As I perused the Oscar nominations, I realized that suddenly Jonah Hill has two career nominations. Two nominations by age 30 would be impressive for anyone, but for the guy who started here? Astounding. I do not mean to take away from Hill. I happen to find him consistently entertaining. This article came about, rather, because as I read up on the nominations, I realized that Robert Redford — given his failure to secure a bid for All is Lost — remains stuck at one career acting nomination, one less than Jonah Hill. To be fair, I am a HUGE Redford fan. The Sundance Kid and Roy Hobbs and The Sting played large roles in shaping my love for movies. Nevertheless, hearing this sentence — “Jonah Hill has more Academy Award acting nominations than Robert Redford” — must come off as odd to others as well. My first reaction was “how can this be?! Chubby Superbad Seth has doubled Robert Redford’s Oscar haul by age 30? Anarchy!” But now I think it just might be ok.
First, allow me to fill those of you in who have better things to do with your time than dig into Oscar history. Hill has received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, after getting a nod two years ago in the same category, for Moneyball. Redford, on the other hand, received a Best Actor nomination in 1974 for The Sting. That’s it. Full disclosure: Redford was nominated as director of Quiz Show and Ordinary People, of which he won for the latter. He also received an honorary statuette in 2002 for his lifelong achievements. Certainly the Academy recognizes his contributions to the industry, but does he deserve more?
At first I answered “DUH, he’s Robert Redford.” Upon further examination, I think I may have to alter my response. I think the Academy may actually have this one right. When I get asked the unanswerable “what’s your favorite movie?” I usually give a noncommittal explanation, but one of the few movies that creeps into my mind is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Forever etched into my Rushmore of favorite films, the movie gets me every time. So where is the love for Redford (and Paul Newman)? Neither received a nomination for their roles, though the movie did garner awards for Burt Bacharach and screenwriter William Goldman, as well as Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography. Thinking on it, I suppose the perfect script, score, and scenery do make the movie. I adore Redford and Newman together, but I must admit they do seem to merely fit perfectly into an ideal situation, rather than creating movie gold themselves. I accept this lacking, though it certainly heightens my interest in the performances that did receive nominations in 1970…
I cannot and will not argue against Redford not winning for The Sting. Check out this list of Best Actor nominees for the 1974 awards: Jack Lemmon (won), Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Redford. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Five guys who can make anything worth watching, so I see no value in arguing here. Once I got past these two Redford-Newman masterpieces, pillars of my movie-watching life, I began to understand the former’s lack of Oscar love. Redford has filled many large shoes and been handed many golden scripts, only to suffer the consequences. The Great Gatsby may be the great American novel, but the 1974 film adaptation is not really great in any sense of the word, doomed perhaps by the impossibility of realizing Fitzgerald’s literary fever dream. From there, Redford starred in plenty of blockbusters and Oscar-nominated works, watching colleagues take home Academy prizes for Out of Africa and All the President’s Men. I still wondered in amazement how Johnny Hooker and Sundance and Roy Hobbs and Jay Gatsby had not found a way to get Redford an Oscar, but eventually I settled down. There were undoubtedly snubs in the years of these characters and maybe even in the movies from which they came, but I do not think Redford was ever one of them. And that’s ok.
Redford has never amazed or shocked, instead molding an iconic career out of quietly impressing, intriguing, and conveying the notion that the man on the screen in front of us is considering far more important things than the events before him. He gets agitated, but never so much so as to risk breaking his stoic exterior, or moving that angelic hair (before you keep reading without clicking that last link, let it be known that it is one of the greatest back and forths I have ever come across). He does not appeal to us with ecstatic behavior or unraveling a character’s emotional layers, thriving instead on the quiet recognitions of his own humanity, or mortality. He tells us, “You know me. I’m just like you.” Beside having that hair, piercing eyes, and the definition of “movie-star looks,” I think he’s right. He’s just like the rest of us in his performances, through Gatsby’s fragility and Hobbs’ pride and Sundance’s desire for more.
So what does this have to do with Hill? Why does our lovable, (no longer) chubby pal suddenly show the ability to churn out Oscar nominations? What does this say about the way we watch movies? After Superbad and other comedic breakthroughs, Hill seemed destined for MTV Movie Awards and high box-office totals. I remember being stunned when hearing of his Moneyball nomination, but now I sort of understand. Not that he should have beaten out Christopher Plummer (who was phenomenal in Beginners), but Hill did manage to showcase impressive versatility, seemingly utilizing his comedic timing and awkwardness to embody the efficacious nerdiness of Peter Brand. Betwen Moneyball and Wolf of Wall Street, Hill’s stock only rose, with smash hit, franchise-sparking 21 Jump Street and the well-received This is the End, along with a memorable turn in Django Unchained. Suddenly finding himself near the top of the acting heap in Hollywood, he seemed willing to unleash a new level of skill in Wolf, combining his comic roots with deeper embodiment of a character, producing…this.
Hill has transformed himself, not just physically, into an actor capable of both carrying a blockbuster comedy franchise with Channing Tatum and holding his ground opposite the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo Decaprio. Redford persisted in his stoicism, surveying the worlds laid out before his characters, weathering the storm (shameless All is Lost pun alert). Hill has expanded his range as his body has shrunk, holding onto the crass dork at his core while grasping at more complex characters with darker, more profound psyches.
This is not to say Hill has become a better actor than Redford, not by any means. It will be a long, long time before anyone can convince me of that, being the mancrusher of Redford that I am. I simply mean to point out two divergent paths, styles, and forms of excellence present in the acting world. Two brilliant performers that remind us of the level of futility inherent in awards shows and all they entail. Redford will endure through his performances both behind and in front of the camera, unblinking and relatable, just as Hill will continue to rise, volatile and ambitious.