Next month, four industry veterans are expected to compete for the Academy Award for Best Actor against a talented upstart named Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet is widely expected to receive his first nomination for his heartbreaking performance as Elio, a teenager who falls in love with his father’s intern during a languid summer in Italy, in Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite Call Me By Your Name. If he wins, Chalamet will, at 22, become the youngest lead actor Oscar winner in history, eclipsing Adrian Brody, who was 29 when he won for The Pianist in 2003. Gary Oldman, according to the pundits, had the Oscar locked months before his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour had been seen by a living soul. But then Chalamet started taking the critics awards—including Los Angeles and New York—and suddenly, the conversation changed.
Anyone who has seen Call Me By Your Name will understand why Chalamet has been lavished with praise by critics and audiences alike. His instincts and choices are so sharp, so perceptive, and so thorough, as he navigates an astonishing range, from precocious to petty to lusty aggression, that you’re almost a little bitter that anyone so young should be gifted the sort of talent that most actors never achieve in their lifetime. Watch as Elio curls into his father’s lap, and then listens—just listens—as his father explains the importance of holding onto painful memories, his face fixated, stained with tears, simply absorbing what he’s hearing. Try to remain composed, I dare you, during the film’s final haunting shot of Elio staring into a fire, reflecting on his first love, as the credits roll around him. Chalamet conveys all the pleasure and heartache without saying a single word. This isn’t the kind of acting that can be taught, this is instinct, and Call Me By Your Name lives or dies by it.
If you think that performance might be a fluke, then turn to the 2016 drama Miss Stevens, where Chalamet’s talents shine in an entirely different way, as a talented, if chemically-imbalanced, high school student competing in a regional drama competition. Here, Chalamet effortlessly straddles the line between mania and depression, at once literally bouncing off the walls, and then sinking into fits of anger as he desperately tries to connect with his equally-damaged chaperone and English teacher (a great Lily Rabe). Any other actor would’ve made countless missteps into overacting, but Chalamet’s talents keep him firmly in control of the character. The scene where he recites a monologue from Death of a Salesman is a showstopper, again showing an entirely different side of his range. Now compare that to the pretentious, supercilious asshole in Lady Bird, who literally charms the pants off Saoirse Ronan, and you’ll see real gifts at work.
Finally, give a quick look at the YouTube clips of Chalamet in John Patrick Shanley’s off-Broadway play, Prodigal Son, and tell me you don’t see the ghost of Brando hovering just over his shoulder.