In less than two weeks, the 92nd Academy Awards will air; millions will watch and argue about the nominees awarded, the dresses worn and the speeches given. There are clear contenders for each category — anyone following this awards season is positive that Brad Pitt is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” (2019) and Laura Dern will certainly take home Best Supporting Actress for “Marriage Story” (2019). And these wins are certainly fine. Pitt is the best part about “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and not just because of that shirtless scene — which was the hottest thing ever — but also because Pitt’s performance (whether intentional or not) carries the film. Likewise, Dern makes herself standout amongst other fantastic performances in “Marriage Story;” one might be tempted to argue that her performance in “Little Women” (2019) deserves to be nominated far more than this one, but as long as Dern wins an Oscar, all is well.
One category at this year’s Oscars is greatly troubling. Yes, the sheer lack of diversity across categories makes the entire Oscars distressing and upsetting — especially the absence of nominations for any actors from “Parasite” (2019) — but the Best Actor category seems to be dominated by one performance in particular. While it might seem as though Joaquin Phoenix’s nightmarish performance in the dumpster fire “Joker” (2019) is what everyone’s talking about, it’s time to revisit Jonathan Pryce’s role as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, otherwise known as the current Pope Francis, in “The Two Popes” (2019). Pryce is far more deserving than most of his fellow nominees for his thoughtful and delicate performance.
“The Two Popes” is certainly not the best film of 2019. It’s an interesting story, a film that ruminates on religion’s place in the modern world and the struggle between conservative traditions and new ideas. Pryce and Anthony Hopkins — nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Pope Benedict XVI — represent that struggle quite literally. As Bergoglio desperately tries to resign due to his growing disagreements with much of the church’s stances on gay marriage, abortion and Catholicism’s role in society, Pope Benedict reaffirms his beliefs in traditional ideals. The conflict is palpable in the film’s incredible screenplay. Each actor is given more than enough monologues to play with and plenty of wonderful one-liners. Pryce and Hopkins are utterly electric together, delivering slow-moving scenes that showcase acting at its finest.
But gosh, Pryce manages to outshine Hopkins. If Hopkins’ performance is steak — expensive, flavorful, but not for everyone — then Pryce is a bowl of chicken noodle soup — soothing, soulful and comforting. It might seem impossible that Pryce can even go toe-to-toe with the powerhouse that is Hopkins, but Pryce’s performance is far more realized. Every mannerism, word and action is understood; nothing is left to chance or whim. It’s a ruminative performance that shows that you don’t have to go through any crazy transformation to become a historical — or fictional — character. This isn’t to question the work behind any other performance nominated for Best Actor. Antonio Banderas is a surprise nomination for “Pain and Glory” (2019) — yes, a surprise, but a welcome one — and Adam Driver makes gold out of everything he touches. Leonardo DiCaprio is … an interesting choice for giving the same tired performance in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” that he’s given throughout his filmography. Phoenix is the good part of “Joker.”
But Pryce secures this nomination because of how fully he realizes the struggles of his character. “The Two Popes” gives him space to do that; there’s no absurd antics, plot twists or spicy moments. The film works because it gives Pryce what he needs in order to perform the best he can. This isn’t to say that there aren’t parts of “The Two Popes” that don’t necessarily work: annoying flashbacks that are far too long and break the chemistry between Pryce and Hopkins, weird editing that almost ruins the beautifully simple cinematography and setting. Again, it’s not the best film of 2019, but it harbors one of the best performances of the year.
So, what now? Well, Pryce isn’t favored to win — four guesses who is — but it’s laughable to think that what is nominated or wins the awards is always the best. “The Two Popes” has most likely fallen off lists of what audiences are going to watch (or re-watch) before the Academy Awards, but it shouldn’t be. If anything, it should be near the top; it’s got three nominations and most likely won’t win for any of them, but sometimes the underdogs are the films that deserve another viewing. Give “The Two Popes” a go — it’s on Netflix and Pryce makes it well worth the watch.