Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Alternate Best Actor 1988: Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ

Willem Dafoe did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a rather fascinating alternative exploration of the life 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.


Luke Higham said...

Louis: Thoughts on the cast.

Luke Higham said...

And Your thoughts on Peter Gabriel's score.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Are you going to review the DRS men, or are you just going to skip them because you reviewed Brandauer?

Luke Higham said...

Robert: He's still gonna review them. If they were below a 4, he probably wouldn't bother.

Luke Higham said...

And I expected them to be reviewed last since Caine had the most last place votes at first.

Luke Higham said...

Having finished reading the review, Brandauer's definitely taking the #2 spot.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: And your ratings for Cruise in Taps and Top Gun.

Michael McCarthy said...

YUS. I actually don't mind so much if Dafoe only finishes third, but I really hope the film ranks really high in Louis's Top 10.

Matt Cofrancesco said...

Glad you liked him and the film as well. I think it is one of Scorsese's most underrated films.

Charles Heiston said...

Underrated film, and actually my favorite performance by Dafoe

Calvin Law said...

This is such an interesting companion film to Silence.

Anonymous said...

Louis: your top 10 angela bassett acting moments

Henry W said...

Louis and you guys: Films with the best use of tracking shots in film?

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your overall thoughts on stop motion animation.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your rating and thoughts on Keith David in The Nice Guys.

RatedRStar said...

Louis: How would you rank all of the um..Jesususus lol.

RatedRStar said...

Murder on the Orient Express comes out tomorrow,, what does everyone reckon in terms of reviews, I reckon they will be just ok, its difficult to see it getting great reviews because, the interesting part is not who the murderer is because most people know who the killer is, but the journey getting there and that is a tough sell for some movies.

Luke Higham said...

RatedRStar: It should be fine, Period is Branagh's expertise, so it'll be decent enough at least.

Luke Higham said...

Top Ten Prediction
1. Irons
2. Brandauer
3. Dafoe
4. Neville
5. Hoskins (Upgraded)
6. Keaton
7. Bogosian
8. Caine
9. Martin
10. Malkovich

Calvin Law said...

Just saw Ragnorak. Enjoyable but not without flaws. Some Wilderpeople heights but the villain side of things is underwhelming.

Henry W said...

Louis and you guys: your thoughts on Paul Thomas Anderson citing the film Rebecca as a major influence on Phantom Thread.

Luke Higham said...

I saw Ragnarok, liked it much more than Calvin. Probably my 2nd favourite Comic Book film of 2017.

Hemsworth - 4
Hiddleston - 3.5
Blanchett - 4.5
Elba - 3
Goldblum - 4
Thompson - 3.5/4
Urban - 3
Ruffalo - 3
Hopkins - 3

Calvin Law said...

For me:

Hemsworth - 4
Hiddleston - 3.5
Blanchett - 3
Elba - 3
Goldblum - 3.5/4
Thompson - 3/3.5
Urban - 3
Ruffalo - 3.5
Hopkins - 3

Thoughts on request :)

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I actually meant to give Blanchett a 3.5.

Your thoughts on Hemsworth, Blanchett, Hiddleston and Goldblum.

Calvin Law said...

Hemsworth - (well this is easily the best Thor film and in turn, the best portrayal of Thor brought to the silver screen. Hemsworth this time round chooses to focus on mostly the pure comic side of the God of Thunder as an enjoyably oafish and wisecracking lug, and excels consistently. He's a delightful lead, particularly in contrast to his previous bland outings, and actually did well enough in his more serious moments too, especially his scenes with Odin)

Blanchett - (I was pretty disappointed on the whole given how well Marvel have done with their villains this year otherwise. Blanchett does all she can with the role but it's honestly all just generic cackling and power-hungry glances, though I did like the few moments she got to break out of that mould in a comical fashion)

Hiddleston - (honestly probably his least impressive turn as the character, but it befits the film. The callousness and pain is sort of pushed aside in favour of his mischief, which is perfectly fine since it's very enjoyable to watch all the same, and his chemistry with Hemsworth is particularly good here)

Goldblum - (at his most Goldblum-y, and could've gotten old if it had gone on any longer, but he was a delight every second he was onscreen as a Grandmaster with such an unearned sense of superiority)

Also, I'd give Taika Waititi a 3.5 for being one of the most hilarious rock monster and worst rebel leaders in recent memory.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Same with Waititi.

Luke Higham said...

It appears MOTOE, won't be in the Oscar race this year apart from Costumes and Production Design.

Louis Morgan said...


I almost feel like reviewing Keitel due to the razzies's incompetence.

Hershey - 2.5(Felt she was the weak link here actually as I did not feel she really made her role all that alluring in either a purely sensual sense or a deeper purer romantic sense either. She's not terrible but I just think the role could had a greater impact than what she delivers.)

Stanton - 3.5(Now no one is cast as the usually biblical type of actor and Stanton certainly is one of them there. I found him to be quite good in his two extreme sides first in his scene of brutal intensity to silence Jesus's message. I then found him quite good in his preaching scene first as the overt preacher, then later his scene withe Dafoe portraying such a real emotional concern for what he believes is the importance in the words.)

Bowie - 3(Perhaps a bit underused although oddly enough this is probably one of the most straight forward performances as Bowie just make for a good Pilate, as an authority figure, no more no less.)

Caton - 3.5(Found her quite effective in creating a sense of some sort of pure warmth to her words yet there was always something just a little off in what she does that does well to allude to the true nature of her character.)

I'll admit I was initially a little taken aback by Gabriel's score because it is very 80's and also not a score you'd expect in a biblical film. After awhile though I found it quite effective actually and helped to realize Scorsese's unique vision for this particular telling of the Christ story. There are elements of sort of both middle eastern music, and of the biblical epics yet with a modern spin that works I found.



Haven't seen enouhg.

Henry W:

Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, Children of Men, Boogie Nights, Game of Thrones (Watchers on the Wall), Paths of Glory, The Player.

PTA alluding to Rebecca makes me even more excited for the film than I already was.


Stop Motion is a great form of animation just like any form there is great stop motion and lazy stop motion. It offers a completely unique style of visuals when done well, and along with traditional hand drawn I greatly prefer it to CG animation.


Gave my thoughts on him when the film originally came out.


1. Dafoe
2. Robert Powell (though a re-watch could give him the top spot)
3. Ted Neeley
4. Jim Caviezel
5. John Hurt
6. Guy from the Robe

N/A guy from Ben-Hur since he never even says anything, though that is one of my favorite cinematic depictions of Jesus.