By Anshul Gandhi Feb. 09, 2020
In Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Adam Driver's 24th outing in a career spanning a decade, the actor delivers everything that an Oscar-worthy performance stipulates – ingenuity, credibility, and a range of emotional intensity. Yet, he might not win the Oscar.
Adam Driver is the opposite of what a Hollywood movie star should be. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the vanity that comes along with being an actor. And while that sounds like an obituary of a Hollywood outcast, Adam Driver could’ve possibly won an Oscar for his searing turn in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story if not for Joaquin Phoenix’s equally fine performance and the Hollywood prestige obsession with Todd Phillips’ Joker. As Charlie Barber, a New York theatre director going through the throes of separation in Marriage Story, Driver delivers everything that an Oscar-worthy performance stipulates – ingenuity, credibility, and a range of emotional intensity.
In a way, the actor’s potential loss at perhaps the most mainstream award ceremony – Driver won Best Actor at Gotham Independent Film Awards – hardly comes as a surprise. Even though, like any actor, Driver craves validation for his work, he is also distant enough to acknowledge that it might just all go away one day. This recognition of the fleetingness of fame has become a part of his appeal and is reflected in how he internally processes some of his achievements. For instance, when he earned an Oscar nomination for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, he chose to reflect on how random such recognition can also be. “I know lots of people who work really hard and they almost never get that acknowledgment, so I don’t know how you process that or attach meaning to it,” Driver told The New York Times at the time.
Adam Driver first broke into public consciousness back in 2012 with Lena Dunham’s coming-of-age drama Girls. In the show, he played Adam Sackler, an unstable artistic slacker; his performance afforded a rare vulnerability to an inherent New York prototype. It was a role that was more complex to portray than it might have seemed on paper. To his credit, Driver embodied Adam Sackler with a reckless abandon by utilising every aspect of his physicality, managing to redefine the ideal of modern manhood.
Driver is also distant enough to acknowledge that it might just all go away one day.
In the five years that the actor starred in Girls, he simultaneously straddled an enviable filmography, working with directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, and Noah Baumbach. His collaboration with Baumbach in particular, culminated into a fruitful artistic marriage for the ages – the actor has now starred in four of six Baumbach directorial outings. Three years ago, when Driver starred in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky as Clyde Logan, a bartender and an Iraq war veteran, I vividly remember being struck by his brilliant West Virginia accent. It was the same year that also essayed Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise, where he recited dialogues in that same monotonous slow drawl and yet managed to bring out a world of dissimilitude. Throughout his career, Driver has, in a sense, refined his characters through these indelible idiosyncrasies.
It also helps that Driver is strikingly attractive while not fitting into the mould of a Hollywood hero at the same time. His face, shaped by impenetrable eyes and a lopsided jawline, has the quirkiness appropriate of a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. One glance at his filmography is enough to confirm a lack of hesitance to dive into supporting acts in acclaimed films (Frances Ha, Lincoln, Midnight Special), a refreshing oddity in a landscape where actors are too consumed by the screen time afforded to them. Driver’s filmography on the other hand, is reminiscent of the words of Dabbs Greer, the perennial character actor, who noted, “Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.” Driver’s appeal, however, isn’t just limited to premium indie projects. Of late, he’s become equally viable as a mainstream hero.
In that sense, the actor’s indispensability – Driver appeared in four films last year that include The Report, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Dead Don’t Die, and Marriage Story – is his biggest strength. For some, that’s a lifetime’s work reflected in a year. If you think about it, the actor has traversed the two extreme universes of filmmaking – film festival acclaim as well as box-office success – with unimaginable ease. If Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die opened Cannes 2019, arguably the most prestigious film festival, then Scott Z Burns’ The Report premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year, while Marriage Story was in the lineup at Venice Film Festival.
On the other hand, his Star Wars outing brought him even closer to mainstream glory in the same way that Marriage Story catapulted him to Hollywood roundtables and magazine covers. It wouldn’t then be inaccurate to say that the actor has managed a near impossible feat: bridge the gap between what is supposed to be relegated as a festival film and what is garlended as an awards favourite. The best part? Driver has done it without calling any attention to himself. That’s a quality that sometimes even Oscar winners can’t necessarily guarantee.
Anshul has been a features writer, digital marketer, teacher, scriptwriter, and producer. Right now, he's just an avid storyteller. Also, Time Magazine's Person of the Year 2006.