Adam Driver is in rarefied air.
By Noah Gittell
In 2019, the actor earned his first Oscar nomination (back in January for “BlacKkKlansman”) and his first Tony nomination (for “Burn This”). That would be enough to make this a very, very good year, but he has three movies out this fall that are all expected to win him either critical or commercial acclaim. The first is “The Report,” a whistleblower drama in which he plays a Congressional aide who wrote a controversial report on the U.S. torture program. In December, he will reprise his role as Kylo Ren in “The Rise of Skywalker,” which will surely gross a billion dollars and conclude his part in the most financially successful trilogy of all time.
In between is “Marriage Story,” the incisive domestic drama from writer-director Noah Baumbach. Currently playing in select theaters before hitting Netflix on December 6, the film is winning Driver the best reviews of his career and is likely to earn him his second Oscar nod. Truthfully, it would not be a surprise for him to be nominated for any of these films, but what’s notable is how wildly they vary in tone. Rarely do you find an actor who can vacillate between sturdy procedural, interpersonal drama, and sci-fi with such ease, one who can win awards and break box-office records in the same year.
He’s a brilliant technical actor, but he is aided by the fact that he seems like a fascinating person. He has a duality that allows him to jump between worlds. It’s there in his backstory: a former Marine who joined the service after 9/11, he then discovered the theater and studied at Julliard. You can see this in “Marriage Story,” in which, as a theater director going through a messy divorce, he tries to stay centered and deal in practicalities, which makes it all the more moving when he busts out a heartfelt song from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at live karaoke. It’s even there in his face, which is both movie-star handsome and wildly esoteric. He looks different from every angle, and sometimes you can’t tell whether his prominent nose is jutting forth or his eyes are retreating.
He has parlayed his skill into working with our era’s best directors, including Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, and Joel and Ethan Coen. But despite his incredible success, a troubling question lingers: Where does he go from here? Few actors have ever reached an apex like this one, beloved by both critics and audiences. Two examples jump to mind: The first is Al Pacino, who made “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “The Godfather Part II,” and “Dog Day Afternoon” in a four-year stretch. The other is Jack Nicholson, whose reached his critical and commercial peak with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which swept the Oscars and was the second-highest grosser of 1975 (after “Jaws).
Each actor responded to this unprecedented success in different ways. Pacino retreated. He moved to Italy, and made only five films in the 1980s. Nicholson became a caricature of himself, to varying degrees of success, in films like “The Shining,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” and “Batman.” If these are the two options, which path will Driver take? It’s hard to see him going cartoonish, as, unlike Nicholson, he has a slippery persona that is hard to caricature. It’s more likely that he takes a break. Driver has spoken about the pressures of raising a family in the public eye, and his interviews reveal him to be soft-spoken and uncomfortable with publicity. He may work more in the theater, or perhaps he’ll go the John Lennon route and become a stay-at-home father for a while. Either way, we should celebrate this moment in his career and his craft because they don’t come along very often.