Unsure if that yet bodes well for this year’s winner “Poor Things” from Yorgos Lanthimos.
Furthermore, when it comes to the men’s translation to Oscar success via Venice, there isn’t a direct line to Academy recognition as one would hope. Only two winners in the history of Venice, Frederic March for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1932 and Paul Muni for “The Story of Louis Pasteur” in 1936, have won the Oscar for best actor. For nominees, in the last decade, only Willem Dafoe for “At Eternity’s Gate” in 2018, ex-aequo winners Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix for “The Master” in 2012 and last year’s Colin Farrell for “The Banshees of Inisherin” have translated to AMPAS noms.
An industry moment to recognize a talent like Sarsgaard would be more than overdue. Franco affords him to convey an internalized interpretation, devoid of typical awards-bait tropes, and packed with a physical conviction that is worthy of acclaim.
Will Sarsgaard finally get his moment, or will he remain, still, a distant memory with Oscar voters? Hoping for the former.