It may be the most tired, threadbare cliché of all of Oscar season: ”It’s an honor just being nominated.” But in Jackie Earle Haley’s case, it might also be true. After a red-hot run as a teen actor in The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away in the mid-to-late ’70s, Haley was not-so-gently nudged out of the profession. And no one even bothered to tell him. That might have been what hurt the most.
The freckled cuteness of Haley as a young man turned into acne-spotted awkwardness. The roles got smaller. The films got cheesier. And soon, Haley learned the hard way that Hollywood had outgrown him. What came next was a string of blue-collar humiliations. Haley delivered pizzas and worked as a security guard. By his early 20s, he was a has-been.
Perhaps that’s why Haley’s miraculous comeback last year was so inspiring. After a bit part in All the King’s Men, Haley landed the role of accused sex offender Ronnie McGorvey in Todd Field’s heartbreaking work of staggering suburban malaise, Little Children. And it was clear to anyone who saw the film that while Haley had been away from the profession for more than a decade, it never left his system. ”I’m an actor,” says Haley, 45. ”It’s in my fibers. It’s not just something you do, it’s a part of you.”
As Ronnie, a haunted and hunted naïf with impulses he neither understands nor seems able to control, the first-time nominee manages to make us feel both sorry for his character and revolted by him. Could a man as close to his doting mother as Ronnie be truly bad? Yes and no. As the lightning rod of a town’s misplaced rage, Ronnie is a deeply tragic figure. But perhaps most tragic of all is Haley’s decadelong exile from a profession he was so clearly born to be a part of.