The Best Actor category at this year’s Oscars has been the subject of much discussion. Many believe the award will go to Austin Butler, the young heartthrob who portrayed Elvis in the eponymous biopic last year. Despite praise for Butler, many think Brendan Fraser will take the award home instead. Some have made the case for Colin Farrell, whose acting relies far less on makeup or prosthetics than the other two. Although it remains unlikely, Bill Nighy undoubtedly has a slight chance for his role in Living, and the Academy loves to award reverent nods to cinema of the past (Living is based on Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru). There’s one more nominee, however, but nobody seems to take him seriously. It’s absurd that Paul Mescal isn’t getting discussed as much as the others and has been pigeonholed into the “it’s an honor to be nominated” group. It’s particularly absurd considering the fact that he gives the best performance captured on screen this year.
Mescal is admittedly less of a household name than the others. The 27-year-old Irishman first garnered acclaim after his role in the Hulu miniseries Normal People. Sharing the screen with Daisy Edgar-Jones, Mescal won a BAFTA TV Award and scored a nomination for a Primetime Emmy. Despite it, he remained relatively unknown, particularly outside of the U.K. He then appeared in well-received yet not widely known roles in God’s Creatures and Maggie Gylenhall’s The Lost Daughter. Then came Aftersun.
The directorial debut of Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, the film Aftersun follows Callum (Mescal), a young, divorced father who goes on vacation to Turkey with his 12-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). Callum grapples with the disappointment of his life as he is forced to rapidly mature in order to raise Sophie. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful, equal parts crushing and hopeful. You would assume it got at least a handful of Oscar nominations, right? Best Director for Wells? Best Supporting Actress for Corio? Perhaps Best Cinematography, for the excellent photography done by Gregory Oke? If you assumed that, you’d be wrong. The Academy’s bias against indie films led to Aftersun nabbing just the one nomination for Mescal. Regardless of the poor choices made, there is no one more deserving of the award than Paul Mescal.
His performance as Callum is, put plainly, breathtaking. The subtlety with which he conveys his misery is brilliant; portraying that emotion while hiding it under a facade of contention takes remarkable effort – yet Mescal makes it look easy. Every time Sophie pesters him, you can feel his subtle irritation. Every time he enjoys a nice moment with his daughter, you can feel his hesitancy to fully embrace the moment. Callum knows that it won’t last, but on the rare occasion that he decides to let himself have some fun, a wave of relief washes over you, in no small part due to Mescal’s commitment and expression. The filmmaking perfectly accompanies his powerful acting: long, quiet shots framed in front of the background of a cheap, colorful vacation resort fill the film, and his labored expressions contrast beautifully with the bright sun and glistening ocean. In short, Mescal conveys an emotion so powerful that it’s rarely portrayed well: dread. Pure, tangible dread, so omnipresent and unwavering that you could cut it with a knife. It’s truly astounding.
“But Austin Butler talks just like Elvis!” Firstly, please stop talking. Secondly, just because an actor does a solid job at imitating a real person doesn’t make it a great performance (looking at you, Rami Malek and Will Smith). Since 2015, four of the seven winners have been in biopics, which is to say, way too many. As for Brendan Fraser, he too wears more than his share of prosthetics and makeup. If the actor we see on screen is so distant from the real actor, is it really Fraser’s performance or is he just doing a voiceover for the character? I have less negative things to say about Farrell as he delivered a great performance, but still, he can’t hold a candle to Mescal. Bill Nighy may not be as reliant on makeup as the others, but Living is quite possibly the most Oscar bait-y movie ever. Someone needs to let the Academy know that just because there’s a British man over the age of 65 in a movie doesn’t mean he automatically deserves to be nominated.
Paul Mescal is young. This likely won’t be his last Oscar nomination. Many have used that point as a way to justify why someone else deserves the award, but their logic is dubious at best. The Best Actor award is meant to, as the name would suggest, award the Best Actor. If that’s the case, then why should we take into consideration age, experience, and whether the film was an expensive studio film or an indie? Come on, Oscars, I’m counting on you. It’s time that we consider Paul Mescal, and give the man some respect.