"It" deserves an array of Oscars

A special shoutout must be given to Bill Skårsgard's breathtaking performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 11, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Bill Skarsgard plays  It/Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the film "It" (Getty/Robyn Beck)
Bill Skarsgard plays It/Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the film "It" (Getty/Robyn Beck)

For the record, the genesis of this article pre-dated the announcement that "It" had broken box office records. Yet the fact that it has earned an awe-inspiring $117 million in its opening weekend only reinforces the conclusion that I reached after seeing the movie on opening night:

"It" needs to win Oscars. Like, all of the Oscars.

This is a tall order, mainly because the Academy is notoriously snobby when it comes to recognizing horror films, outside of a handful of select categories (special effects, costume design, etc.) "The Silence of the Lambs" is the great exception to this rule, sweeping the Big Five awards in 1991 (Best Picture, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress for Jodie Foster and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally), but in many ways it is more of a thriller than a straightforward horror film. It doesn't have any supernatural elements and could just as easily pass for a crime drama.

"It," on the other hand, is steeped in the supernatural. Based solely on the movie (which is what will be judged by the Academy, after all), it is the story of a shapeshifting otherworldly entity, one that prefers to take the form of a creepy clown but can change into anything that might marinate the meat of little children in their own fear. On the surface, this is precisely the type of schlocky premise that turns off the highbrows at Oscar time.

Yet "It" transcends the often schlock-laden genre and is one of the best of 2017 and deserves to be recognized for its achievement in at least four categories — the award for best director goes to Andy Muschietti; best supporting actor goes to Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, Bill Skårsgard gets best actor for his portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Utimately, "It" deserves best picture.

The first two categories are the easiest to explain. "It" has the daunting task of merging a poignant and realistic coming-of-age story with a scary horror film, and that is no mean feat. Take two similar miniseries, the initial "It" and the recent "Stranger Things." The original 1990 miniseries was far more effective at being scary (mainly because Tim Curry delivered iconic performance as Pennywise), while the Netflix series "Stranger Things" (which "It" is clearly trying to emulate, at least stylistically) is better as a coming-of-age tale than a horror flick. "It," on the other hand, balances these two so adroitly that one almost takes the meld for granted. This is primarily due to Muschietti's direction. While all of the child actors are superb, Wolfhard's performance is the real standout — the one who evoked the most impact from the audience (his quips regularly led to bursts of applause from the audience), and the one who left the deepest impression — and his character Tozier provides the narrative glue.

Indeed, he was surpassed by only one actor in the entire cast — Skårsgard himself.

Like Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" or Heath Ledger as Joker in "The Dark Knight" — both of whom rightly won Oscars themselves — Skarsgard gives a performance that chills you right to your core. It's a melange of subtle quirks: The tinny tone he uses when trying to sound child-like, the menacing arching and lowering of his eyebrows, his loping body mannerisms that manage to be simultaneously intimidating and sickly comical. Even though the audience isn't given much backstory for Pennywise, Skårsgard is able to convey volumes through his interactions with the children. He is at once playful and contemptuous toward them, never questioning his own superiority, yet energized by the thrill of the hunt.

He is also surprisingly vulnerable. Near the end (spoiler alert), after the kids have defeated him, he begins literally quaking and whimpering at his impending defeat. He manages to escape to fight another day, of course, but before doing so, there is real fear in his eyes and demeanor. And yet . . . and yet it, isn't the fear of one who is necessarily afraid of dying. One senses from Skårsgard's expressions less of a physical terror, like the one he gives to the children, than an existential one. There is something fascinating and profound in the way Pennywise cowers before the children, akin to what you would expect when your entire sense of identity has been potentially exposed as an obnoxious lie.

If Skårsgard has given a performance of this magnitude in the service of a biopic, or a historical epic, or a Shakespearean melodrama, there would be little doubt that an Oscar nod was in his future. The only factor potentially working against him is that he happens to have done so for a horror film.

This brings me to the final category — Best Picture. Because the 2017 film season isn't over yet, it is too soon to say whether "It" is the best film of the year, but the film is, without question, the best one I've seen so far. There is an intangible quality that separates the truly great movies from the merely good ones. It can be deconstructed and quantified to a degree, but in the end there is a gravity that elevates the future classics above their counterparts. As I noticed in the reactions of the audience members around me, as well as from my own heart, "It" possesses that last quality in spades.

So will "It" wind up joining "The Silence of the Lambs" in that rarefied realm of beloved horror films that are recognized by the Academy? That's impossible to say right now, but if this is to happen, the process must begin by audiences clamoring for it. That is why I'm writing this not so much as a critic but as an ordinary moviegoer, experiencing Proustian transport via an old-fashioned scary movie executed by a team of filmmakers and actors at the top of their game.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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