Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Matt Fagerholm makes the case for the best supporting actor of 2014: J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
Like all great monsters, Terence Fletcher is absolutely convinced he is doing the right thing. As the formidable music professor at a prestigious conservatory, Fletcher utilizes manipulation, humiliation and pitiless abuse—physical, mental and emotional—to push his students “beyond what’s expected of them.” He’ll hurl a chair at their heads, slap them repeatedly in the face and make them beat drums until their hands bleed if it means guiding them one step closer toward achieving greatness. What he will never say is, “Good job,” the two-word kiss of death that, in Fletcher’s mind, snuffs out ambition in all forms, causing potential talent to settle snugly into a life of mediocrity.
Fletcher’s beliefs about music mirror some fundamentalists’ beliefs regarding god. It’s not enough to simply be a good player or a good person. One must achieve true greatness in order to win the approval of the Lord (and Fletcher), and in order for that to happen, relationships must be cut, blood must be spilled and painful sacrifices must be made. What could have caused Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” one of 2014’s most exhilarating cinematic triumphs, to fall apart would have been a one-note approach to the character of Fletcher, or worse, scenery-chewing camp masquerading as Oscar-worthy theatrics. And what makes J.K. Simmons’ galvanizing portrayal so richly deserving of every accolade it has received is its ambiguity.
In each of his scenes, Fletcher keeps his students—and the audience—on their toes. Which of his words are genuine, if any at all? Is his breakdown a fleeting rupture of shame or merely the tears of a crocodile? Is his fearsome demeanor really an embodiment of his ferocious obsession or merely an act designed to break his students down, molding them into obedient warriors? If “Whiplash” is the “Raging Bull” of music films, then Fletcher is surely the R. Lee Ermey of music teachers, and like Ermey, Simmons is tremendously fun to watch, even when Fletcher is at his most repellent. His deadpan timing is as impeccable as his ear for pitch, as demonstrated when he asks a student whether she got first chair because she was cute, only to interrupt her first few garbled notes with the bruising utterance, “Yeah, that’s why.” One could get whiplash simply by watching Fletcher turn on a dime from cordially greeting a young, wide-eyed girl (“Maybe someday, you will play in my band!”) to verbally berating his students in the next room (“Okay, c—suckers…”).
Perhaps Fletcher could have only been played by an actor as inherently lovable as Simmons. He’s endeared himself to family audiences as the cigar-chomping, ever-quipping J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films, and charmed the socks off of critics with aw-shucks cuddliness as the pregnant teen heroine’s befuddled dad in “Juno.” He’s always been one of our very best character actors, and now that he has brilliantly played against type, he has finally grabbed the attention of the Academy. Here’s hoping that on the night of February 22nd, Simmons will receive a golden statuette engraved with the words: “Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons. Good Job!”