Jean-Claude Van Damme did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying himself in JCVD.
Jean-Claude Van Damme aka "the muscles from Brussels" made a name for himself in the late eighties and early nineties as an ex-kick boxer turned actor in a string of actions films. Although few hold those films in the regard of high art he did achieve a certain popularity, although not for his acting ability. In fact Van Damme's struggle with perhaps the English language frequently became a point of derision. As with most action stars, despite endearing himself to some audiences, he faded away just like most of them as the general view of the films as low quality in no way cemented him as a cinematic mainstay beyond them. As that sort of faction of the action genre fell mostly towards the straight to DVD bin as did Van Damme. A notable exception in this was this film that fell onto Van Damme shoulders, a film that required far less action from him, and for Van Damme to, well, to act. Act as "himself" however as I always I will stress this is easier said than done, and common derision of someone only playing him or herself should never be used, since bringing your best self across on screen is a challenge in itself. Van Damme's work though goes beyond that though as he is not playing Van Damme as the average citizen, or even average movie star, but rather someone being tested to the limits by the situation he is placed in.
Now I guess the first question though here is can Jean-Claude Van Damme act at all since he was better known for his splits than his dramatic ability. Well one can instantly answer this question with a resounding, yes. He can not only act he can do so much within his portrayal of Van Damme's plight within this film which goes far beyond a simple gimmick. Now there is of course some fun to be had from this in a few scenes where we see Van Damme sort of living his life as the celebrity who everyone has a great deal of expectations of where ever he goes. Van Damme captures the light comedy of this incredibly well. First just in his moments of portraying just the state of just trying to be lightly charming even when also reflecting that the man certainly has more going on in his mind at the time. Van Damme captures this dynamic well both in less problematic circumstances such as just taking pictures with a couple fans quickly, or when dealing with his overly aggressive taxi driver. Van Damme is actually rather amusing in finding just this quiet exasperation not as a dismissive ego but rather a disbelief over the driver's attitude for him merely being tired. These are little moments well realized by Van Damme that lightly play with his image.
We are not given just a distant look at the man though as we follow him during a rough patch where he is finding little decent work, and has lost the custody of his daughter. Van Damme is surprisingly effective in bringing to life the world weariness within his eyes as he suffers one grievance after another. Van Damme however doesn't overwhelm this to the point of becoming one note finding a occasionally a more comedic angle when dealing with the nonsense of his agent, or from hearing the news that he lost out on a part because Steven Seagal was willing to cut off his ponytail for a role. Van Damme has just the right type of fun at his own expense in these moments in finding a different sort of weariness in his reactions as though the world is playing a bit of a joke on him. Van Damme though is most remarkable though in how all the early scenes, chronologically speaking, he shows a man very much taking in just every bad thing that is happening to him. He realizes that stress of it though as he delivers so well it as an embodiment just through that exasperation and a slightly growing intensity in his physical manner. This is until he arrives to a post office in his home town of Brussels where he is denied a transfer essential to maintain his legal counsel.
Technically speaking his performance is already surprising up until this point however this is the one major indication of some untapped or unrealized talent on his part. Van Damme is incredible in the scene as he brilliantly unleashes the emotional tension within himself. The outrage is dripping with very much this terrible desperation that Van Damme finds in every word a desperation alluding to a definite sorrow revealing the real view of his life. When he is initially told the post office is in fact being robbed Van Damme is also great in portraying the way of trying to put on a star persona again. In just realizing such a genuine apology and ardent disbelief when he believes it is initially just a prank being played upon him. It of course turns out to be a real robbery which leads to Van Damme to become a different type of hero within this story than is usual the case for him. Van Damme is better here than he ever was as the "quipping action hero" type in revealing a far more grounded figure here as Van Damme has to try to save himself, the hostage, and maneuver around the criminals as well. Van Damme is great in providing this certain balance within his work in these interactions as he does note simply reverts to the Van Damme formula, other than a special exception I'll get to later, providing a far more nuanced depiction fitting to the situation.
Van Damme is great in the moments where he interacts with each of the criminals showing sort of the man playing the different sides to each. In dealing with the most psychotic of the group Van Damme most directly just tries to put up the front of a strict calm of a hostage doing whatever it takes to please his potentially murderous captors. This is opposed to his interactions with one of the robbers who is also big fan of Van Damme. Van Damme in these moments brings back sort of the adjusted modest celebrity in these interactions. Van Damme properly maintains this strict undercurrent of genuine concern towards the hostages, and also this subtle unease revealing his own fears towards his own safety as well. He keeps this a direct constant within his work at all times even while he plays the part of the "robber" for the criminals, as in his eyes always revealing the truth of the matter even when he lies in moments. Now as good as Van Damme in leading up to all of this what makes this performance truly stand out is the moment where Van Damme is briefly literally lifted off the set and out of the scene to deliver a long take monologue directly towards the audience.
Although there were naysayers towards this scene when the film initially premiered it has become the most famous scene of the film, and I say rightfully so. In the scene Van Damme not only reveals essentially his feelings towards the present situation in the film, but also examines his life and career up to this point. Now already taking in the extra element of the situation of the film moves this away from simply playing himself, however one should not hand wave what Van Damme does when speaking of his own life. Van Damme has no simplifications in the moment speaking clearly of experience yet projecting it with the power of a great performer. Van Damme does not tread lightly in this regard remarking not only on his troubled career, but also his failed marriages and his drug addiction of the past. There is such a strict honesty in every word as it feels as though Van Damme is simply revealing his soul to you as he speaks. What I love though is it is not a simple airing of grievances anything remotely in that vein. He speaks to what inspired him in the past and we get that sense of a long ago dream that carries such poignancy. Van Damme specific delivery of "Ooss" the spoken word of the samurai code reveals such a profound passion as connected to the nature of martial arts. This quickly against his direct and blunt response offered by Hollywood of "We're gonna fuck him", towards that original optimism that perhaps defined his dream broken by harsh realities. He is heartbreaking in revealing essentially these losses of that initial spirit, and his own decay as a person. There is a deeply apologetic element as he directly acknowledges the sins of the past with such a potent anguish. His declaration of having accomplished nothing is presented with such harrowing truth in Van Damme's eyes and in his voice. It is an incredible scene as Van Damme offers such a real vulnerability as he seems to grant this insight into a man's life without a single barrier keeping us from seeing his real wounds, and lost dreams. This is far beyond any standard action hero, although I will say I have great affection where Van Damme brings that alive for a single brief fantasy sequence where we get of grandiose Van Damming which Van Damme plays for all its worth with both his over the top roundhouse then his even more absurd playing to the crowd, which stands as an entertaining moment though just a facet that is part of this performance. This is outstanding work by Jean-Claude Van Damme. He entertains by playing with his image without becoming a caricature of himself as you might expect with a star playing himself but he goes so much further as he also offers a
truly moving depiction of a man coming to grips with his own failures.