Steve McQueen did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Henri 'Papillon' Charriere in Papillon.
Steve McQueen is an actor known for his screen presence that makes him well the King of Cool for a reason. McQueen certainly has many examples of getting through a film very well through simply through his coolness. Papillon though is most certainly a very different story for McQueen who probably gives his most character driven performance here as Papillon a small time crook who is wrongly convicted of murder that leads him to life imprisonment in the seemingly inescapable Devil's Island.
This is not to see McQueen usual screen presence is still used here is most certainly is, and that is important at the beginning of the film as he quickly must makes sympathize with his plight as Papillon thinks of escape from the time he in the boat taking him to the island in the first place. McQueen takes command of the screen in his usual effortless fashion bringing us into sympathy with Papillon with an incredible ease even though we never do see clearly that he did not murder the man, but McQueen has the right conviction to show us it that it is the truth.
Early on the film McQueen is a very quiet and effective in conveying the strength within Papillon that makes it clear that Papillon he will try to find anyway he can to escape the island. McQueen is excellent in conveying the underlying passion in Papillon that is always something there within him through the entire film that pushes him forward to keep trying to find ways to escape. McQueen has such a great power in the role that establishes Papillon as a intelligent hero who will adapt to find a way out of his troubling predicament.
Papillon attempts his way out by offering protection to a rich fellow prisoner Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Although Papillon only treats Dega as a tool to be used, much as how Dega treats Papillon the two due to their mutual predicament do become friends. McQueen and Hoffman really have some great chemistry here, and although very different types of actors in style they work together wonderfully well. The two ease into the friendship in a believable fashion that works well, there are not scenes devoted to it but the two create the friendship as the film goes along well.
The two's dynamic works well as Hoffman expresses the situations with the right fear, sickness, as a man inexperienced individual. McQueen is strong though as he shows Papillon who is more accustom to the harsh life, and even acts as a bit of a calming presence to Dega. What is fascinating though is the way McQueen technically has the less expressive role at first still manages to honestly be the more compelling performance here. He does incredibly well by bringing us into Papillon's struggle, as even as Papillon is able to handle the horrors McQueen still powerfully portrays more subtle reactions to them.
The extreme understated way of his performance though does change in a way after Papillon finds himself in solitary confinement after a botched escape attempt. Really here is probably a place where honestly the film could have been trimmed, but McQueen performance here is so good I'm glad it was not. McQueen is outstanding in his portrayal of Papillon's physical and psychological degradation in the series of scene. He is so brutally painful here in how uncompromising his depiction of it all. It is a sad disheartening portrayal of how the extreme nature of the punishment can even damage the strong willed Papillon.
After finally being released though McQueen is good in showing that Papillon is not finished by any measure, and McQueen makes this entirely convincing showing that Papillon's will is powerful enough to push forward in another escape attempt. McQueen brings right along with him in his next attempt and is able to do so well in bringing to life every emotion to each situation. Whether it is his anger in yet another double cross, the pleasure of finding some brief happiness with a group natives, or bringing the weight to the moment in which Papillon sees he still will not be a free man once again. McQueen never fails to pulls us right into Papillon's struggle in every scene.
Papillon after being caught one more time is put through five years of solitary and finally being sent out to a secluded and calmer part of the prison. McQueen is excellent in these final scenes of the film as we see Papillon almost broke physically. McQueen shows Papillon as a tired man barely able to even effectively call out to his old friend Dega. Importantly though McQueen poignantly still portrays the glimmer of the passion in Papillon left to push him to try at least one more time to escape.
The final moments of the film is made especially moving by McQueen and it shows what is so great about his performance. In his performance he truthfully creates an honest depiction of the perseverance of human spirit, that is something that can seem very forced in so many instances, but McQueen does it beautifully here. This is a great performance that creates the compelling character of Papillon authentically and this may be his very best performance. This tremendous work by McQueen not only puts on display once again McQueen unique screen presence, but here he also is able to show how powerful of an actor he really could be.