For the past nine years, several actors have played similar performances to that of Sam Elliott’s in The Hero, and have gone on to obtain Oscar recognition. It happened for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and, to an extent, Michael Keaton in Birdman. All three played a once-famous icon that has lost his way and attempts to make a comeback while, at the same time, starting a new relationship and trying to reconnect with estranged family members.
Rourke and Keaton received nods for their performances, while Bridges won for his. You could say that the Academy does love this kind of story, but, at the same time, there’s a reason why these three were nominated. All of them were exceptional, and, arguably, the work they did for those films was the best of their career.
While it is a bit too early to tell if Elliott will receive a nod for his work in The Hero, it shouldn’t come as a shock if it does happen. The 72-year-old actor, known mostly for his performances in westerns, gives a heartbreaking performance as Lee Hayden, an actor who was once famous, but has since lost his way. Lee is mostly handed voice-over work for commercials just to keep the bills paid. There’s only one thing in his career for which he is proud. It’s a western called The Hero, and it’s the one for which he’s about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild.
But Lee wants more out of his life. Ever since his work in The Hero, he doesn’t feel he’s really achieved much else. He’s divorced; estranged from his daughter, Lucy (Krystin Ritter); and spends his free time getting high with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), another divorced actor with whom Lee worked on a short-lived television series. In addition, Lee finds out that he has pancreatic cancer, and doesn’t have much time to live. Through Jeremy, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a comedian to whom Lee becomes attracted despite the fact that there’s a 30-year gap between the two.
From the opening scene to the end credits, The Hero is Elliott’s film. In real life, the always-busy character actor has appeared mostly in supporting roles, bringing his macho, no-nonsense approach to films like Tombstone, Road House, We Were Soldiers, and others during the course of his nearly 40-year career. He’s also proven to have quite the sense of humor, as witnessed in films such as The Big Lebowski, and his baritone voice has lead him to landing a bunch of narration work for a variety of brands such as Ram Trucks and Coors.
Watching Elliott in The Hero is unlike anything in which you’ve seen him. He’s a broken man, hoping to find redemption in the career to which he’s held on for years. But, at the same time, he comes to realize that there are things in his personal life he needs to amend. And he’s hoping to do so before it’s too late.
The Hero is similar to the aforementioned Wrestler and other films in dealing with personal issues while trying to regain focus on a career. It doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make itself different from others like it, and one can see where it’s going. But it’s Elliott that carries the film. He’s got a charm for which he’s well known that he brings to the character during the moments in which he bonds with Charlotte and when he meets fans of the one hit in his career.
The supporting cast works here as well, even though they’re primarily stuck in the obvious roles for this kind of story. Prepon gets the most out of the bunch as Lee’s love interest. Their chemistry is kinetic, and it’s great when she has to introduce him to some modern terminology, such as what it means to go viral. Offerman is his usual goofball self, but his character is a treat to watch. Ritter gets little to do, but is serviceable, and the same can be said for Katherine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife who plays his ex-wife here.
Though Elliott is an actor that seldom gets the lead part, with The Hero, it’s safe to say that he has the capability to excel in that position just as much as he does in the many supporting roles he’s had over the years. Director Brett Haley gives the iconic character actor something out of the ordinary for him, and, without hesitation, he’s able to bring to life a person that we love and want to see succeed.
Some elements to The Hero are reflections of Elliott’s life as an actor, from people mentioning how they love his voice and his thick mustache to the fact that he does not get the recognition his fans wish he did. Elliott is certainly no one-hit wonder like his character, but with a lengthy career in Hollywood, many feel that he’s long overdue for an award of some kind. The Hero could be the film that gets him, at least, his first Oscar nomination, which he rightfully deserves.
The Orchard will release The Hero in NY and LA June 9 and nationwide on July 4