Ex Machina had a little bit of Oscar buzz when it first hit theaters. Then, in the ebb and flow of awards season, it disappeared from the Academy Awards discussion for a time. Now, at the exact right time, it has made a bit of a comeback, perhaps working its way to a Best Original Screenplay nomination (as well as other technical categories). Sadly, its most deserving participant looks to be left on the sidelines: Oscar Isaac. This article examines his singular performance and the absurdity of him not being the favorite for Best Supporting Actor.
I’ve written enough about Ex Machina (here and here) that I don’t need to rehash in this space. Suffice to say, the movie is moody, atmospheric, and very smart. The three leads are excellent. But I don’t think I saw a performance this year that I was more blown away by than Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. I have seen his name show up on MANY lists of writers’ Oscar wishes (Two examples: Variety and Rogerebert.com). For whatever reason, though, Isaac is not on any “Probable Oscar nomination” short lists. The movie shows up in some Best Screenplay discussions and Alicia Vikander has an outside shot at a Best Supporting Actress nom (though her true hope lies in The Danish Girl) and it may get some tech nominations, as well. But no Oscar Isaac. The character he and the script (by director Alex Garland) created is an enigma, but an ever-compelling one. He is a genius who is cocky, silly, menacing, angry, and maddeningly mysterious. His motives are gorgeously suspect up until the very end. It’s brilliant. Although the movie is ostensibly about Domhnall Gleeson and Vikander, I was almost always more interested in Isaac. That is not a knock on the movie at all, which is gripping and thought-provoking, simply a tribute to Oscar Isaac and his devious, exciting mind. He has a dance scene partway through the movie that was unlike anything I saw in the movies all year. Though the script most certainly called for it, he put a sinister spin on it (as well as learning all the dance moves with aplomb).
At the end of any movie year, as the Oscars approach, movie fans around the globe lament that many of their favorite movies, performances, and songs will not be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We feel like everybody else is missing something that only we, in our amazing insight, could recognize. With Oscar Isaac’s performance, it seems that everybody recognized it, but for some reason, those with the voting power are just not going to nominate it. I don’t know if it was too small of a movie. I don’t know if it was just too quirky of a role. I really don’t know. Perhaps after his starring roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse, Isaac will receive more publicity and notoriety, which will eventually translate into well-deserved Oscar nominations for his smaller movie roles. Last year, Isaac was a dark horse contender for his brooding, commanding performance in A Most Violent Year. In both cases, even with almost universal acclaim and a fairly solid spot on the Hollywood ladder (he starred as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe), Isaac has been left off of the short list. With A Most Violent Year, I could see the subtlety of the performance and the relatively few people who saw it being a detriment to his eventual nomination, but Ex Machina comes from a respected Hollywood writer (and surprisingly steady first-time director) and brings a lot of buzz with it for Vikander’s star-making role. Oscar Isaac should be dominating the Supporting Actor discussion.
Our Oscar Watch series is about discussing the various interesting possibilities as the nominations approach, yes, but it’s also about bringing attention to some people and movies that once had attention and have lost it or even those that have never had any attention paid to them at all. Oscar Isaac’s powerhouse performance in Ex Machina will only gain in popularity and esteem through the coming years. It will end up being a signpost on the way to his eventual place as one of the greatest actors of our time. I truly believe that. If the Oscar voters want, they can give the world notice by honoring the indelible character he created in 2015. For now, Oscar Isaac, like his fictional CEO Nathan, will remain a dazzling enigma, deserving of acclaim, but content with his hard-won privacy.