At the Middleburg Film Festival this month, there were two rapturous standing ovations in the main theater of the Salamander Resort, where all the prominent films screen. One was for the best picture front-runner “Belfast” from Focus Features. The other was for Clifton Collins Jr.’s heartfelt turn as an aging equestrian hoping for his final championship run in “Jockey” from Sony Pictures Classics.
With more than 70 movie credits, the Los Angeles-born actor has been a staple at the movies for two decades. From his imprisoned corporal in “The Last Castle” (2001) to his Oscar-snubbed role as convicted murderer Perry Smith in Bennett Miller’s best picture-nominated debut, “Capote” (2005), opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, Collins has been a true character actor, with no awards recognition to come his way.
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“Jockey” debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which was virtual due to the pandemic. But movies often play differently in theaters. And now people are taking the time to watch first-time director Clint Bentley’s film, which chronicles the story of a jockey named Jackson Silva, who begins to feel the effects of the decades spent on the equestrian circuit.
Collins spoke with Variety in January about taking on the physical transformation and the grueling diet. “I had a stack of five or eight almonds a day and it was like my life line,” Collins shared. “On occasion, I’d sneak in a peanut M&M and I’d still feel a little bit of guilt.”
All eyes have been on the A-listers in the lead actor race, with most of the early buzz focused on Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”), Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Denzel Washington (“Macbeth”). However, every once in a while, a talented character actor makes the leap from “that guy” to Oscar nominee. We saw similar trajectories with Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”). Still, we’ve rarely seen that happen to a Latino actor, especially one who harnesses a role that isn’t dependent on any of the stale and offensive stereotypes, such as drug dealer or day laborer with a heart of gold.
In fact, it’s been 10 years since the Academy Awards even recognized a Latino in the best actor category. Mexican-born Demián Bichir’s nomination for “A Better Life” (2011) from director Chris Weitz, also partly Latino, beat incredible odds to be named alongside A-listers like George Clooney (“The Descendants”), Gary Oldman (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) and Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”). Since then, we’ve likely taken for granted how much Bichir has continued to work in the business; in 2021 alone, he stars in three films, including Robin Wright’s debut, “Land.”
Four Latino actors have been nominated for lead actor in 94 years. In the golden age of Hollywood, Puerto Rican-born José Ferrer won for “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950) and was nominated again for “Moulin Rouge” (1952). On the other hand, Mexican actor Anthony Quinn, who won Oscars for supporting actor for “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and “Lust for Life” (1956), couldn’t win either of his leading mentions for “Wild is the Wind” (1957) and “Zorba the Greek” (1964).
Can Collins become the fifth Latino lead actor nominee? Being the sole nominee for a movie is not unheard of for leading men, but it presents a hurdle. Willem Dafoe’s nod for “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) is the last time an actor was the sole representation for his movie, and that was Dafoe’s fourth career nomination. Hopefully, Collins’ buzz can translate to supporting love for co-stars Molly Parker and Moisés Arias, who are also superb in the film.
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