This year’s Berlin International Film Festival is awarding the American actor Willem Defoe with an Honorary Golden Bear in recognition of his career featuring over 100 performances and spanning nearly 40 years since his 1981 debut in Kathryn Bigelow’s debut drama The Loveless. His enormous technical range as an actor extends all the way from the personification of the unfathomably evil to the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to his celebrated cinematic appearances, Dafoe has also pursued a parallel career in theatre, his other passion.
Born in Wisconsin in 1955, Willem Dafoe began studying theatre formally at the age of 17. In 1977, he was one of the founding members of the renowned New York theatre ensemble “The Wooster Group”, where he remained a member for several decades. In addition to his activities on stage, Dafoe increasingly began to turn his attention to film work starting in the early 1980s. Walter’s Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) was soon followed by William Friedkin’s police thriller To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) where he played ruthless counterfeiter Eric “Ric” Masters, a villain who will stop at nothing to rival his adversaries.
In 1986, Dafoe’s portrayal of Sergeant Elias Grodin in Oliver Stone’s anti-war drama Platoon would expose him to a wider audience. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in the break-through film. Two years later, Martin Scorsese successfully recruited him to fill the leading role as Jesus Christ in his hotly debated literary adaptation The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Still in the same year, Dafoe co-starred alongside Gene Hackman in director Alan Parker’s civil-rights-era drama Mississippi Burning (1988) (right). In the film, Dafoe plays a young FBI agent fighting against racism and the Ku Klux Klan.
Many multifaceted roles would follow, in films such as Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Wim Wenders’ In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Faraway, So Close! 1993) and The English Patient (1996). In the year 2000, Dafoe shined as Max Schreck in the horror film Shadow of the Vampire by director E. Elias Merhige. His brilliant turn as a member of the undead earned him his second Academy Award nomination.
In 2002 Dafoe appeared under the direction of Paul Schrader in the biopic Auto Focus. In 2004 Dafoe collaborated with director Wes Anderson on the latter’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Parallel to these appearances, he slipped into the role of Norman Osborn, aka the villainous “Green Goblin”, three times for the Spider-Man movie franchise (in 2002, 2004 and 2007).
In 2009 Danish director Lars von Trier cast him as the male lead alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in his psycho-thriller Antichrist – the film became the subject of controversy due to scenes featuring graphic sex and violence. In 2011 Dafoe put on an extraordinary acting performance once again as a lonely hunter in Daniel Nettheim’s thriller The Hunter. Three years later, in Abel Ferrara’s biopic (right) Pasolini Dafoe portrayed the Italian filmmaker in the final period of his life, shortly before his murder.
Last year Dafoe has appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s feature Murder on the Orient Express (2017). The German-American joint effort The Sleeping Shepherd (directed by Frank Hudec) is currently in pre-production. He has also finished filming under the direction of Julian Schnabel for At Eternity’s Gate, in which he plays Vincent van Gogh. Dafoe’s role in The Florida Project earned him both a nomination for the British BAFTA Awards and recently his third nomination for an Academy Award, in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
The ten films of the Berlinale Homage:
Antichrist (Denmark / Germany / France / Sweden / Italy / Poland 2009, Director: Lars von Trier)
Auto Focus (USA 2002, Director: Paul Schrader)
The Hunter (Australia 2011, Director: Daniel Nettheim) (image/left)
The Last Temptation of Christ (USA / Canada 1988, Director: Martin Scorsese)
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (USA 2004, Director: Wes Anderson)
Mississippi Burning (USA 1988, Director: Alan Parker)
Pasolini (France / Italy / Belgium 2014, Director: Abel Ferrara)
Platoon (USA 1986, Director: Oliver Stone)
Shadow of the Vampire (USA / United Kingdom / Luxembourg 2000, Director: E. Elias Merhige)
To Live and Die in L.A. (USA 1985, Director: William Friedkin)
BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 14 – 24 FEBRUARY 2018