We tend to remember a film's showiest performance. Often, that center of attraction takes on the physicality of an ill character or the malevolence of a corrupt one. In the former camp, think Tom Hanks battling AIDS in "Philadelphia," Meryl Streep succumbing to cancer in "One True Thing" or Eddie Redmayne contorting his physique as ALS takes over Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." All three earned Oscar nominations, because they are accomplished roles and because it is easy to appreciate an actor who effectively captures the outsize despair of a decaying body. The second camp -- skillful portrayals of sinister lowlives -- includes Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" and Louise Fletcher in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," both among cinema's most memorable work.
The ongoing Toronto Film Festival has several of these emotive performances among its roster: Julianne Moore wheezes her way through lung cancer in the gay-rights drama "Freeheld," a cancer-stricken Toni Collette must bid her best friend farewell in the weepy girl-power ode "Miss You Already," Johnny Depp disappears behind the steely blue eyes of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger in "Black Mass," and Eddie Redmayne -- an equally physical performance, despite no illness or corruption on display -- transitions to a proper identity in the lush "Danish Girl." These are remarkable, lived-in performances, palpable and at times difficult to witness. All of them, especially Redmayne and Depp, will see Oscar buzz in the coming months.
But I'm more interested in talking about the people who surround these performances. In a sense, they have a far more difficult job. Each of these movies casts an onscreen companion who must balance the emotional weight of such visceral struggles. Ellen Page contends with her partner's death in "Freeheld," Drew Barrymore prepares for the absence of her lifelong friend in "Miss You Already," Joel Edgerton tenderizes the crookedness stamped all over "Black Mass" as a racketeering FBI informant, and Alicia Vikander forms the other half of the moving romance that becomes the fortitude of "The Danish Girl." Their characters' trajectories are less obvious, which means their performances don't feel like the films' centerpieces. But they very much are, just like Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs" and Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything." (For other examples out of Toronto, see Joan Allen in "Room," Jessica Chastain in "The Martian" and Jane Fonda in "Youth.")
Before the first frames of these films even flashed onscreen, Toronto audiences had an inherent sense of what to feel. Most anyone would when it comes to cancer sufferers, a notorious mobster and a victimized transgender woman. It's their screen partners, then, who must ground the stories. They take us on the true emotional journeys, and in that regard, they are proxies for the audience. It may not be their tale, per se, but they have to bring depth to what would otherwise be glaring character arcs. That's a tough gig, and Page, Barrymore, Edgerton and Vikander are worthy of their paychecks.
When the aforementioned movies open over the next couple of months, prepare to be wowed by the physical and emotional transformations of their leads. But divorce yourself, at least momentarily, from the showiness of such roles and you'll find that the true heft belongs to the players whose work doesn't scream "Oscar buzz" quite as loudly. They, too, are some of the year's best.
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