Some are born Oscar winners, some achieve Oscars and some have Oscars thrust upon ’em – but some people subjectively wait forever to get rightly honoured at the Academy Awards. Not that I care too much for these kind of gongs, but it seems to me that Max von Sydow, talked up this year as a potential winner at the age of 82, was due at least two Oscars decades before this age of Lovefilm and movie downloads. No-one could be a better emblem of enduring substance prevailing over style in that respect.
In his physical prime, von Sydow resembled nothing less than a giant Redwood or oak, and he still has the craggy oversized tree look about him. Yet his professional work is certainly not wooden – he has to all intents and purposes been at least four or five different actors in his career, having embraced Hollywood populism, Bergman brooding, Woody-Allen-spiritual-son-of-Bergman brooding, intelligent thriller and iconic horror even before perhaps his most harrowingly beautiful and defining role, that of the aged father of a young adolescent in Pelle the Conqueror.
What is von Sydow’s appeal? It’s not easy to elaborate in spite of or because of his ocean-sized thespian talent. But one key criteria to me seems to be that von Sydow, in his cinematic performances, seems to not only own the identity of the characters he depicts but the very emotions and characteristics that these characters display in the course of a film. In The Seventh Seal, von Sydow becomes flawed bravery and personifies the idea of a spiritual journey – even though the medieval knight he portrays undergoes a journey both physical and spiritual with a number of companions. In Through A Glass Darkly, he brings to life the husband of a woman suffering gradual mental disintegration, not least due to the neglect of her father, a professional writer. In the process, von Sydow defines what you might call astute yet helpless observation – the character he plays can understand his wife and father-in-law’s limitations like no other, but is still ultimately powerless to do anything about them. Von Sydow is not (quite) lead role in this film, but he delivers a terse and understated yet epic performance that sucks the viewer in with terrible power; the actor essentially creates a narrative for his character that is so potent that we are basically watching an acting study both separate to the film and an unforgettable part of the main dramatic discourse at the same time.
Remarkably, von Sydow repeatedly says in the Guardian interview above that the process of acting can be ‘boring’ – as if he is all too aware of the destiny of some of his more tragic, aged or textbook villain characters. Maybe this sense of ennui actually infused his performance in Pelle the Conqueror. It’s the most distressing yet somehow enlightening depiction of a late 19th-century Swedish immigrant to Denmark looking for a new life in his advanced years. No-one could better capture the descent from false hope into resigned despair and passivity; no-one could make us feel more empathetic not just to the character but to similarly troubled human beings as a whole. Von Sydow doesn’t just draw us into a film; he draws us into life.
If anyone finally earned an Oscar they still didn’t get (so to speak), von Sydow did it with Pelle a quarter of a century ago. I propose that the Academy Awards breaks with tradition thus: give von Sydow one Oscar this year for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (irrespective of his performance) and four more for everything he has done ever. There would be nothing, to use the slightly condescending phrase, ‘honorary’ about that.