Thursday, 26 June 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1979: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA, for portraying Captain Benjamin Willard in Apocalypse Now.

Apocalypse Now is an Odyssey into Darkness and Martin Sheen is our Odysseus through the character of Captain Benjamin Willard. Where Odysseus started his journey after his time in the Trojan war Willard also begins the film after obviously going through many things in the Vietnam war although we never really learn what that is precisely only that he's contributed to some very unofficial assassinations before. The opening scenes of the film has Willard on R & R obviously not really mentally all there and this is only made worse since he is obviously drunk. Sheen is effective in this scene in portraying a completely despondent man, probably helped that he was actually drunk in the filming of the scene. It is interesting as both Sheen and the film show Willard at his most mentally unstable at the beginning of the film before he technically becomes a saner seeming man for basically the rest of the film.

Sheen is far more reserved after this point although properly does show a certain intensity beneath the surface of Willard that never truly leaves him. A very strong moment of Sheen's comes early on when he's given his new assignment to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) with extreme prejudice. During the scene his superiors basically lay out a few of his earlier assignments which Willard properly denies after having existed. In the moment though Sheen is quite terrific in portraying the memories of these killings in his haunted face as they go over them. We don't know what exactly these mission required or entailed exactly, but Sheen hints at through his face as Willard seems to be remembering them ironically enough while denying that they every happens. It's once again an effective moment for Sheen and his first scene with this one does well to set up where Willard is coming from.  

Even though Sheen is the lead of the film once the journey starts though he often takes the back burner to the other characters of the film. His narration is always present though, which apparently was performed by both Sheen and his brother, which has the right dour quality as his voice sound like a man going to a place of true darkness. As soon as the journey starts though Sheen is pushed to the side by the larger than life characters he encounters the first being Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore. Duvall dominates all of his scenes without question. Even after that meeting Sheen is not always the main focus on the boat focuses more often on the interactions of the other crew members. Willard is seen as the outsider and is often away from the others and really when it focuses on Willard in the boat it is usually when he is reading Kurtz's file and reacting to that man's history.

On re-watch of the film I was surprised at just how reactionary Sheen's performance ends up being in the film as most of it depicts Willard watching others and only are there a few actions of Willard are relatively brief in nature and interestingly enough usually focus on the other characters reactions. For example after the crew accidentally murders a group of civilians and suddenly Willard finishes off the only survivor the focus on Sheen is very brief making it quick moment with us barely even able to see Willard's whole mindset. This is not to be negative toward Sheen in the slightest as his subtle reactions usually are well handled adding to the atmosphere of any scene through his own troubled reaction as the journey slowly becomes even more perilous. In fact almost all of Sheen reactions are well done even the more intense reactions such as one where a head is dropped in Willard's lap, and Sheen's reaction is properly realistic.

I have to say I was a bit surprised altogether with my revaluation of this performance as I find in the whole scheme of the film Sheen's performance does not have all that great of an impact. In the overall tapestry of Francis Ford Coppola's film Sheen actually does not make his presence all that known and does seem to be just a part of the tapestry that Coppola paints. I don't want to sound overly negative though as Sheen is good in the part, and gives a solid performance. Even in terms of the performances of the film though Sheen is overshadowed by almost every one of the flashier performances, and there are cases where a withdrawn performance can makes the biggest impact. That is not the case here as Sheen never quite gives a great performance here, it's a good performance I have no doubt about that but it's no longer one I feel goes beyond the call of duty (no pun intended).


koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

I *knew* you would say this. I don't know why, but I knew it. I guess I just see the pattern in your reviews for performances in "director's pictures".

Jared Wignall said...

I remember some article I read, can't recall where, but he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, but said he refused the nomination, so they removed his name and put someone else in his place instead.

Louis Morgan said...

I've heard similair rumors in regards to a few performances, Albert Salmi in the Brothers Karamazov is another one. I don't think there's any truth to them, particularly since Susannah York made a similair statement in reality, and the Academy did not care.