Certain movie stars go their entire careers without ever truly getting the kudos they deserve. Sure, everybody and their mother is fond of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Meryl Streep, and Brad Pitt; they’ve given enough iconic performances to provide their audiences with a lifetime’s worth of Oscar clips. Other stars – stars who consistently play it subtle, stars who would rather be the anchor in a scene where the lead actors are gunning for that coveted golden statue – are more prone to fly under the radar. The history of cinema is filled with these invaluable supporting players, many of whom end up being as memorable, if not more so, than their big-name counterparts.
Although it’s misleading to label him a “supporting player,” at least these days, Ethan Hawke is nevertheless an actor who very much fits this aforementioned description, which is why many of us were freaking out (in a good way) when there was real Oscar talk for the actor’s career-best role as a despondent man of the cloth in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.” That Hawke is excellent in “First Reformed” certainly wasn’t news to any of his fans when that film was released a couple of years ago. Hawke has proven to be one of our most reliable movie stars for more than three decades now; he’s one of those actors who is consistently either the best thing about the film he’s in or somehow able to overcome the limitations of a movie that otherwise isn’t working. And although this remains a cursed, neverending dumpster fire of a year, we are still being blessed with a new series that features Hawke in a starring role. It’s a minor pleasure, sure, but in 2020, we’ll take what we can get. In this case, that work is “The Good Lord Bird,” a new Showtime limited series (arriving October 4) where Hawke plays American abolitionist John Brown, a performance so delightfully unhinged, wild, and surprisingly funny, it should earn its own implied spot on this list too.
Here, we present an Essentials List that looks back on the greatest performances of Mr. Hawke’s singular and incredible career.
“Dead Poets Society” (1989)
Be honest, dear reader: when you think about “Dead Poets Society,” what actor comes to mind? We’re certain that at least 90% of people would say Robin Williams, whose unforgettable character – that would be John Keating, resident poetry maven at Welton Academy for Boys – is arguably the purest distillation of the actor’s inimitably maniacal and delicately childlike screen sensibility. And yet, while Williams undeniably owns most of the movie’s best lines, “Dead Poets Society” is also notable for introducing the world at large to a then-eighteen-year-old newcomer named Ethan Hawke. Hawke is as vulnerable and emotionally open as he’s ever been in Peter Weir’s 1989 coming-of-age milestone, largely because he’s unable to play off of his famously laid-back public persona (which didn’t really exist yet) and forced to fill in the contours of his performance with more telling personal details. Hawke is fresh-faced and not fully formed here, but we can still see embers of the incendiary talent that would take root and blossom in subsequent years. Weir’s film is a lovingly matter-of-fact drama about young men searching for their place in the world, and Hawke is as fine an audience surrogate as we could have asked for to guide us along that particular journey. – NL
“Reality Bites” (1994)
“Reality Bites” may not be the most memorable film that Ben Stiller ever directed, but this snapshot of Gen X disaffection will forever be remembered for giving us one of the most purely ’90s performances of all time in the form of Ethan Hawke’s magnificently indifferent coffee shop guitarist and full-time wastrel, Troy Dyer. Hawke’s turn in Stiller’s quintessential grunge-era dramedy is a masterful shrug of a performance, effortlessly encapsulating the ennui of an entire generation and distilling it into one shaggy-haired, curiously winning character. Likable though he may be, Troy is a bit of a dunce. He’s too stupid to know what to do with the affection of a woman who is clearly more capable than he is, and he can’t seem to hold on to a minimum-wage job for longer than a week. In any other actor’s hands, Troy would seem like a shiftless, entitled, bozo, but because Hawke is one of our most naturally sympathetic actors, he emerges as perhaps the movie’s most memorable character, certainly more so than the irritating TV exec played by Stiller himself. Troy is finally forced to grow up when he experiences his first real taste of tragedy near the end of the film, and in these more dramatic moments, Hawke shows tantalizing glimpses of the tenderness and humanity that would propel him toward more complex parts later in his career. – NL
Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” is the kind of movie we used to see a lot of in the late ’90s: it’s a sleek, sexy, well-engineered dystopic yarn unapologetically made for Hollywood audiences, populated by beautiful actors, and filled with no shortage of confounding sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. The movie’s premise is actually kind of great, even when the movie itself is not: Niccol’s directorial debut envisions a society where eugenics is a very real issue, and its plot revolves around what happens when one ordinary man (Hawke) attempts to step into the shoes, so to speak, of a purportedly extraordinary one (Jude Law, naturally). “Gattaca” sees Hawke truly coming into his own, shedding the boyish qualities that defined his performances in “Dead Poets Society” and “Reality Bites.” The film also confirmed Hawke’s ability to play a genuinely convincing everyman, not to mention his aptitude for lending humanity to a somewhat under-realized character who’s at the center of a big, busy Hollywood production. “Gattaca” is also fairly juicy when you consider that Hawke met Uma Thurman during principal photography and the two were married a mere year later (admittedly, their scenes together see the movie at its most interesting). “Gattaca” probably doesn’t hold up as well as it should today, but Hawke’s performance most certainly does.
