Willem Dafoe did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.
The Last Temptation of Christ was an extremely controversial film when originally released mostly heavily because of the scenes in the last act of the film which depict Jesus living a human life which includes sexual intercourse. Those originally offended seemed to have ignored the intention of the story at its core, and also did not see the film as I'd probably say the moments from the first act probably should have lead to greater controversy if they had been seen. Those scenes though too only are part of the overarching approach to the life of Jesus which is to treat him as both a man and a messiah creating a sense of understanding to the idea of Jesus being a man. Due to this overarching theme Willem Dafoe gives a performance that is unlike any actor who ever played Jesus. In most depictions there is a sense of the Godly nature of him whether it be the mysterious mostly unseen figure in Ben-Hur and The Robe, the ethereal performance of Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth, even in the more directly sympathetic performances of Jim Caviezel and Ted Neeley in Passion of the Christ, and Jesus Christ Superstar respectively have an otherworldly quality to them. This is unapparent in Dafoe's approach.
That is not a criticism since this is the core to Dafoe's portrayal of Jesus from the first frame of the film, where I should have imagined the stronger reactions should have come from, again that would have required actually watching the film, where Jesus collaborates with Romans by helping with crucifixions and spends some of his time watching the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) with her customers. Finding the meaning of these scenes depends greatly on watching Dafoe's portrayal of them. Now this is where Dafoe's work is more intriguing as he begins the film with Jesus living as a man. This is not to say he is without divinity, in fact the opposite is quickly proven to be true in the film, but rather what it means to be a man is keenly felt within Dafoe's portrayal. What this means though is in Dafoe's presentation of that this man feels what any man can feel. Dafoe shows him burdened by this specifically presenting effectively this way the man is pulled towards the weakness of being human, conveying ideas of lust, and doubt subtly within his eyes while also portraying the way he is trying to hold them back at the same time.
What is perhaps one of the most engrossing elements in Dafoe's performance is in the way he establishes Jesus as both that man with various temptations of the flesh, but also what it means to be the son of God as well. Dafoe's portrayal of this is incredible because he humanizes technically the superhuman element within Jesus. This is not saying he takes it away rather he delivers the burden of what it means to be aware of who he is, and God's purpose for him. Dafoe's work essentially explains the early scenes by creating what it is that he's going through. Dafoe presents this knowledge of his mission as this underlying constriction in the man as he speaks of his awareness of what God expects of him, there is this overwhelming anguish. This anguish is very specific in Dafoe's performance as it is not of a man hating what he must do, but rather trying to make sense of it. In the moments where he is even approaching sin, though perhaps not participating in directly, Dafoe is incredible in the way he internalizes this struggle. The struggle that he develops as part of this pain but also with sense of an attempt to decipher it himself. This confusion so effectively, and quite powerfully creates an understanding of who Jesus is before he fully accepts why he was put on the Earth to begin with.
As Jesus's journey begins and he finds disciples Dafoe still does not evoke those other well known depictions of Jesus. What he established in the early scenes influences his entire work in creating a different kind of journey though with technically the same final intention. Dafoe allows the viewer a far more intimate perspective into this journey since he does not hide that attachment to Jesus having been born as a man even while being divine. Dafoe portrays so well this realization as he begins his journey, and creation of a confidence from his initial doubts towards becoming the prophet among the Jewish people. Dafoe still does not allow his work to be superseded in his own approach to realizing perhaps the more biblical Jesus as he begins spreading his word, and committing miracles. Dafoe has a far lower key take in this regard than other cinematic depictions however that in no way means his work is any less inspiring. In fact Dafoe's more earthly approach offers something rather special. Dafoe speaks as a man but a truly enlightened man in these scenes, even in his scenes of miracles. Dafoe offers this sense of hardship in his words against violence and towards healing, and in doing so offers a true poignancy to Jesus's message. Dafoe gives the words a real life in his delivery as they come from this place of experience rather than necessarily of only an otherworldly wisdom.
This approach leads to a very different depiction in the moments of and leading to his arrest as Jesus asks for Judas (Harvey Keitel) to betray him directly in order to fulfill his needed destiny. Dafoe again not only creates sense in this but actually makes it deeply affecting. When he tells Judas to fulfill his own destiny Dafoe presents a certainty in his command, and a passion to this cause. Dafoe still though conveys the underlying suffering of this knowledge of his fate yet with the confidence to accept it at this moment. Dafoe captures the confidence of his initial cause during the last supper, and in his trial with Pontius Pilate. The true feelings of this though are revealed as he is alone in the Garden of Gethsemane where Dafoe presents the full insecurity within the man pulled out in such a moving revealing of his sorrow over what he must do. He is of course crucified however this is where the additional element of the narrative appears that being the titular last temptation Christ. That temptation being given by seemingly his guardian angel to be taken from the cross and being given the chance to live out a normal life as a man. In these scenes are where the controversy of the film most arose however they seemed to ignore the intention as this was the realization of the greatest temptation which was not to be the messiah.
Dafoe's performance is again pivotal to these scenes in his portrayal of the way Jesus initially seems to accept the temptation that is offered to him. It is not of pure happiness but of just a life of any man which may include loss yet requires no divine sacrifice. What Dafoe captures is this contentment to his performance even in the moment of tragic loss. Dafoe doesn't show this as unfeeling rather he presents Jesus seemingly finally without burden, and though his life isn't perfect he depicts the contentment of just being a man. There is tenderness, there is sadness, however there is no larger question of purpose. This seems to continue well into his old age where he comes across Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) the future prophet though he is preaching the word of Jesus, it is a lie as he speaks of the death and resurrection. Dafoe is outstanding in the confrontation scene in first portraying just seemingly a direct disgust and disbelief at the lie. As Paul continues to speak though Dafoe captures in his reaction this realization of perhaps a mistake in his choice, seeing how he did not offer the man the truth behind his noble words. The contentment continues to crumble as does Jerusalem as hate overpowers all, and in his possible last moments he is confront by the still living Judas with his failure. Dafoe's work is amazing as his face captures again the realization with every spoken word that the man must choose death rather than to live a life. Dafoe is wholly harrowing in presenting the heart wrenching sorrow of the man as he loses all composure in such a fierce declaration of failure in order to accept his fate to die on the cross. What the film does and Dafoe's performance offers one of the most moving yet inspiring depictions of Christ's sacrifice on film. They do not do it through overt physical suffering rather through nuanced portrayal of a man coming to terms with his purpose, and denying a life of false contentment. This is a great performance by Willem Dafoe, as he takes an entirely original approach to his portrait of Jesus, yet never loses the inherent message behind him or the power of the sacrifice.