Matt Damon should have won best actor at this year’s Oscars. His turn in Ridley Scott’s witty sci-fi rescue thriller The Martian as a lone botanist marooned on the red planet is a tour de force that wears its force lightly. With nobody to act with for most of the movie, he communicates via disembodied Skype-style bulletins addressed to whoever’s listening at mission control… and thus to us, his rapt audience. It is a film about one man’s survival, just like The Revenant, which earned Leonardo DiCaprio his long-awaited statuette. Damon might not be able to claim that he ate twigs, raw liver and, seemingly, a live fish like the committed vegan Leo did, but not all art can be about suffering.
So why did Damon not win? I wonder if the Academy voters simply take him for granted. After all, he’s pretty good in almost everything he does – and he does a lot. His first named role was in football scholarship drama School Ties in 1992, since which he’s made over 50 films, the majority in starring roles. (Compare this workload to Leo’s: since his 1991 debut in Critters 3, he’s made around 30.)
Damon won the Golden Globe for best actor in January, but only because they divide films into Drama and Musical or Comedy. The Martian is not exactly Judd Apatow, but it has a lighthearted, self-deprecating tone – particularly in Damon’s scenes – and the producers were smart to put it forward for the category that Leo was, importantly, not in. Maybe The Martian is just not an awards movie. Sci-fi is not really an awards genre. And Matt Damon is just that guy. A nice guy, for sure, but not a show-off.
But hey, Matt Damon is already an Oscar winner. He and Ben Affleck, his friend since high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared the best original screenplay award in 1998 for Good Will Hunting, about a maths genius. Damon wrote the first draft when he was studying English at Harvard, and it was the subsequent frustration at not getting decent parts that drove him and Affleck to develop it, taking advice from screenwriters William Goldman and Kevin Smith. They co-starred in the film (ironically, one studio wanted Leonardo DiCaprio for one of their roles) and it was a sensation. Damon was also nominated for best actor.
After this headline-grabbing entrée into the premier league, there was no more good-role hunting for either friend. But, while Affleck leaked credibility by starring in blockbusters Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, becoming more famous for his relationship with Jennifer Lopez than his film choices, Damon steered a steady course: Saving Private Ryan, Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Talented Mr Ripley, the Ocean’s trilogy, Syriana, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (earning him a second acting Oscar nomination), Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (the only film he’s starred in alongside DiCaprio) and the Coen brothers’ True Grit. He also struck box-office gold with the Bourne films, giving James Bond a run for his money as the gadget-eschewing, do-it-yourself amnesiac agent.Damon had found his brand.
He’s 45, but – like his nemesis Leo – retains an appealing boyishness in that square-jawed, blue-eyed Boston mug. And for me, he has not put a foot wrong. Even his occasional dips – the sappy grief fable Hereafter, the overstuffed Monuments Men – are survivable. If he sidesteps Oscar glory because he doesn’t generally do wigs, or false noses, or accents, or disabilities, he does a lot with what he’s got. And when he does venture “out there”, as he did for regular director Steven Soderbergh in HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, playing Michael Douglas’s toy boy under blow-dried peroxide locks, it’s a sight to behold.
But if he looks like Matt Damon, that’s fine, too. I would go and see a film called We Bought a Zoo if he was in it. (I did, and he was.)
While Ben Affleck can go either way, the talented Mr Damon will be there for you. Unlike the Oscar-losing The Martian, what he does is not rocket science. But, as the poster says, you’ll always want to “bring him home”.