Back in 1999, the marketing campaign for future Best Picture winner “American Beauty” urged viewers to “look closer.” Twenty-two years later, the same could be said about the nascent awards chances for “Red Rocket” star Simon Rex.
The former porn actor, MTV VJ, and “Scary Movie” sequel star plays a washed-up porn star named Mikey Saber in “Red Rocket,” the new film from “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker. But while the previous sentence might seem to disqualify Rex from an awards standpoint, especially in a Best Actor race loaded with past winners and nominees like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, and Andrew Garfield, it’s Rex who arguably has some of the best reviews of any performer thus far.
“Simon Rex is sensational in ‘Red Rocket,’” read a headline on Richard Lawson’s rave review of the film after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. For The Hollywood Reporter, awards columnist Scott Feinberg has Rex among his early Best Actor nominees (the caveat being that Feinberg hasn’t yet slotted in contenders like Washington because he had yet to see the film at the time of initial publication). Awards expert Dave Karger wrote on Twitter that Rex gave the best male performance among films that debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, where “King Richard” with Smith, “The Power of the Dog” with Cumberbatch, and “Belfast” with Jamie Dornan, all screened. At Variety, the publication’s awards expert, Clayton Davis, urged academy voters to consider Rex in the category despite the film’s subject matter — which includes sex work, drug use, and characters who seemingly hold conservative politics.
Mikey is a “character that you simultaneously love and hate,” Davis wrote. Indeed, throughout “Red Rocket,” Mikey makes a number of reprehensible choices — including trying to entice a young woman, breakout actress Suzanna Son, to join him in the porn world. But the trick of Rex’s hyperverbal and wired performance is that he’s able to charm viewers (and the film’s characters) into thinking he’s doing the right thing. It’s a high-wire act throughout, a performance that notably recalls Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems” (a Best Actor snub last year) and also former Best Actor nominees Leonardo DiCaprio (for “The Wolf of Wall Street”), Christian Bale (for “American Hustle”) and Bradley Cooper (for “Silver Linings Playbook”).
Despite the early praise, however, Rex hasn’t cracked the Gold Derby odds in any meaningful way: among Best Actor contenders, he ranks 21st in the combined predictions between users and experts, behind even long-shot stars like Clint Eastwood (for “Cry Macho”) and Michael B. Jordan (for “A Journal for Jordan”). But that could change in the months ahead, especially now that A24 has started the public campaign for “Red Rocket” in earnest. On Tuesday, the studio released the film’s first trailer, a blast of energy that puts Rex center stage and showcases his performance. “I’m on top of my game right now on, like, every single possible level,” Rex-as-Mikey says in an early part of the “Red Rocket” trailer. The question is, will awards voters acknowledge he’s right?
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