The Film: Whiplash
What’s It About? Andrew is a 19-year-old music conservatory student who is determined to become a great jazz drummer. His talent and fierce passion draw the attention of the school’s most intimidating teacher, Terence Fletcher, who believes that students excel not through praise and encouragement, but through relentless humiliation and fear.
Number of Oscar Nominations? 5
Will It Win? J.K. Simmons is a dead cert to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his ferocious performance as tyrannical music teacher Terence Fletcher. Unless he throws a chair at Ed Norton or slaps Robert Duvall in the face, he can be assured that future trailers for films he is in will bill him as “Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons”. Simmons’s win might be the only Oscar that Whiplash wins. In the Best Picture category it faces fierce competition from another movie about creativity, Birdman, which after winning top prize at the Producers Guild Awards and Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards has become the film that might upset the odds and take the Big Prize away from Boyhood. Similarly, although the editing and sound mixing are insanely brilliant (this is fast-paced, suspenseful movie and you can hear every brush of the snare drum), in those categories it’s up against stuff like American Sniper, Interstellar, and Birdman.
The script by Damien Chazelle is in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (from his own short film); I have a feeling the Academy is going to fall for the romantic and sentimental The Theory of Everything, or perhaps even Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner noir Inherent Vice. Chazelle’s script probably deserves it though, if only for the shock moments and sudden twists that help elevate the story way above the usual fare found in films about young talented kids and their inspiring mentors.
J.K. Simmons is up for Best Supporting Actor? Isn’t he pretty much what drives the whole film?
Okay, what makes a performance in a film be considered Supporting? Is it the number of scenes the actor is in ? Is it that the character is either written to help or hinder the protagonist? Well, Judi Dench fittingly won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love; she’s only in a couple of scenes. By contrast, Anthony Hopkins is on screen for less than twenty minutes in Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal Lecter is neither the protagonist or the villain. And yet Hopkins walked away with the Oscar for Best Actor.
Is it sometimes just because the actor or actress has their name billed below the title, and is that why both character actors and ageing stars love to get that final credit “and … “? Agents tussle with producers over billing, sometimes with a bad outcome: it’s commonly thought that Robert Shaw lost out on a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing Quint in Jaws because he insisted in getting equal billing above the title with Scheider and Dreyfuss.
All of which brings me to Whiplash and the Best Supporting Actor nomination for the great J. K. Simmons, who’s in almost every scene. Is it because the studio figured the competition for Best Actor would be too stiff that instead it campaigned for Best Supporting Actor? Or is it that Simmons isn’t famous enough to “deserve” a Best Actor nomination? That doesn’t really make much sense; after all, fellow character actor Richard Jenkins was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Visitor (another film about drumming, come to think of it).
And besides, Simmons is sort of famous. He is an actor’s actor who has been turning in reliably solid work in small and supporting roles for decades on film and television – as well as voicing Yellow Peanut in the M&Ms commercials – with a lived-in face and prickly demeanour instantly recognisable to even the most casual movie-watcher. He’s that guy from Juno, the Spiderman movies, TV’s Law & Order, Oz and The Closer.
After Whiplash, he won’t be that guy anymore. He owns the screen as Fletcher, the most insanely frightening and intimidating teacher you’ve ever met. On the off-chance you’re thinking that he’s a tough but fair teacher like Edward James Olmos in Stand by Me, or that he’s going to urge his students to seize the day like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, let me assure you that he isn’t.
He doesn’t encourage the students exactly (he despises the words “good job”). He yells obscenities at them. He hurls insults, racial epithets, and furniture at them. Imagine R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket, but with a better ear for music. It’s one thing for the new kid in class to be hazed by other students; it’s another thing entirely when it’s by the teacher.
Fletcher is a tyrant, and the script’s great strength is there’s no cliched moment where you learn that he’s only that way because he had his heart broken as a young man or had to abandon a promising music career to go work for his dad or some bullshit like that. He’s just a prick, but sometimes you need a bastard pushing you to make sure you don’t give up.
Simmons is getting all the attention, but it should be noted that Miles Teller is excellent as Andy. He’s mostly played teenagers in silly high school comedies, and he is about to star in the reboot of The Fantastic Four. In Whiplash he drums like a maniac, sweating and bleeding as he struggles to get the tempo perfect, and although Fletcher pushes him to the brink, he continues striving because both he and Fletcher want the same thing: a legacy. As Andy says he’d rather die at 34 like Charlie Parker and have people at dinner parties talk about him than live to be a hundred and forgotten.
Whiplash is an exciting, brilliant film anchored by two amazing performances and a kick-ass selection of music, with a very clever screenplay that will no doubt be studied by aspiring screenwriters. There is a moment when I thought the script was going to go one way*, only for it to unleash a shock moment and a couple of twists. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. And as for the final ten minutes of the film … Wow!
Verdict: Four Bleeding Fingers out of Five
*SPOILER: highlight below for further thoughts on the screenplay:
For one very brief moment when Andy was in the car crash, I thought “oh, fuck, it’s going to turn into Million Dollar Baby” and I had an awful, fleeting image of J.K. Simmons sitting by Miles Teller’s hospital bed trying to comfort the young man who’s just had both his arms amputated. It didn’t happen, thankfully. Of course Fletcher would know that it was Andy who complained about him, but i didn’t see that act of revenge coming. Brilliant stuff.