Ethan Hawke hits gold with Blaze as well as with his role in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke is almost sure to get an Oscar nomination for his performance as a pastor struggling with faith and morality in First Reformed.
Ethan Hawke is almost sure to get an Oscar nomination for his performance as a pastor struggling with faith and morality in First Reformed.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Actor Ethan Hawke may have failed at many things, but he pressed on, and now he has hit gold with his film Blaze as well as with his role in First Reformed

NEW YORK • Now he is 47, but when he was much younger, actor Ethan Hawke read Cassavetes On Cassavetes, the indie film-maker bible, and then went to hear the author's widow, Gena Rowlands, speak.

She looked out at the crowd and laughed. She said John Cassavetes was always disappointed because nobody would finance his movies; he always felt dismissed and disregarded.

"And now, here, you guys are making a big deal out of him," he remembered her saying. She said that was nice, but that they should not miss the point.

"'Make a big deal of yourself .' You know? Whatever indifference the world gives you, he felt it, too. So you're just as good as he is. Like, go out and do it."

Hawke found that so moving, he vowed right then that he would do whatever it took to make good art on his own terms, no matter what anyone said.

He would take himself seriously, even if no one else did.

He had had his first starring role by then - in Explorers (1985), when he was 14.

By the time he was 20, he had already starred in Dead Poets Society (1989) and White Fang (1991).

But he did not just want to be a movie star.

He started a theatre company in 1991 called Malaparte with his friends, but the world did not quite know how to react to his kaleidoscope ambitions.

He debuted on Broadway in 1992 in The Seagull and The New York Times said he played Konstantin with an "arm-waving display of unfocused nervous energy".

Variety determined that he gave the "single truly ineffective performance" in 2003's Henry IV: "Movie actor Ethan Hawke is simply out of his depth."

Movie actor!

The Chicago Tribune said his Macbeth in 2013 was a "tragic hero without drive".

Anytime he showed ambition outside the avenue of mainstream matinee idoldom, it was the same thing.

In 1998, The Times said of Great Expectations: "Mr Hawke seldom registers anything more interesting than astonishment at Finn's good fortune."

Of his Hamlet in 2000, The Times wrote: "Mr Hawke's moping slows things down too much."

Variety wrote: "This slacker prince forms a sinkhole at the centre of adaptor-helmer Michael Almereyda's otherwise compelling contempo update."

He wrote a novel, The Hottest State, which Kirkus determined was "clumsily written" and "takes itself very seriously".

The movie adaptation that he directed was similarly panned, with The Boston Globe writing that "Hawke has the instincts of an actor rather than a director"; The Times described it as "nearly two hours long, with a tenuous narrative continuity".

But he never forgot Cassavetes. He never forgot that it was entirely possible that people would not appreciate your work while you were doing it. That they might appreciate it only long after you were dead. Or maybe even never.

But that did not mean you should not do it.

The critics - the ones who called him pretentious and too earnest and too overly serious for a movie star - became a force he worked in contrast to, a dark shadow that rode alongside him.

He learnt to defy them, if not ignore them.

He learnt to let them remind him what he was supposed to be, which is an artist, which is someone who tells the truth, not just a puppet who dances to please his audience in a series of films that resemble the one he just did.

He wrote two more novels, plus a graphic novel called Indeh about the Apache nations.

He continued to mount plays. He directed a music video, then a movie, then another.

He helped write the sequels to Before Sunrise (1995) - Before Sunset in 2004, while his own marriage to actress Uma Thurman was "collapsing and I took all of that and put it into that movie"; and Before Midnight in 2013.

He earned Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay for both movies.

But it almost did not matter by then. By then he had learnt to metabolise the criticism as something else.

He did not win the best supporting actor Oscar in 2002 when he was nominated for Training Day (2001).

But actor Denzel Washington, who won the best actor Oscar for that movie, whispered into his ear right there in the seat next to him that losing was actually a good thing.

"'You know, you don't want to win that, man. Wait until they give it to you because they have to. You want to win because the work demands it.'"

He was years away from the kind of unequivocal, unsurprised accolades that would accompany his performance in Boyhood (2014) and now First Reformed (2017).

Hawke was thinking of Cassavetes again when, last summer, a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real that he was set to direct got delayed temporarily after an actor pulled out.

He was left with nine free months on his hands.

He had nothing to do and he is not the kind of guy who should be left with nothing to do for that many months.

But he had had this idea for a while. He had been wanting to write and direct a movie about Blaze Foley, the barely known country singer who died in 1989.

Foley devoted his life to music, but was wary of the way commerce could corrupt it.

Hawke loved that - he loved the story of a man who battled the questions of how an artist is supposed to exist in the world, and whether making art for its own sake can ever be rewarding enough to forgo fame - or if celebrity is necessary to continue doing what you love.

This was basically all he ever thought about anyway. His wife, Ryan Hawke, suggested that he look at Camino Real's delay as a blessing. Maybe this was the chance to make the Blaze Foley movie.

As it happened, one of Ryan Hawke's childhood friends was married to Ben Dickey, a folk musician who bore a strong resemblance to Foley.

Back during New Year's 2016, Ethan Hawke and Dickey had been drinking, and Dickey pulled out a guitar and began to sing the Blaze Foley song Clay Pigeons.

He was sad; his own band was dead, and he sang it in a particular, mournful way, and it was as if Blaze Foley himself were in that room.

That night, Hawke asked if he would ever consider starring in a movie about Foley. Dickey had not acted before, but yes, he would do it.

Hawke wrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, Foley's former romantic partner and the author of a memoir of her time with him, Living In The Woods In A Tree.

They shot the film, a "gonzo country-western opera", as Hawke called it, last summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Blaze (2018) started playing at festivals this year.

The early reviews are truly golden: "Blaze is more affecting than most other live-hard/die-ugly music biopics," wrote The Hollywood Reporter.

"Hands down the best movie of its kind since Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)," wrote RogerEbert.com.

No one was saying that he was taking himself too seriously this time; no one was asking why an actor had such outsized ambition.

Over the years, he had somehow worn his critics down with his earnestness and his dedication and his sincerity - the same things that caused the ridicule in the first place.

Then there was the patronising surprise that the acting, the directing, the writing was not as bad as one would imagine.

And now here he was, a nearly 100 per cent surefire Oscar contender for his performance as a pastor in First Reformed, the kind of role he would never even dream of asking to audition for 10 years ago.

Blaze is entering theatres attached to early reviews that offer no qualifiers when they mention their admiration for it and its director.

His pursuits had become markedly unchallenged. He was able to do the work he wanted to do without any resistance.

The battle that defined the first part of his life was won. And Hawke, with no tide to fight against, found himself happy and satisfied.

Maybe.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2018, with the headline 'Focus like a Hawke'. Print Edition | Subscribe