Andrew Battershill watches Vincent D'Onofrio channel decline
"Maaaahaaaaaa the French champagne."
I'VE GOT A joke for you. You’ve definitely heard it before, but like most jokes, it keeps getting told anyway:
A highly praised, oft-awarded, and artistically esteemed actor walks onscreen. He’s lumbering around, a good 30 spot heavier than the last time you saw him (when he was still a good 30 spot over his prime), and his giant head is shaved to the bone, exposing a set of neck rolls on par with the Michelin Man. He is speaking in an overly elaborate, sort-of-but-not-really British accent for no good reason. The show he’s working on is about a superhero, or at least a hero who does good…
Like I said, it’s a joke we all know. There’s no punch line, it’s not all that funny, but it’s still a joke that gets told.
By far the most famous version is Marlon Brando. But there have been others: Orson Welles, Val Kilmer, Robert DeNiro shaming himself in 78 consecutive comedy sequels, Al Pacino in wigs—you know the drill. At some point, the best actor of your generation is going to show up onscreen out of shape, out of touch, and in it for the money.
There’s something inevitable, and very male, and definitely gross about the whole thing. Directors and producers keep convincing themselves that the dignity, gravitas, or simply the name of these Great Male Actors will be worth some easy cash or prestige or some very sad, very Hollywood combination of the two. And as the Great Male Actor waddles around passionlessly embarrassing himself, we get to see the real depths of artistic carelessness. Because they are so very privileged as to get to quit caring, and as a result they can perform terribly, with terrible consistency, for decades with few consequences for their careers.
Great female actors may, in some cases, be able to keep finding work as they age, but they have to stay great. They have to keep trying and giving vintage performances, or it’s over. Even if they do stay good, it’s absolutely no guarantee. Artistically, you’ll only see the real bottom of the barrel, and just how long and lazy and listless the path to get there really is, watching the careers of white dudes (and Morgan Freeman).
But here’s a twist. The joke I told you before: it is not a joke—it’s a description of Vincent D’Onofrio, possibly the best actor in the world, giving a highly praised, deeply affecting performance in Netflix’s Daredevil, which just unloaded its second season.
I started watching Daredevil due to my long-standing fandom of D’Onofrio. In everything from Full Metal Jacket to Mystic Pizza to Thumbsucker to Little New York, I always thought of him as one of the most principled and skilled actors of his generation. I enjoyed him just as much in his mainstream vehicles: Men in Black, Law and Order: CI. Even when he was taking the cash, D’Onofrio was taking his craft seriously. So when I saw his giant, shaved head loom into its first frame of Daredevil, and heard the weird accent coming out of his face, I thought: “This is it. It’s happened.” That same, dumb joke. How sad.
Then it didn’t happen. In fact, kind of the opposite did.
WE MEET DAREDEVIL's Wilson Fisk staring mournfully at a white canvas. He is approached by a beautiful and vaguely European art dealer, and Fisk quickly (in his weird, affected baritone) reveals himself to a lonely, deep-feeling giant. He asks her out; she bemusedly agrees.
Fisk (otherwise known as Kingpin) is a hulking, sad-eyed corporate and criminal overlord. Above board, Fisk is a real estate mogul. On the side, his rackets include the usual criminal enterprises—drugs, extortion, human trafficking, prostitution etc.—all of which are being used to serve the greater and more sinister purpose of forcing poor inhabitants out of New York under the tired mantra of “cleaning up” the city. For this, in his corporate, black-tie-gala-attending life, Fisk is considered a “philanthropist.” It’s neither a split persona nor a front: Fisk is, with no irony whatsoever, representative of both the establishment and the criminal element his corporate persona is determined to eradicate.
Fisk’s evil may be much realer and more pernicious than many super-villains’, but he isn’t the bad-guy-as-sociopath, incapable of human feeling. Fisk has all the feelings. He emotes incontinently over everything from his burgeoning relationship to slices of Zitti cake. And, indeed, Fisk’s courting of Vanessa (aforementioned cultured art dealer) is more watchable than any of the relationships between the show’s “heroic” protagonists. It’s also a perfect vehicle for a D’Onofrio performance: first comes the depth, then evil and violence follow.
