The majority of the Oscar buzz coming out of Cannes for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has been unsurprisingly centered around Steve Carrell’s transformative work as insane wrestling magnate John du Pont. But Channing Tatum’s supporting work as Olympian Mark Schultz is accumulating raves too and could mark another milestone for the actor once largely regarded as a brainless hunk. The question: is this really so surprising?
Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan says that Tatum “goes deep” in his performance as the brooding Schultz, and that his “hunched, defeated shoulders and self-loathing stares in the mirror tell you everything Mark would never dare to say out loud,” comparing Tatum’s work to Jared Leto’s surprise run to Oscar success last year in Dallas Buyers Club.
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson was similarly wowed, saying Tatum’s was “the real performance to talk about” in the film. “Were it not such a hacky thing to say in a movie review, I might be tempted to call his performance a revelation,” he adds.
Gonna be weird when Channing Tatum wins an Oscar!— Richard Lawson (@rilaws) May 20, 2014
Tatum is following the career trajectory of many a marquee idol—first he was the former male model who danced and punched his way through confections like Step Up and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, then he made a name for himself in comedy with his excellent work in The Dilemma and 21 Jump Street, and with Magic Mike and White House Down he’s become an A-list movie star. This is often followed by some “serious” acting jobs, and Foxcatcher notches nicely into that category.
But honestly, Tatum has been a world-class talent for years. He’s very authentic and explosively threatening in 2007’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, one of his earliest major credits. Dito Montiel’s Guide is an often overwrought look back at his youth in 1980s Queens, but it’s a real actor's showcase, and Tatum is arguably the standout as the hothead who gets in trouble defending our main character (Shia LeBeouf, also doing some of his best work). He got an Independent Spirit nomination for his work and deserved more—the film functions as a calling card to a career he never really had, since Guide was mostly followed by action films and broad comedies.
Not that Tatum’s work in comedies should be ignored, and he’s without a doubt what makes 21 Jump Street special. That’s no hit on Jonah Hill, but we expected him to do his thing there. Tatum didn’t just play his character like a lunkhead who gets to be the butt of jokes, but as a proud, easily hurt, prickly man who is increasingly confused by the adult world. He’s got actual comic chops, and he can dominate a scene as much as Hill can without just relying on big reactions.
Then of course there’s Tatum’s work with Steven Soderbergh, primarily Magic Mike, a passion project for Tatum that drew inspiration from his life as a dancer and stripper. A lot of critical focus at the time justly fell upon Matthew McConaughey’s supporting turn, but Tatum holds the center together with a very easy, relaxed charisma. He’s similarly strong in smaller turns in Side Effects and Haywire. This is the thing about Tatum’s meathead label—while he definitely has the look of one, he’s never really had that personality onscreen. Tatum has been turning in sterling work pretty much since he started acting. Foxcatcher looks like the kind of project that Oscar pays attention to, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t deserved to be in the running already.