The ‘Before‘ Trilogy: “Before Sunrise,” (1995) “Before Sunset,” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013)
Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke seem like peas in a pod, really, which is possibly one of the reasons they’ve made so many films together. Hawke is one of our most decent-seeming leading men, and he has come to embody the kindness and sense of curiosity that frequently informs Mr. Linklater’s best work. In terms of their collaborative efforts, it feels safe to say that the two will be remembered for Linklater’s stellar “Before” trilogy, a languid and bittersweet romantic triptych that follows two lovers named Jesse and Celine as they hang out in various European locales, talk at great length about any number of topics, and bask in the magical presence of each other’s company. “Before Sunrise,” the first chapter, was one of Linklater’s big early successes, and Hawke is unreasonably charming as the kind of dude who can convince a beautiful stranger to waste an entire day with him in Vienna. “Before Sunset” catches up with Jesse and Celine some years later in Paris, and partially thanks to Hawke’s wise and winsome turn, it remains the strongest film in the trilogy. In “Before Midnight,” Jesse and Celine are now parents with decidedly grown-up responsibilities, and Hawke’s chemistry with his co-star Julie Delpy feels as believably messy and raw and real as ever. Hawke has considered the idea of a fourth and final “Before” movie, although he has emphasized that it will only happen if he and the filmmakers “have something to say.” If it gives us an excuse to hang out with these lovable wanderers one more time, count us in. – NL
You could argue that there is a certain regality required to play Hamlet, Shakespeare’s gloomy prince of Denmark, that is reflected in the caliber of actors who have taken a crack at the role over the years. It’s an intimidating list, one that includes the likes of Christopher Plummer, Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, and more. In this sort of company, an actor like Mr. Hawke might seem a bit… well, unassuming. And yet, there’s a sneaky but authentic gravitas to Hawke’s take on the character as epitomized in the 2000 reimagining of “Hamlet,” helmed by Michael Almareyda, who directed Hawke in this year’s unconventional biopic “Tesla.” Some actors tend to bite off more than they can chew when they tackle Shakespeare, but Hawke never strains for the character’s pathos. Frankly, he’s better than the movie, which is a typically paranoid bit of punk-literary revisionism awash in a very 2000s visual patina (let’s just say that Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy takes place inside a Blockbuster video because the character is, like many of you reading this, really into movies). Not every actor in the ensemble can handle the transposing of the Bard’s daunting dialect to the movie’s modern-day New York milieu, but Hawke, consummate pro that he is, does just that and makes it look effortless. – NL
“Training Day” (2001)
Not to state what should be plain as day, but it can’t be easy going toe-to-toe with an actor of Denzel Washington’s stature. Washington is one of the great leading men of all time, and those who can’t hang in a scene, let alone a movie with him are sometimes chewed up and spat out. He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in that way: if step into a scene with the dude, you’d better bring your A-game. Not only does Hawke bring his A+ game in Antoine Fuqua’s blistering 2001 police drama “Training Day,” it could be argued (persuasively, in this writer’s opinion) that Hawke gives a more nuanced, controlled, layered performance than his more explosive co-star. Hear me out: while Washington is absolutely phenomenal in “Training Day,” it’s Hawke who is tasked with grounding the movie’s increasingly implausible series of plot twists in something approximating credible human reality. As impressionable but tough LAPD rookie Jake Hoyt, Hawke masterfully conveys what it must be like to get a 24-hour masterclass in what constitutes “street justice” from a badge-wielding psychopath who, at one point, forces him to smoke PCP with a gun aimed at his head. While Washington’s turn is full of the actor’s signature bombast and aplomb, Hawke’s quiet, measured, ticking-time-bomb energy is ultimately what brings “Training Day” across the finish line. – NL