Having frequently played psychos and murderers, (The Cell and Chained come to mind) D’Onofrio is a complex performer of violence. Fisk’s violence is explosive, the kid getting bullied who finally freaks the fuck out. Even in ultra-violent sequences (he literally pops a guy’s whole head with a car door at one point), the rage of the mogul Wilson Fisk always reads as a child throwing a tantrum.
As with all D’Onofrio’s violent performances, that inner-child patheticness and lack of control seems deeply intentional, both given resonance and made even more disgusting by the actor’s empathy for the character. To see the insecure, uncontrollable motivation of D’Onofrio’s killers is to see how truly deep-rooted, fucked up, and brattily deserving those motivations are.
Definitely the most violent and deep-rootsy performance of D’Onofrio’s (and actually possibly anyone’s) career came in The Cell. It’s an acid trip (if you dropped it when you were in a very transitional moment in your life and you’d just had an upsetting conversation with an ex-girlfriend or a close relative and then went to a party where strangers were wearing animal masks and dancing, or something like that) of a horror movie in which Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who literally enters the mind of Carl Stengher (D’Onofrio), a more-than-usually creepy serial killer (a pretty strong spectrum to be at the creepier end of).
D’Onofrio’s turn as Stengher is just about the scene-chewingest thing you’re going to see someone do competently. But what allows the movie, and the performance, to transcend the low (and not insubstantial) glory of being as close to a truly unhinged aesthetic object as a major studio will release, is that stripped of the need to gesture at his character’s internal life (what with the fact that most of the movie literally takes place in his character’s brain), D’Onofrio is freed to externalize the disturbing joy of Stengher’s violent visions. Once in a while, Lopez’s psychologist will gamely gesture at some childhood drowning trauma or whatever, but pretty quickly Stengher unleashes into a Crazy-Psycho-Goat-King-Object-Man.
Stengher’s violent king fantasies, played out over a punishingly huge amount of screen-time, basically bulldoze any psychological vulnerability one might (and Lopez’s character does) seek to find underlying his pathology. Stengher is everything the very scariest eight-to-twelve-year-old boy who tortures dogs could hope to become: at once royal and grandiose, and fully debased, animalistic enough to actually grow horns.
The performance achieves depth in the scenes in which Stengher is overcome with emotion. The obvious place to go is rage, and D’Onofrio hits that mark plenty, but the most memorable scene is the one in which the character is joyful, singing and clapping and twiddling his fingers as he disembowels Vince Vaughn. D’Onofrio performs the scene with the viscerally embarrassing fervor not of a sociopathic killer (well that too) but of a young kid who can’t control his pleasure (probably the first dynamic which raised for me, personally, the feeling now commonly known as cringe).
Possibly D’Onofrio’s best, most batshit performance came in his most mainstream role: Men In Black. D’Onofrio plays Edgar, a cockroach-alien who has killed a man and disguised himself as his prey by awkwardly, disgustingly pulling the man’s skin over his insect form. For an actor so deeply concerned with psychological and emotional depth, D’Onofrio had the good sense not to plumb it too deeply in this role. The performance has zero pathos. Men in Black was a huge, huge movie, and right there in the middle of it, bouncing off the glare of Will Smith’s shit-eating grin, Vincent D’Onofrio was trying his best to show you what a giant cockroach would look and act like if it had to pretend to be human for a while. No feelings, no pathos, just hunger and the grotesque.
If D’Onforio is capable of extending his empathy for his characters to the point of performing this bizarro reverse-Gregor-Samsa, what else might he be capable of relating to? Does D’Onofrio empathize with Fisk? In Daredevil, he is afforded a similar opportunity to artistically dominate a popular vehicle. Unlike with Men in Black, however, where mining Edgar’s depths is important precisely because it turns up buckets of nothingness, Fisk is both a monster and a wellspring of affect. This is a far more frightening, far more common villain of the modern world: the paunchy white man with a vision. This vision, always, is so vague and poorly realized that it would be funny were it not buttressed by so much power. Fisk’s great, evil master plan is, after all, nothing more than gentrification: something anyone who lives in a city is terribly, complicatedly familiar with.
