Movies

Why Ethan Hawke is perfect (and I’ll have words with anyone who says otherwise)

We always say it, but in reality, it’s rare that an actor or
really anyone who practices a craft gets better with age. Ethan
Hawke, however, may just be the one quiet, glimmering
exception. This year alone, the actor seamlessly moved from
sardonic rom-com heartthrob in Juliet, Naked to
tortured lead in First Reformed. In the latter, he
plays a pastor struggling with his faith as his church’s
attendance falters. Despite a positive critical response when
it was first released, the film has been relatively sidelined
in talk of the year’s best. Nevertheless, earlier this week,
Hawke won a Gotham Award for his performance.

While for many, the honour was a gentle reminder that Hawke is
still working; for me, an independent film award seemed the
perfect way to honour an actor who, for three decades, has
spent his career seeking neither fame nor fortune, but rather,
like a tractor moseying along on a lazy summer afternoon,
simply to do his job reliably.

Ethan Hawke — his face, his voice, that shrug and eyebrow raise
he’s been endearingly modelling for four decades — is part of
my pop-culture marrow. As a child of the ’90s, I like to
believe his career was born in the same era I was, and grew
alongside me with his roles in Reality Bites, A Midnight
Clear
and — of course — Dead

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Poets Society. Despite his mainstream popularity, you
would never find him hanging in my high-school locker, holding
court as the inspiration for my MSN Messenger handle or even
stuck to the wall with poster-putty above my bed. He
was far more likely to have his clipped magazine photo
wedged in my novel as a makeshift bookmark: a buried treasure.

The boyish charm that launched his career has mostly faded. His
voice has picked up a gravelly edge over time, his eyes are set
deeper, his brows more furrowed. His hair, once boasting the
gently tousled flow of a teenage heartthrob, has thinned. But
his is an aging that befits a fine wine; an exemplary bottling
of maturity put on screen in both Boyhood and the
Before trilogy, which feel particularly genuine,
likely because Hawke had a hand in crafting both characters
over the years each took to make. Or maybe because he himself
went through an iconic romance (and ensuing divorce). Oozing a
sense of blue-collar normalcy, it isn’t hard to imagine him
pulling a rough-and-tumble 9-to-5, commuting home in time for
dinner, catching a baseball game before putting his kids to
bed. And yet, a hint of original hipster lingers; though any
iota of pretension has dissolved over time.

In a recent cover story for GQ, he recalled a
conversation with Paul Schrader, in which he asked the director
why he thought so many of “the greats” aren’t doing as
high-quality work as they did in the ’70s. Schrader’s answer:
“The middle-class lifestyle isn’t enough.” Hawke, a perennial
player of the indie game, added, “And ultimately a middle-class
lifestyle was always enough for me. Like, I needed to pay my
doctors’ bills and I needed to get my kids to school — but I
don’t need three pairs of shoes. One pair of shoes is fine. And
I don’t need more bedrooms. I don’t need bedrooms for fantasy
houseguests, you know, that don’t arrive.”

Indeed, he maintains the personage and innocent familiarity of
a boy you once knew in the first grade and caught the eyes of,
decades later, in your hometown grocery store. He feels
distressingly, romantically real. At 48, a youthful frenetic
energy still roils through his body from frame to frame as he
dances through each performance as if there is a universe of
emotion waiting between his bones to come forward, fully
inhabiting each of his roles. Yet, he never goes method; he
doesn’t need to. His resumé is a cornucopia of sorely
under-appreciated gems — Maudie, Maggie’s Plan, Born to Be
Blue
just in the last few years — in which he aches and
bleeds a profound tenderness found deep within his characters.
The underlying passion of his recent performances makes it
moving just to watch him gaze longingly at his co-star (or, in
the case of Born to Be Blue, his trumpet).

So, one wonders, what are the odds for Hawke, as an actor at
his peak, to add an Oscar to his mantel alongside that lonely
Gotham Award? Like a true buried treasure, the depths of his
talent are unlikely to be discovered or celebrated. But what
could be more on brand for an actor who, despite being at the
top of his game, has made a career of being overlooked? It’s a
testament to just how meaningless winning the gold has and
always will be and how avoiding recognition can sometimes be
the greatest credit that an actor can earn.

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