No one delivered a gutsier film performance in 2019 than Taron Egerton.
Cast against type as Elton John in ‘Rocketman,’ Egerton had to channel a pop god while also making the role his own: too unfamiliar and fans would revolt, too much of an impersonation and critics would retreat.
Egerton, 30, did all of his own singing, reinterpreting classics like ‘I’m Still Standing.’ There was intricate choreography that Egerton sometimes had to perform in platform boots and towering feathered headdresses. He did many of his own stunts (tumbling drunkenly down a staircase) and shaved the front half his head to get John’s receding hairline just right.
John was ecstatic, and critics were gobsmacked. This showstopping performance came out of Taron Egerton, the easily discounted guy from the ‘Kingsman’ action movies? The inevitable awards chatter began. “An Oscar calibre performance,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone when ‘Rocketman’ arrived in theatres in May.
Hollywood is now in the throes of deciding which performances to honour with Oscar nominations. Voting for the 92nd Academy Awards started on Thursday; nominations will be announced on January 13. And Egerton is trying to become an exception to one of the Oscar race’s most stubborn rules of thumb — that voters don’t reward performances from the first half of the year: out of sight, out of mind.
Oscar statuettes are supposed to honour the best performances of the year — the whole year — but most of the nominees are pulled from films that arrive in a three-month stretch between October and December. Voters also tend to favour established stars, in part because those performers have the most sway with studios, which spend millions of dollars (sometimes tens of millions) on ads, tastemaker parties and other for-your-consideration efforts. Big stars also dominate the red-carpet media coverage of precursor awards galas like the Golden Globes, which take place on Sunday.
The academy has 50 best-actor nominee slots per decade. Since 2009, 47 have been given to people in films released in the second half of the year. The exceptions are Daniel Kaluuya, nominated for ‘Get Out,’ which was released in February 2017; Demian Bichir, honoured for the immigrant drama ‘A Better Life,’ released in June 2011; and Jeremy Renner, who scored a nod for ‘The Hurt Locker,’ released in June 2009.
Paramount released ‘Rocketman’ in late May in part because its cupboards were bare. The studio, under new management and working to rebuild itself, was short on big-budget franchise films but did have a relatively inexpensive ($41 million, Dh150.5 million) musical fantasia about Elton John’s hedonistic breakthrough years. So Paramount rolled the dice and positioned ‘Rocketman’ as a summer event movie.
It worked. The film took in nearly $200 million worldwide.
“One person told me they had seen it 23 times — it meant that much to them,” Egerton said by phone last week from Wales, where he was visiting his parents for Christmas. (He insisted he did not mind interrupting pie-baking to chat about ‘Rocketman’ and the awards race. Now this is devotion.)
Egerton’s performance does not look any less dazzling from a distance. It was enough to garner him a nomination for best actor in a comedy or musical at the Globes. In a surprise, Egerton was also nominated for the top male acting prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be handed out on January 19.
“It’s enormously validating to be recognised by your acting peers,” he said, adding that two of his “idols,” Tom Hanks and Joaquin Phoenix, sent him out-of-the-blue praise via email when ‘Rocketman’ came out.
But most awards prognosticators predict that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will overlook Egerton. In an unusually bountiful year for men, handicappers at Gold Derby, an entertainment honours site, see best actor Oscar nominations going to Adam Driver (‘Marriage Story’), Phoenix (‘Joker’), Leonardo DiCaprio (‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’) and Antonio Banderas (‘Pain and Glory’).
That leaves stars like Eddie Murphy (‘Dolomite Is My Name’), Adam Sandler (‘Uncut Gems’), Robert De Niro (‘The Irishman’) and Christian Bale (‘Ford v Ferrari’) vying for the fifth slot alongside the critically respected but lesser-known Jonathan Pryce (‘The Two Popes’).
And, of course, Egerton — for what is now the most distant performance of the batch. The Oscars will be held on February 9.
Egerton hit all the right campaign notes while on the phone, making sure, for instance, to connect ‘Rocketman’ to a greater theme. “Particularly for gay people, it felt like a movie — from what they have told me — that celebrated their identity in a real way,” he said. “That feels like the greatest accomplishment.”
He was also humble, saying that he was excited to be attending the Globes as a nominee but that he was even more thrilled to be bringing along his parents and sisters from Britain.
“I know this may never happen again,” he said. “I want to share it with the people I love.”
He was quiet for a minute. “I’m honoured to be included in the awards conversation,” he said. “But when that stuff is primary and not secondary, you are possibly on the wrong path.”