Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, The Bourne Supremacy, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: Shame, Steve McQueen’s haunting drama about a tortured New Yorker named Brandon Sullivan (a revelatory Michael Fassbender), a sex addict whose life begins to unravel even more when his equally self-destructive sister Sissy (a fragile Carey Mulligan) arrives in town. Yes, there are explicit sex scenes (plenty of them) and yes, there are shots of the breakout actor’s highly-publicized package (plenty of them), but it’s the harrowing story of a man struggling with his demons and an unforgivably snubbed performance by Fassbender that made it one of the most talked-about films of 2011.
Why it Wasn’t Nominated: While Oscar has never shied away from nominating performances in misery porn in the past (Closer, Requiem for a Dream, Revolutionary Road), Shame‘s literal misery porn proved to be too much for voters. The film is a bleak, joyless look into the life of someone who is bleak and joyless. But it wasn’t the chilly tone of the film or the excessive nudity or its tricky subject matter (which had been ineffectively tackled in the past by Hollywood with movies like Choke and Blades of Glory) that turned people off. And herein lies the problem with the major criticisms of Shame.
One of the arguments that shrouded McQueen’s terrific, albeit depressing film with backlash was that Fassbender’s irrefutable handsomeness didn’t make him someone to feel sorry for. Rather, he was just a well-endowed, well-off Manhattanite with an enviable track record and an above-average sexual appetite. To insinuate that someone’s looks or wealth would make their addiction any less difficult is insulting enough as is, but Fassbender’s performance is one that you absolutely get lost in. His Brandon is a man of very few words, but we get close to a distant man when every twinge of doubt, regret, hopelessness, and fear flashes through his eyes. We know, thanks to Fassbender’s daring performance, that deep down, Brandon is not a bad man, just a terribly lost and conflicted one. As a viewer, you felt the urge to save him from himself, something we know only he could do and something he is simply incapable of. With all due respect to Mr. Dujardin and Mr. Clooney, this was a performance that sticks with you long after you see it.
Which brings up the other troublesome roadblock that kept many from giving Shame its proper credit: The mystery of Brandon and Sissy’s history. There’s no doubt that these two grew up in an environment that set the course for their tragic adult lives. Were they the children of addicts, doomed to repeat the cycle? Were they sexually abused? If we knew, would it have ultimately changed how we felt about them? Absolutely not. If anything, McQueen smartly chose to stay away from putting a convenient label on Brandon and Sissy to identify their behaviors. We couldn’t possibly change their past, but as an audience, we could certainly hope for their futures.
Shame was likely snubbed because it was a grim movie (even the moody, slow-burning score made you feel low) about sex that some argued was too stylish and sleek (I’d suggest the opposite, considering Brandon’s bare-bones apartment made Clooney’s Up in the Air digs seem downright homey) or too sexy for a decidedly un-sexy subject. (The sex scenes, particularly the threesome, were certainly beautifully orchestrated, but hardly arousing when you took into account how hollow it all was.)
Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: Shame is a great, though by no means perfect, film (the final act with Mulligan dangerously teeters on the brink of all-too-convenient), but there’s one big reason that this movie will stand the test of time and that’s Michael Fassbender’s… star-making performance. (Sorry. I know, I know.) Actors like Nicolas Cage and Jeff Bridges rightfully earned their Oscars for their roles in Leaving Las Vegas and Crazy Heart, respectfully, as damaged men overcome by their addictions. When McQueen’s Shame is one day heralded as the film that broke down the barriers of the taboos of sex addiction by not using it as a comedic plot device, it will be because of Fassbender’s honest, unflinching, and you guessed it — naked — portrayal.