In Daredevil, we see a dynamic that plays out in pretty much all of us once in a while, as Matt Murdock tries desperately to convince himself that Fisk’s proclamations about the moral rectitude of his actions are merely utilitarian and eventually he realizes the truth is much more disconcerting. These platitudes aren’t tricks. They’re the sincere moral and logical underpinnings of a dominant worldview: the conviction that sweeping the underprivileged under the rug is good for everyone, because even poor people don’t like mess.
D’Onofrio’s performance in Daredevil plumbs the depths of psychological sadness underlying a model of thinking that is as ethically and logically weak as it is practically powerful. Vincent D’Onofrio has always been an acute scholar and conveyor of the abject, of the kinds of bottomless shame and attendant despair that leads to a very particular kind of male violence. And Wilson Fisk is in many ways a return to the first D’Onofrio a lot of us remember: the heavy, bullied, and violent Private Leonard Lawrence (aka Gomer Pyle) of Full Metal Jacket. Fisk is Pyle reincarnated, his rage and shame and longing for love are all intact, but this time, Gomer Pyle is running the whole U.S Army by donating to a Super PAC.
It is telling that in interviews supporting Daredevil D’Onofrio has stated his preference for calling the character by name, rather than by the moniker Kingpin. This is both because D’Onofrio prefers to think about the character, but also, I’d argue, because this Wilson Fisk is not a super villain, but a more common, more human one.
IT'S TIME TO talk about Orson Welles.
Welles is, obviously, a primo example of your declining, expanding Great Male Actor and Filmmaker. But besides this, and more importantly for my purposes, D’Onofrio has a history with Welles, having played him twice. The first time he took a swing at it, in Ed Wood, he more or less whiffed. Having been given what he felt was an inadequate amount of time to prepare D’Onofrio flubbed the vocals, and has since been critical of his own performance, calling it “too much a caricature” and “too much a surface level performance.” Director Tim Burton must have agreed at least in part because in post-production another actor’s voice is dubbed in. D’Onofrio’s mouth moves and the sound of some other, better Welles comes out.
More than a decade later, D’Onofrio took another crack at the role in his directorial debut, a short called Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, which he confesses to having made specifically in order to redeem his earlier performance in the role. Shot in black and white (like Ed Wood), Five Minutes, Mr. Welles is a thirty-minute film, with all the action taking place in Orson Welles’ hotel room, as he stumblingly rehearses his part in The Third Man with a personal assistant, trying to learn the lines mere minutes before shooting.
D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Welles is not a particularly flattering one, but neither is it mocking. The Welles we see in this performance is a very sad man driven equally by a painful, desperate striving for perfection and an opposite, fatally decelerating laziness, insensitivity, egocentricity, and physical craving (manifesting mostly in a desire for ice cream). D’Onofrio is just as interested in Welles’s subterranean anxiety, insecurity, and self-medicating as he is in his genius.
Watching Vincent D’Onofrio in Daredevil does not, as it could well have, remind one of Orson Welles stumbling through failed takes of a Paul Masson wine commercial, so much as it reminds one of Vincent D’Onofrio’s version of Orson Welles. The look on Fisk’s face as he stares at his lovingly prepared omelets is strikingly similar to the look on Welles’s face as he desperately shovels half a pint of ice cream into his mouth in Five Minutes, Mr. Welles.
The most puzzling aspect of D’Onofrio’s performance as Fisk—the strange, stagey accent D’Onofrio affects—can also be traced to his portrayal of Welles, that very same voice he missed the first time. While the voices of Fisk and Vincent D’Onofri-Welles are not identical, they share a self-conscious, forced gravitas. The similarity of their voices can’t help but imply a similarity in D’Onofrio’s psychology and emotional conception of the characters.
With his casting in Daredevil, D’Onofrio has avoided pulling an Orson Welles by, instead, doing Orson Welles. And that intentionality, allowing the influence of what he could, very well, actually be, allows D’Onofrio to use the pitfalls of his role and body and long-standing cultural context as fuel for a studied, empathetic performance.
