Thursday, April 2, 2015

Birthday Take: Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Michael Fassbender
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Michael Fassbender
Born: April 2, 1977 (38 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor - 12 Years a Slave (lost) as Edwin Epps

The Take

In the past decade, there have been few performers with as much diverse and enviable charisma as Michael Fassbender. From his small but memorable role in Inglourious Basterds to his mainstream work in X-Men: First Class, he has shown that he is game for anything. In terms of stars with unlimited appeal, he is someone who is likely to age into one of the best of this generation for his fearless performances and the possession of a classically handsome face. While some could try to be as diverse as him (like Ryan Gosling), there's something of a miracle to his success because of how often he succeeds.

However, his biggest triumphs have come with the director Steve McQueen, who has worked with him on his only three films: Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave. Through these works, he has played strikingly different characters who have reflected the vulnerabilities of man. For the most recent film, he received a nomination for playing Edwin Epps: a notoriously ruthless slave owner who serves as the villain of the story for his lack of humanity to protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the others who inhabit the southern plantation. His most memorable moments come in when he seems most disconnected, choosing to assault the slaves who don't obey his word.

Like the subject matter, Epps is unfortunately a real person whose notoriety still lingers. Fassbender brings a lot to the performance that while he feels removed from the characters, it only makes him scarier. He is scariest when he is at his calmest. When he yells or chases Northup while slipping in mud, there's too much tension in the unpredictable. At least in contemporary cinema, he has become the quintessential depiction of a slave owner in a performance that would cause him to be typecast had his success in the X-Men series (albeit as the villain) not been more prominent and overshadows 12 Years a Slave as his main four "Known For" section. Still, it is a performance that lingers.

While 12 Years a Slave is likely the first Oscar worthy film he has made since breaking out with X-Men: First Class, it isn't his first. Where Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for Best Actress for Winter's Bone in 2009, years before her break in The Hunger Games, Fassbender hasn't been recognized at all. It is a little baffling considering that his work with McQueen remains some of the finest and most fearless work of its kind. It is thankful that 12 Years a Slave took off at all so that he could earn a prestigious nomination and not be one of those lauded greats without a nomination. It is an honor that unfortunately haunts too many talents. He lost to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, another performance that is arguably just as fearless though not nearly as interesting.

One can only hope that Fassbender has another great performance in him. It does seem likely, as his profile has only escalated in recent years. He also has countless promising roles coming up. Whether this is a good excuse for you to finally see 12 Years a Slave (one of the best of the Best Picture winners as of late) or revisiting his older work, it is important to notice him on his birthday as this charming talent who turned in a performance so strong and so full of menace that it likely became too intimidating for Oscar voters to reward. Still, it is a testament to his talent and the craft of McQueen's direction that this performance easily ranks not only as one of his best, but as an iconic piece to a masterful puzzle.

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