Stanning Stan: A Case Study

©2017, NEON.

Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly in I, TONYA

In my review of I, TONYA, I singled out Sebastian Stan’s performance as the much-maligned Jeff Gillooly:

Jeff’s masculinity is toxic and complex in a manner rarely explored in contemporary cinema.  Meek, yet monstrous, his voice pitches nasally in a way that grates; its near-femininity disarms you.  Stan walks a razor thin edge; too much, and he would be a caricature, not enough and it could be construed as almost romanticizing abuse.  In one scene, Jeff threatens Tonya in a way that is both incomprehensibly cruel and emotionally manipulative, yet you find yourself wanting to comfort him.   That level of fourth-wall manipulation requires incredible nuance and skill; Stan’s is evocative of Eric Roberts’ tour-de-force outing in Star 80.

My top pick in the Best Supporting Actor category in this year’s Dallas-Ft Worth Film Critics Association awards, Sebastian Stan has somehow eluded widespread acknowledgement by critics’ associations in this year’s run-up to the Academy Awards.  After the year of Weinstein and the tidal wave of victims’ voices against our culture’s systemic oppression and mistreatment of women, maybe my peers are reticent to reward an abusive character.

Stan’s performance employs a muted balance of humor and terror.  Radiating a disarmingly boyish docility, his prodigious bursts of violence land abruptly.  Perhaps he disappeared into the role so well, critics simply overlooked it.  As Roger Ebert used to say, the likeliest contender for laudits is who “acts most”, not finest.

At 35, with roles in television and the Marvel cinematic universe, Stan doesn’t possess the indie cred of younger comers like Timothée Chalamet, nor the résumé of a Stuhlbarg or Fassbender—the latter having played a super-villain in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and a damaged sex addict in SHAME.

A more cynical view: Stan’s fanbase is predominantly young and female, a demographic dismissed in every circle, from fandom to serious drama—hence the pejorative “chick flick”.  Film criticism, not without its own scandals last year, is now dominated not so much by erudite journalists but white, male geeks who, somewhere between their love of comic book movies and web design, decided they had the chops to write about cinema without relevant education or experience.

Studio marketing, perhaps sensitive to, or even altogether unaware of, the perils of thrusting an abusive, vengeful nerd before a cadre of white male geeks, sidelines Stan in the promotional material for the film:

“Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, a tour-de-force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden…”

His performance goes without comment, in lieu of his physical appearance, an ignominy that typically falls upon women.   Yet, Stan remains stalwart, committed and gracefully deferential to his female co-stars, upon whom he regularly heaps praise, stating: “I’m happy bringing the attention where it’s due.”

In the current environment, perhaps that’s the sensible play for now.  But if I were his agent, I’d find out where Steve McQueen is having his next pitch meeting.