UWM alum Willem Dafoe again a contender for best actor award

Willem Dafoe is on a roll.

One year after scoring several best actor nominations for his starring role in “The Florida Project,” UWM alum Dafoe is receiving similar acclaim for his role as painter Vincent Van Gogh in the film “At Eternity’s Gate.”

First up: The Golden Globes, the kickoff to the awards season. The awards show will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6, on NBC. He’s up against a strong field of contenders: Bradley Cooper in “A Star Is Born,” Lucas Hedges in “Boy Erased,” Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman.”

Dafoe is getting rave reviews for his portrayal of Van Gogh. The New York Times, in a review that calls Dafoe’s performance “magnificent,” pays tribute to his acting skills:

Dafoe, in character, looks at the camera.
Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh in the last years of his life in “At Eternity’s Gate.” (CBS Films)

“Dafoe, with his surprising, sometimes terrifying mouth, and his skull visible beneath skin as tightly stretched as canvas, has one of cinema’s great faces, and (director Julian) Schnabel makes delicate use of both its ragged beauty and expressive range. Dafoe’s thin, coiled physicality suggests both fragility and determination, while his tensile face flutters with an astonishment of emotions that, by turns, suggest a yielding or off-putting sensibility. (Few actors can look so frightening or so beatific in such rapid succession.)”

Most of the reviews of “At Eternity’s Gate” focus on Dafoe, like this one from the Detroit News: “Dafoe adds another masterful performance to his resume; his work here is as deep and as piercing as his performance in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ more than 30 years ago.”

Dafoe is considered likely to snag another nomination for the big daddy of awards, the Oscars. Academy Award nominations will be announced Jan. 22.

An Oscar nomination would be his fourth, after last year’s “The Florida Project,” the 1986 film “Platoon” and 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire.”

A good start at UWM

Dafoe attended UWM in the early 1970s, where he quickly turned heads. Corliss Phillabaum, professor emeritus of theatre at UWM, directed Dafoe in two plays – “Phaedra,” a 17th century French tragedy by Jean Racine, and Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”

Dafoe was so good, Phillabaum recalled, that a French professor told him that Dafoe’s performance as Hippolytus in “Phaedra” had totally changed his interpretation of that classic play, which the professor thought he knew well. “That was testimony that there was something really special about him,” Phillabaum said of Dafoe.

In “Moon for the Misbegotten,” Dafoe, then listed as William Dafoe, was cast in a small but important role as Mike Hogan. “He was very, very good in a role that only appears in the first 10 minutes of the play,” said Phillabaum. “And then in ‘Phaedra,’ which was a very challenging role for a young actor, he was really quite remarkable.”

Dafoe, in turn, was impressed by UWM, which his friend Jim Gage had recommended.

“I had done community theater with him the previous summer, and he arranged for me to take some classes at UWM,” Dafoe said. “I was very excited by the eclectic, passionate faculty and the production-based teaching.”

Eager to start his professional acting career, Dafoe left UWM to become part of Theatre X, which started as a UWM faculty-student workshop and then became an independent experimental theater company. He later left for stage opportunities in New York and then a film career, but he remembers his time at UWM fondly.

“My time at UWM was a very formative and positive experience,” he said.

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