J.K. Simmons won his Oscar his first Oscar nomination for portraying Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.
J.K. Simmons has long been a reliable character actor and usually adds something memorable to the films he's in, in Spider-Man he actually so defined J. Jonah Jameson that the makers of the Amazing Spider-Man series seem afraid to recreate the role, but perhaps he's finally been given his due here in Whiplash. I will admit the role of Terence Fletcher seems tailored made for an Oscar since it combines two popular sort of roles the Academy likes for Supporting Actor that being the flamboyant villain and the hard bitten mentor. Of course a great role is nothing if its performer cannot deliver. Simmons sets things straight from his first scene of the film where he suddenly appears while Andrew is practicing. Simmons is very entertaining in his first scene as he plays up the shameless way in which he encourages Andrew to start playing then discourages him by throwing about random questions in regards to Andrew's behavior and then suddenly leaves without any explanation. Simmons exudes utter confidence as Fletcher and from this point on never leaves it in question who is in charge of any room he sees fit to visit.
Simmons is fascinating in the way he realizes Fletcher as such an intimidating presence even though he is simply a music instructor. The best part is that Simmons does this even before we get to the meat of his performance. Even before Andrew joins his studio band Simmons carries a palatable menace in Fletcher. Part of this comes early on from the coldness he gives to Fletcher's reactions when he goes to the band Andrew is part of and takes note of each player. He only has them play for a few moments, and technically he only lays down a few insults, but there is something so brutal in the way Simmons's portrays an absolute lack of empathy as Fletcher deals with them one by one. Simmons gives just as much of viciousness in his lack of a response as he does when he leaves even a quiet insult to the player. Simmons is so efficient in portraying this in Fletcher that Simmons manages to make Fletcher merely catching Andrew watching the studio band to be a bit disconcerting. Of course these scenes are only a warmup before we get the full force of Fletcher which comes after Fletcher accepts Andrew into his studio band.
Andrew at first must simply witness the first part of the rehearsal as the band stands at absolute attention as Fletcher makes his entrance, Simmons by this point has frankly already earned this with his performance. Simmons even adds so much with the way he physically plays Fletcher, particularly in his conducting style. Simmons is quite interesting as he has such a relaxed quality about his movements seeming to go quite freely with the way of Jazz, but when something wrong comes up its a sudden violent motion Simmons portrays. That gripping of the air to stop the band is pure perfection as there's seems to much underlying anger and frustration just in that simple action alone. Simmons is great in this first rehearsal scene as he has the band going but stops do to one instrument being out of tune. Simmons carries such a quiet threat as he goes about looking for whoever the culprit is until he seems to narrow it down to one player. The one man Fletcher chooses is basically petrified by the accusation, which eventually is revealed to be untrue by Fletcher, but Simmons makes the player's fear completely convincing.
During the break, before Andrew's turn at the drums, Simmons shows perhaps a different side to Fletcher as he speaks to Andrew. Simmons does suggest a great deal of warmth it seems with his bright smile as he seems genuinely interested in Andrew's background. Along with that he gives a few word of encouragement to the young musician. In this moment Simmons is charming as he seems earnest in his portrayal of Fletcher's motivational speech, and in this scene it seems as though Fletcher wants nothing but the best for Andrew. This only continues to seem like the case as he praises him as he's playing until there's a sudden stop, and after a few more failed tries it's the end of the nice Fletcher, if there ever was a nice Fletcher. Simmons is outstanding in this scene as he intensely takes down Andrew piece by piece, lobbing every insult he can think of, while trying to get him to see why he is playing so wrong. Simmons nails every line delivery here to give them the sting they need, and lords over Andrew as though Andrew has no escape.
Most of Simmons's scenes from here on out are in portraying his method of instruction which seems to be more torture than enlightenment. Simmons is remarkable because you can never quite tell if it is purely sadism or if he is striving to drive them towards something. Simmons leaves just enough interpretation to make Fletcher enough of a enigma but not feel like a vague character either. Simmons is consistently marvelous because despite the similar nature of the scenes his performance never feels repetitive. One reason is Simmons is always amazing to watch here and the way he dominates these is spectacular. Every scene is his, but he does not steal them from Teller, but rather makes Teller's portrayal of pain all the more vivid. There is not a line or gesture he waits in making Fletcher one unpredictable monster. What I love is how Simmons can make a smile seem just as bad as a grimace. Whenever Andrew seems like he's made progress, Simmons is great in portraying the malice merely in Fletcher when he lobs support and praise towards another drummer since he only seems to do it to make Andrew suffer all the more.
There is one important scene that comes in where Fletcher describes the death of his former student. Simmons portrays a sadness in Fletcher as he does shed tears, but Simmons is even devilish here as he does not quite tell you if this is even real or not. Simmons is compelling simply through the way he weaves the mystery of Fletcher. One fantastic moment late in the film is when he discusses his philosophy with Andrew, after Fletcher has lost his job due to Andrew's testimony who was also kicked out of the conservatory. The passion in his statement, the belief seems to be a man who absolutely believes that basically from pain comes greatness, and in the moment seems to leave perhaps a bit of understanding between him and Andrew. Of course this is so brilliantly turned on its head in the last scene of the film. Simmons perhaps makes Fletcher at his most devious when he basically drops all pretense and gives Andrew a true stare of death revealing that he knows that Andrew was the one cost him his job. We don't know what Fletcher plans to do, but Simmons makes it so we know it will not be good.
Despite the technically successful humiliation for Andrew as devised by Fletcher, Andrew comes back to finally take on Fletcher leaving to an awe-inspiring scene where Andrews proves his mettle on the drums, and even takes over the band from Fletcher. Although this is a magnificent scene for Miles Teller, Simmons is not to be left in the dust. Simmons is equally good in for once showing Fletcher to be the one who is frustrated as he tries to kinda keep the band going even though it is clear that Andrew is in control this time. Simmons though does not just let it be a villains's defeat though and is perfect in the way he quickly portrays Fletcher's transformation to finally a guiding force simply to help Andrews. Both actors are flawless in this moment as the two play off each other as they almost seem to act as one for a moment with Fletcher's conducting and Andrews playing as they achieve the greatness Fletcher spoke of. The fact that Simmons is able to leave this performance on an inspiring note is astonishing. I may simply be joining a chorus of praise for this performance but there is not reason not to. It's a well earned song for Simmons who gets the absolute most out of an incredible role.