Whatever happened to Adrien Brody? When in 2003, aged 29, he became the youngest man in history to win the Best Actor Oscar for his mesmeric turn in The Pianist, it seemed like the world was at his feet. It seemed inevitable he would win a clutch of Oscars and go on to be feted as one of the greatest actors of all time.
And yet, 15 years later, none of this has happened, and the actor has been so absent from the movies that he’s spent the last couple of years on hiatus, painting.
Nonetheless, and largely on the strength of his early film work, Brody still carries A-list status. At the 70th anniversary edition of the Locarno Film Festival he is being feted with the Leopard Club Award, given to someone in film whose work has left a mark on the collective imagination.
So at the age of 44, he’s again been cast as the youngest recipient of an award. The four previous winners of the Leopard Club Award have been Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, Andy Garcia and the Italian actress Stefania Sandrelli.
Where he is similar to those previous awardees is that Brody seems to be winning the prize because of work done some time ago. After getting his big break in Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill in 1993 playing a cunning teenager, Brody made a mark playing a punk wannabe in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, a corporal in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and a union sympathiser in Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses.
Then after the success of playing Polish classical composer Władysław Szpilman, Brody would be feted by the Hollywood machine, where he looked uncomfortable in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and stepping into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bus-sized boots in a Predator reboot.
Contrast that with the relative quiet of the past decade. Since playing one of Bill Murray’s sons in the India-set Wes Anderson movie The Darjeeling Limited in 2007, it’s arguable that he’s only taken on two roles that will sit in the memory and one of those was a cameo, playing Salvador Dali in Woody Allen’s time travel comedy Midnight in Paris.
The only time recently Brody has shown echoes of his Oscar form was playing the dastardly Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis, who hires henchmen to kill the affable protagonists in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
But why is it that only Anderson – a cineaste known for his quirky sets and bizarre stories (on Instagram and Pinterest numerous sites are dedicated to the look of his movies) – has been able to get the best out of him? It’s one of the mysteries of cinema.
Brody suggests that Anderson brings out the best in him because the director refuses to typecast the New Yorker as a serious dramatist. Speaking at the Locarno Film Festival, Brody says, “Wes is such a genius, a unique storyteller, you see any of his images and you say, ‘Oh that is a Wes Anderson film’, and it’s such a privilege to be welcomed into that fold. Ultimately he is one of the earliest directors that have allowed me to be funny.”
The Pianist may have made him an Oscar winner and an international superstar, but he argues that because of the interviews and discussion that followed being in such a heavy movie set during the Holocaust, it led to him being typecast.
So it seems that Brody was a victim of his own success. “I was perceived as this very serious dramatic actor.” And this felt limiting to an actor who yearned to express himself in many different ways and who argues the purpose of being an actor is to “be as much of a chameleon as possible”.
But as many in the profession have lamented, the time for great character actors in cinema has seemingly died out, as those type of roles have migrated to television. Yet Brody wants to confound expectations.
This may explain how he came to be involved in one of the most bizarre pieces of casting in Hollywood history, when in 2010 he played the action hero in a Predator film, despite his lank frame. But Brody views the reboot as a success, “To jump into the shoes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and for it to work and be profitable, there is a playfulness in that film.”
Brody talks up the comedy and playfulness of the Anderson movies. “It was so liberating because it is within me. I crack myself up all the time, whether I’m doing something stupid or saying something ridiculous and being able to harness that and bring laughter and lightness, that is something that I’ve always yearned to do with my work.”
He certainly showed his facility for doing something ridiculous when, in what should have been the highlight of his career, and talk should have centred on his historic place in Oscar’s history, it instead became all about the kiss he seemingly forced upon Halle Berry as he accepted the award.
In any other workplace, or in a different situation, it was a moment that may have been viewed more seriously as sexual harassment. Instead in the absurdity of the movie world some consider it one of the iconic Oscar moments.
It was the first example of The Pianist perhaps being something of a poisoned chalice for the actor. Even Brody, with the benefit of hindsight, describes it as “a unique opportunity in one’s lifetime… I was also 27 when I made this film, young”.
He mentions how the film gave him a perspective on the “understanding of the potential of suffering”, but intriguingly he then goes on to say that “there is a need to acknowledge our blessings, that we all take for granted from time to time”.
He’s also had bad luck; in 2005, he appeared in the $550m box-office failure, King Kong. Director Peter Jackson had just made the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings trilogy, and King Kong – at the time the most expensive film ever made – was expected to make $1bn. He worked with M Night Shyamalan on The Village just as audiences got tired of The Sixth Sense director’s penchant for twists.
Brody admits that working on Kong was much harder than he anticipated: “I have never swam in air on a rope before and it is challenging, especially if you are used to a certain type of filmmaking. I remember it was very much harder than I thought. It was so hard to be great. Even though you are an essential element of the film, you are much more of a cog in a bigger wheel.”
And it’s being a cog in a machine that I suspect Brody doesn’t like. Someone so used to being the centre of attention is going to find it tough being part of the ensemble. Which is perhaps why it’s not so surprising that he’s taken to painting. It’s always been a passion; he applied to art school at the same time as drama school. “Luckily I was rejected by art school,” he says.
His mother is photographer Sylvia Plachy and his father took up painting after retiring from his job as a teacher. “Since I took up painting, I don’t have much time for anything else. To put it into perspective, three years ago I took a two-year hiatus to not work, and put aside all my other distractions.”
But he hasn’t given up on film. “I’ve been producing projects and I hope that it’s inevitable one day that I direct a film. I have a lot of things I want to do.”
He doesn’t have a directing project that is ready to go, so in the meantime we are going to see him return to our screens. He is going to play a villain in the new series of Peaky Blinders, although he doesn’t want to reveal anything about the part, and he’s returning to film with a role in De Niro, alongside John Malkovich and Rory Culkin.
It seems that Brody can now reboot another of Schwarzenegger’s classic lines: “I am back.”
The Locarno Film Festival runs until 12 August. ‘Peaky Blinders’ will be on later in the year
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