There are few actors as misunderstood as Willem Dafoe. To the casual observer, it may seem that the man has built a career around playing villains and slimy characters of the utmost despicability, playing the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and a crime boss in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. His downright sinister looking visage has lead to him being typecast for the duration of the most accessible portions of his career, though that that hasn’t stopped him from playing the leading man at times. To merely write him off as a mere character actor, however, would be unhelpful in coming to terms with a full appreciation of Dafoe’s very obvious prowess. For some, it might seem that Dafoe has toiled on the sidelines, providing great background support in smaller roles like those in Born on the Fourth of July, American Psycho, or his myriad of colorful stand-ins in the films of Wes Anderson. But again, this reading of his career is short-sighted. Dafoe has always excelled in huge roles. He is a gargantuan acting force. He is so much more than the Green Goblin, or one of Wes Anderson’s go-to dolls. He is Willem Dafoe, and he deserves our respect.
Today is Willem Dafoe’s 60th birthday, and here are his three greatest performances to prove his boundless talent:
Lars von Trier’s 2009 film was steeped in controversy when it was released, namely due to the graphic, borderline absurd violence and grotesquery on display. I would argue that the film not only has merit but is a genuinely great film, though it might make for an uneasy viewing experience. Part of what makes Antichrist so powerful comes in Willem Dafoe’s committed and even soulful performance as a grieving father trying to console his mentally unstable wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg.) His deep-seated sadness in the film is so incredibly palpable, his fears attributed not only towards his own safety, but for his wife’s as well. In von Trier’s film, Willem Dafoe is a man who still loves his wife even as he loses all that is familiar about her to latent insanity, his performance one for the ages.
Possibly Dafoe’s most famous (and second best) performance as a crucified savior, Platoon is far from my favorite Vietnam film (Apocalypse Now takes that spot, of course) but there are still so many great things about it, chief among them being, of course, Willem Dafoe. His role as the messianic Sgt. Elias is gritty yet relatable, Dafoe playing a man who is nothing less than one of the best and most tragic movie heroes of the 1980s. Of particular note, the scene in which he is killed (in slow motion, no less) has become a cliche by now, and for anyone seeing it for the first time, it might appear trite on first glance. But just as an unassuming first watch renders the immediate impression of all great art, Oliver Stone builds the character of Elias upon subsequent viewings, and Dafoe creates a real gravitas and likability in the character so that when his death is finally revealed it is made all the more powerful beyond any inherent melodrama. It is an immediately impressionistic snapshot of the depravity of war and how it tears apart good men, and Dafoe is nothing less than amazing in the film.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Making a film about Jesus Christ that doesn’t come off as either too preachy or boring, and instead simply tells the story everyone has heard and seen hundreds of times, must be superbly difficult. In fact, the only non-metaphoric movie about Christ that I can palate is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese paints Jesus as a frightened and tortured human figure. Here, Christ is not a moralizing cardboard cutout with a glowing backdrop. To truly display the pain and fear Scorsese wanted in his character, it was necessary that he cast an actor as talented, courageous, and of course as versatile as Willem Dafoe. No one before or since has walked the calvary quite as well as Dafoe did in 1988, playing Jesus Christ as a real person, while maintaining the important elements of his inherent divinity. I was raised Catholic, and though I have grown more skeptical of the faith, it still makes me immeasurably happy to see a Christ figure portrayed with a negotiated human, yet holy, manner. In screenwriter Paul Schrader’s adaptation of author Nikos Kazantzakis’ creative re-interpretation of Biblical texts, Christ feels enigmatic and impossible to understand in empathetic, emotional terms. There is beauty in the way that Scorsese and Dafoe work to make Christ accessible, with the actor’s work in the film standing as his greatest career achievement.