Is Matt Damon Avoiding Oscar Movies?

by Michael Arbeiter

I live in steady anticipation of the announcement that Matt Damon will headline a reputable director’s The Sun Also Rises adaptation, a major studio’s Eli Wiesel biopic, or some nebulous November release about a great thinker suffering a treacherous disease. Instead, he opts for sci-fi parables, or secret cameos, or the latest big news: Damon's fourth turn as Jason Bourne.

When Damon hit the Syriana/The Departed/The Good Shepherd string of his career, we didn’t expect him to wind up as the kind of actor who’d be reviving his Bourne franchise nine years after its conclusion. In lieu of the dramatic temper that we may always associate with the actor, Damon lines his résumé of late with action movies like this and Elysium… or oddball black comedies like Zero Theorem… or quiet politically charged passion projects like Promised Land… or easy-listening family films like We Bought a Zoo. In short, the sorts of movies the Oscars have no interest in.

And yet, we still consider the man an “Oscar contender.” Few would bat an eye if Damon took to the podium to deliver a Best Actor acceptance speech, stirring in surprise upon realizing that it would be his first time to do so. In fact, Damon has only been nominated once in the category: for Good Will Hunting, the movie that launched his career 17 years ago. Furthermore, he has only received one Best Supporting Actor nomination as well (for Invictus).

The dissonance must have something to do with the way Damon carries himself off screen. Damon is cemented among the company of Hollywood’s elite — we think of him in close quarters with George Clooney (a regular acting nominee), Brad Pitt (multiple nominee for acting and producing), and of course Ben Affleck (no acting nominations, but reentered the Oscar conversation after winning Best Picture for Argo). Likewise, we associate Damon with director Steven Soderbergh, whose films have won top awards for a number of actors in the past. But Damon’s Soderbergh entries are not quite of the Erin Brokovich or Traffic variety, but comedies (like the Oceans movies or the hilarious The Informant!) and thrillers (Contagion), or completely-out-of-the-running TV movies (Behind the Candelabra). Damon did appear in Soderbergh’s epic biography film Che, but was hardly the focal performer.

It isn’t as though Damon couldn’t get the roles that’d win him surefire awards attention, so it doesn’t seem like too lengthy a leap to guess that the evasion thereof could be a conscious choice. With the Oscars recognizing such a limited spectrum of movies — guaranteed nominees this year will include the usual slate of misunderstood geniuses and adversity conquerors — Damon might fear the suffocating clutch on the “Oscar movies only” community. Though an actor like Damon might easily be able to juggle Jonas Salk’s life story with outer space survival thrillers, rigid association with the former community might deter directors from seeking out Damon for the latter, assuming disinterest.

A bit more dramatic of a guess: maybe Damon is intentionally avoiding Oscar pictures to make a statement. While the sort of movies that get Academy Award nominations will inevitably win the public eye, it is the smaller, stranger, and sillier films that really need stars like Damon to earn people’s attention. Although nobody seems to be seeing Zero Theorem, Damon’s secondary role could be enough to wrangle an otherwise unlikely viewer. His stardom in Promised Land could have been all it took to teach a few audiences about fracking; his role at the head of Elysium might have kept attention on the relative unknown filmmaker who gave the world District 9 (and follows this duo up with Chappie).

And in regards to a new Bourne movie? That might just be to show the Academy themselves exactly just how big a foul-up it was not nominating Paul Greengrass for his terrific Captain Phillips. It may be to show the world that they should not yet give up investment in the possibility of shakycam done right.

Or maybe, quite simply, he just really likes doing these movies. And he just wants to keep doing the movies he likes, no matter who appreciates them.

Images: Getty; Miramax Films; Amplify