Oscars spotlight: Jonathan Majors (‘Devotion’) deserves to be in the Best Actor race

With Oscar nominations less than a month away from their January 24 announcement, the Best Actor race is still unsettled. Three names — Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”), Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) and Austin Butler (“Elvis”) — appear to be locked in, but the category’s fourth and fifth slots are up for grabs. Tom Cruise (“Top Gun: Maverick”), whom Gold Derby’s combined odds place in fifth, has the advantage of starring in a top Best Picture contender, while Bill Nighy (“Living”), Paul Mescal (“Aftersun”), Hugh Jackman (“The Son”) and Jeremy Pope (“The Inspection”) are all vying for potential solo noms. Outside the top 10 but no less deserving of consideration is Jonathan Majors (“Devotion”), a rising talent on the verge of a career break in 2023.

SEE Jonathan Majors (‘Devotion’) on becoming U.S. Navy fighter pilot Jesse Brown: ‘I think I just played my hero’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

As the first African-American fighter pilot Jesse Brown in J.D. Dillard’s earnest and old-fashioned “Devotion,” Majors delivers the sort of quietly intense performance that’s made Tom Hardy a star over the past decade—fitting, given that Majors’ “Creed III” role has more than a few shades of the one filled by Hardy for 2011’s “Warrior.” At the Korean War drama’s epicenter is the bond between two wingmen from different backgrounds: Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) is an Ivy-League-educated officer, and Brown is a farmer who, as Majors phrased it while discussing the aviator’s legacy with Gold Derby’s Denton Davidson, “brought himself from the fields of sharecropping to the sky.”

Majors’ eyes betray the storm brewing underneath Jesse’s sanguine demeanor. Only briefly are we permitted to observe his private ritual, during which he stands before a mirror with a notebook that contains (almost) every derogatory remark he’s endured since childhood and breaks himself down in preparation for the terror of entering a plane many would rather he crash than successfully fly. “That distrust is something this country has laid into the psyche of African Americans,” Majors said during his Gold Derby interview. What’s remarkable about the actor’s work in the film is its internalism, the way it reveals in flashes the turmoil that is fully displayed in this key scene. That expressiveness sustains our connection to the character during lengthy aerial combat sequences which require Majors to act with most of his face covered. Critics paid similar compliments to Hardy for his work as Bane in 2013’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and, funnily enough, a fighter pilot in 2017’s “Dunkirk.”

SEE Deirdra Govan (‘Devotion’ costume designer) on building historic U.S. Navy flight suits and reimagining Elizabeth Taylor [Exclusive Video Interview]

As Majors perceptively pointed out, Jesse Brown’s story takes place before the resonant language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X gave voice to struggles like his. In fact, Harry Truman’s move to desegregate the military two years prior to the start of the Korean War, Executive Order 9981 (1948), is popularly cited as an integral catalyst for the civil rights movement, making Brown one of its first, albeit reluctant, icons. Majors’ taciturn, guarded performance convincingly depicts what that kind of attention must’ve inflicted upon the humble and hard-nosed aviator.

“Devotion” is the biggest film role for the Emmy-nominated “Lovecraft Country” star to date, but the months ahead — he’s headlining two blockbusters (“Creed III” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”) and “Magazine Dreams,” an indie premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in just a few weeks — are bound to turn Majors, with or without an Oscar nod, into an even bigger household name.

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