If someone said a year ago that Jared Leto is expected to be a likely Oscar nominee for his next film, most people who recognize his name would have said one of three things:
With this week's arrival of Dallas Buyers Club, Leto continues to defy pigeonholing in a role of a lifetime – his first since deciding to concentrate on music for the past five years or so. He completely sinks (and slinks) into the skin of Rayon, a HIV-positive transsexual junkie. She serves as an alternative-lifestyle go-between for Matthew McConaughey's real-life hell-raising homophobic cowboy and AIDS patient Ron Woodruff as he starts a club in the '80s to provide experimental drugs that are extending his life span to others.
While Leto, 41, might be unrecognizable in his female guise, complete with a flowing wig and tacky-chic wardrobe but minus eyebrows and nearly 30 pounds from his slim frame, he re-confirms (and then some) his ability as a serious performer. He is acting with a capital A in a part that strikes many of the academy voter's buttons - weight loss, physical transformation, struggling with illness and substance abuse -- with only occasional walks on the wild side of drag-queen camp, all filtered through a bittersweet humorous world view.
However, the scene that probably seals the deal Oscar-wise is when Leto has to strip off his disguise: Rayon swallows her pride and asks her disapproving rich father for money on Ron's behalf while dressed in a man's suit sans wig and makeup. It's the ultimate heart-crushing moment in a movie filled with them.
McConaughey, who is also practically guaranteed a spot in the Oscar race especially after his recent run of stellar work in smaller films, will face stiff competition in the lead category. His main rivals are expected to include the long-overdue Robert Redford in All Is Lost and the stellar Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave.
But the supporting-actor category is shaping up to be more of a free-for-all, and Leto could easily take the trophy over his closest competitor, Michael Fassbender. His sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave is one of the most despicable yet complex villains ever to appear on the big screen since Ralph Fiennes' SS officer in Schindler's List.
Tom O'Neil, who runs the awards prediction site Gold Derby, gives the advantage to Leto. "He will probably sweep the film critics awards," he says of the year-end honors handed out by professional reviewers in cities around the country. "A cool, edgy actor taking big chances is something that critics love. On the awards track, he could go all the way and win because he gives voters what they want. The Academy loves the most of anything, whether it's the frilliest outfits in the costume category or the loudest movies taking the sound award. It's not the best performance but the biggest. Leto delivers all the crucial Oscar elements -- the dramatic weight loss, playing against type, showy junkie elements."
The voters have also come a long way since handing the 2005 best-picture Oscar to Crash instead of the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain. Since then, there has been at least one actor nominated for playing a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender character each year save for 2007. "They are much more sensitive now and want to rally behind the cause," O'Neil suggests. "That includes transsexuals."
Of course, comparing the actor's chances with past nominees who either were disguised as the opposite sex onscreen or played a transsexual helps define what exactly rings the academy's bell when it comes to such gender-bending roles. Here is a list of Oscar contenders who qualify:
Looking at this list, the first observation that comes to mind is, what was happening in 1982? Androgyny certainly was taking hold in the music world with David Bowie, Boy George, Annie Lennox and the advent of MTV. One character in three acting categories fits the description - but in remarkably varied ways. None of them won the Oscar, however, but clearly the year was a ground-breaker for such performances. Meanwhile, Andrews might have opened the door for more women to get into the he-or-she act.
But winning is what counts most. Hunt impressed voters by actually playing a man, which is more of a stunt than a statement. Hurt triumphed although his part as a flamboyant sex offender in a Brazilian prison is a bit of a cheat since he is defined as a homosexual albeit one with eyeliner and flowy robes. Paltrow followed Andrews' showbiz-route lead in Victor/Victoria by posing as a male actor to get around the Elizabethan ban on women performing onstage.
Swank is the true pioneer, however, playing a real-life transsexual who passes as a male with deadly results. The acceptance of her work as Brandon Teena led to Huffman's switcheroo as a man undergoing a sex change and bodes well for Leto's chances as well.
These portraits are different than those defined as being gay or lesbian. Besides the innate theatricality of the parts, there is a heightened opportunity for both comedy and tragedy. Leto, who did his research by talking to actual transsexuals rather than looking to similar performances from the past, has said he wanted to avoid the usual cliches: "It's usually someone dancing on the table with high heels on, the butt of every joke, or has a one-liner and they run out of the room screaming. I thought there was an opportunity to flesh out a real person."
Actors who win as gay or trans characters share one major trait. They die onscreen. Besides Hurt and Swank, that includes Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Ed Harris in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster and Sean Penn in Milk and Christopher Plummer in Beginners.
Yes, Rayon does expire before our eyes. And O'Neil suggests that could be Leto's ace in the hole. Not that the actor is making awards a priority necessarily. Leto, who seems to be a rare actor who started out young and kept his priorities straight by not playing the fame game, would be satisfied if the movie simply opened up more minds and hearts.
As he told me after Dallas Buyers Club had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, "As far as the character goes, I hope people get to know someone and they have a little more understanding and empathy. We all know there are a lot of Rons out there. They may see the movie and change their minds."