D’Onofrio’s treatment of villains and privileged men at their most pathetic are not blind, fawning or admiring, or even all that forgiving. But they aren’t condemnatory, either. As he plays serial killers and slumlord super villains, D’Onofrio has never shied away from the darkest, wrongest, and, most importantly, spoiled and pathetic elements of his characters. Because to know something is to know how bad it is, and to treat it as art is to do more than just insist on that badness, it’s to try, even if just as an exercise, to empathize with it as deeply as possible. It’s very easy to end up on of the far, and simpler, ends of this spectrum, either excusing or ignoring those aspects of dominant culture figures that are wrong and deep and long-lasting, or to take one look, see the wrong, and start telling them off immediately.
In life, I think, it is important to be firm and moral, and to be unwavering in the face of horrible people and things. In art, I think it’s a little different. The D’Onofrio model of understanding is to look deeply into a character, especially the grossest, most violent and damaging ones, and to plug into not just the horror of violence and rage but the abject sadness underpinning it.
It’s a very specific kind of decline, one in which the danger is not toiling and getting nowhere and wasting away to nothing, but rather a long sedentary bloating. D’Onofrio’s performance of men in decline manages to transcend judgment, but it also dodges the thing these men purport to be peddling: namely, dignity. Because dignity is just a bedtime story written by and for men of a certain age, an elixir to make sure they still have the strength of will to get out of bed in the morning without an erection, and without another one coming. For the rest of the population—the great lot of pretty much everyone to whom dignity was never peddled as medicine—it is poison in an aspirin bottle.
“Great men” rely on and are damned in equal measure by dignity, which is sad and ironic because it’s mostly just a weird, pernicious myth that only devalues life by comparing all situations to the ideal. But while dignity is myth, the sincere, deeply pathetic-not-tragic path and form of male decline certainly is not, and there’s a lot more bravery and artistic value to D’Onofrio’s lumbering, sadly-staring-at-eggs-and-boring-white-paintings performance that there is in most any Michael Caine speaking as the calm voice of experience part.
YOU WOULD STRUGGLE to imagine how many times the word “privileged” was cut out of this essay. It’s a jargon I don’t even really care for, being a bit too much of a catch-all, a stand-in for the fundamental ethical struggle of being a breathing human. And yet I still feel this impulse, somehow, to swing it like a hammer at a screw. After all what I’m talking about is privilege in its purest form: a white, male actor plumbing the depths of rich, white, male sadness.
But the thing we don’t say about privilege is that what we who write think pieces, or read them, are quickest to “unpack” about the entertainment we take in are all just thin slices of the real privilege, which is breathing air on a continent with reasonable rates of child mortality, for starters. The finer grades of this privilege are easy to get riled about, and to pound at the evil and excesses of, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the big one: being born with access to potable water, antibiotics, and food.
At every step, Wilson Fisk’s problems are those of a person with food. In fact any kind of the “emotional depth” sought in character-driven art requires a surfeit of calories to power the hand-wringing and teeth gnashing and long contemplative looks. Fisk not only has food, he’s sad because he eats too much of it, and he feels bad about himself, and then D’Onofrio and his sad eyes do their very best to convince you of how real these feelings are.
Life, in all bodies, in all countries, has a way of feeling really hard and really tortured as you’re doing it. Fisk has a life unimaginably better than any sentient creature has any ethical right to, and he has it because others don’t. And, still, he desperately wants his life to be better, and so Fisk he continues to take what poor people do have from them, building his own consumption on the backs of (literally) nameless, intentionally blinded Asian slaves cutting up cocaine.
The point of D’Onofrio’s deep-dive into the psyche of a Wilson Fisk-type entitled, evil, aging, oligarch is that it simply exaggerates the feeling and the ethical scale of being anyone with a Netflix account.
It’s easier to see things after they’ve become bigger, maybe a thirty spot heavier than the last time you saw them (which was already a thirty spot past their prime).
ANDREW BATTERSHILL's first novel is Pillow (Coach House 2015).