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Michael Fassbender has acted in numerous notable movies and earned praise for his performances in films spanning genres. But none has been as revealing or controversial as 2011’s Shame. The movie’s uncompromising portrayal of a sex addict on the brink of self-destruction led to an NC-17 rating that made it difficult to get the original version in front of general audiences. Shame is not for everybody, not least the actor’s mother, who, much to his relief, skipped the premiere. But those who saw Michael Fassbender’s movie witnessed a terrific character study that deserved more plaudits at the Oscars.

The actor is clearly talented, but he’s had an up-and-down career

Michael Fassbender movie Shame NC-17
Michael Fassbender poses during a ‘Shame’ portrait session in 2011 | Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for the BFI

Michael Fassbender didn’t need much time showing the world he was a uniquely gifted performer. After making his film debut in a small role in 300, the German-Irish actor had his breakthrough in 2008 as a leading man in British director Steve McQueen’s Hunger as Bobby Sands, a Provisional Irish Republican Army member who leads a hunger strike while imprisoned by the British government. 

The next year, Fassbender earned praise for his work in another indie, Fish Tank, but that year is most memorable for his turn  as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds. He’s not in the movie long, and his lack of command of German hand gestures becomes a fatal mistake, but it’s impossible to watch Fassbender turn on the charm and not be convinced he’s a future superstar who will someday have a run as James Bond

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Fassbender has still made plenty of good movies — Frank, Slow West, and Steve Jobs are among the best — but he’s also seen his share of misses. As non-Marvel blockbusters began to falter at the box office, he became a victim of the industry’s transition. The X-Men franchise collapsed after Dark Phoenix and has yet to rise again, Assassin’s Creed was irrelevant on arrival, and Alien: Covenant underperformed despite being well-made. 

Fassbender then took time off to raise a child with his wife, Alicia Vikander, and follow his passion for racing. He competed in the European Le Mans series in 2020 and recently ran in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, finishing 51st out of 62 teams and crashing his Porsche twice, Sporting News reported.

He’s set to return to acting in the martial arts comedy Kung Fury II, Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins, and David Fincher’s The Killer, all slated for release in the next few months.

‘Shame’ is one of Michael Fassbender’s best performances, but he’s glad his mom missed it


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Michael Fassbender linked up with McQueen again to star in Shame. The actor plays Brandon, a successful New York executive who can’t maintain close relationships despite his appearance and status. It quickly becomes apparent that his sex addiction is rampant and dictates his life, compelling him to hire prostitutes and watch porn daily. But his routine is interrupted by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who has her own psychological issues.

Shame always keeps Brandon at the center of the frame, but the movie uses the siblings’ tension and implied trauma to tell a story about damaged people struggling to rise above their demons in the big city.

The MPA gave the movie an NC-17 rating due to “some explicit sexual content.” Shame abounds with nudity, including a full-frontal shot of Fassbender. But the decision is indicative of how American society is more uncomfortable with basic physiology than violence. To its credit, Fox Searchlight, which distributed the movie stateside, stood by the movie and took pride in the rating. 

“I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner,” Searchlight president Steve Gilula told The Hollywood Reporter. “The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game-changer.”

Regardless, Fassbender is glad his mother missed the Shame premiere. “My mum was supposed to be there,” Fassbender told The Guardian. “And in a way, thank God, her back played up. Maybe in her subconscious, she developed a back pain on the eve of the screening.”

McQueen believes the Academy snubbed Michael Fassbender due to the movie’s subject matter

Shame ended up on many critics’ top 10 lists for 2011, and it is regarded as one of Michael Fassbender’s best roles. But he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination that year, a decision McQueen spoke out against during awards season. 

“In America, they’re too scared of sex — that’s why he wasn’t nominated,” the director said in a separate interview with The Guardian. “If you look at the best-actor list, you’re saying, ‘Michael Fassbender is not on that list?’ It’s kind of crazy. But that’s how it is. It’s an American award — let them have it.”

The snub also disappointed Fassbender, but he didn’t have to wait long for his Oscar nod. He and McQueen’s third collaboration, 12 Years a Slave, won Best Picture and earned them personal nominations for Best Director (which McQueen won) and Best Supporting Actor.