In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what 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, Odie Henderson makes the case for the Best Supporting Actor of 2017: Willem Dafoe in "The Florida Project." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
Willem Dafoe once played Jesus onscreen, but in “The Florida Project,” he has the patience of another Biblical character, Job. In fact, his entire performance as Bobby the hotel manager is built on an exasperated, though preternatural sense of patience. He is the most experienced person in a cast that includes non-actors, birds and children, and I’m sure that must have been trying at times. But just watch how he interacts with everyone who shares the screen with him. With each co-star, Dafoe does what all great actors do: he honors his scene partner. That is, he senses whatever wavelength they are on and adjusts himself accordingly. His work in “The Florida Project” is never “just about me,” it is always “about me and my co-stars.” He’s reactive and proactive, ceding control where necessary without fear of being upstaged, and gently taking the reins when it’s required. Dafoe works these choices seamlessly into his character: Bobby is a figure of authority in “The Florida Project,” but he knows how to choose his battles. This is most evident in his scenes with young Brooklynn Prince and her cohorts. Listen to the paternal way he modulates his voice when speaking with these pain-in-the-ass kids who make his days at the hotel a bit more colorful and frustrating. He is stern yet understanding with them, and, in his finest moment, fiercely protective.
Much like Dennis Hopper’s Oscar nod for “Hoosiers,” Dafoe’s third supporting actor nomination is for his most empathetic character. In a career full of wackos and bad guys, it almost seems improbable that Dafoe would convincingly play a normal Joe Schmoe simply trying to do the best he can at his dead-end job. But here he is, not only doing that but sharing Bobby’s joys and pains with us. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a great one and our choice for Best Supporting Actor.