Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Supporting Actor

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Will win: As with Best Actor, this one’s easy. Javier Bardem has already compiled 18 other nominations as the plodding, merciless serial killer Anton Chigurh, winning 17 times (his only loss came to Casey Affleck at the Satellite Awards, whatever those are). The only potential obstacle is if voters are afraid he’ll slip into the Killer Voice and terrify the audience with his acceptance speech. I can totally see him limping up to the stage with that creepy smile, then addressing the remaining nominees: “You should admit your situation; there would be more dignity in it.” Yikes. My Buddy Al told me that after watching the trailer for No Country for Old Men one too many times, he starting talking in the Killer Voice and eventually freaked out his entire family as well as himself. I doubt he’s alone. Still, I’ll risk it and take Bardem.

(The only question that remains is what cheesy pun I should use to describe Bardem’s victory over the competition, based on his character. “He’s killin’ it” is too weak. “He coin-tossed them” is too vague and doesn’t make any sense. And “He’s oxygenating everyone” just makes me think of air. I’ve got it: He pneumatized them. There it is. Javier Bardem has flat out pneumatized the other nominees for Best Supporting Actor. Book it.)

Should win: Strong group. I have no problems with any of these performances, so I’ll just describe them briefly (no, for real this time) in reverse order of preference.

At 83 years old, veteran Hal Holbrook is getting his first Oscar nomination, and it’s well-deserved. As an aging loner brought back to life by Emile Hirsch’s free adventuresome maverick, Holbrook’s portrayal is moving, but he doesn’t overplay it. He remains aged and physically haggard even as he is spiritually reborn. Of the various people Hirsch’s character meets in Into the Wild, Holbrook’s is the most memorable, and his final scene resonates with a quiet, deep poignancy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman could have played the part of Charlie Wilson’s War’s Gust Avrakotos in his sleep, so fitting a role it is for him. But even though his inhabitation of Gust’s foul-mouthed intellectual superiority is effortless, he keeps the gas pedal on the floor. His opening scene, in which he flies off the handle at his boss (“I spent the last three years learning fucking Finnish!”), is hilarious, but it also reveals the dedicated nature of Gust’s persona, a dedication both to himself and to his country. He’s the best in the business, and he knows it, but he also knows he needs help, which is what makes his gradual, grudging acceptance of Wilson as an ally one of the movie’s chief pleasures.
And breaking his boss’ window, well, that’s some funny shit too.

Bardem is the critics’ darling, and of all the nominees, he has the easiest, flashiest role. His job is simple: to make Anton Chigurh as scary as hell. (It’s not a particularly challenging part to play, but that should hardly count as a mark against him.) He accomplishes this first with his movements. Chigurh is always unhurried, almost plodding – he’s in no rush, he can let the killing come to him. (Only once do we see him break from his leisurely gait, the one time his quarry surprises him.) And then there’s his voice: drawn out, carefully enunciated, almost whispered. Throw in that horribly creepy smile (and an equally creepy haircut), and he’s a perverse construction of the Angel of Death. Consider that unbearably tense scene in the gas station, when he quietly, gently, murderously insists the clerk call the coin toss. The gas station proprietor is lucky – at least he has a 50-50 chance. For everyone else, once Chigurh marks you as a victim, you’re as good as dead.

The best description of Casey Affleck’s performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (and yeah, that’s the last time I’m writing out the whole fucking title) comes from Jesse’s brother, Frank (played by the cagey veteran actor Sam Shepard). Early in the film, Affleck’s Ford is pitching the James gang he so idolizes, trying to maneuver his way into their inner circle. Something about his tone strikes Frank the wrong way: “The more you talk, the more you give me the willies”. Quite. Ostensibly straight-laced and heroic in Gone Baby Gone, here Affleck fashions a character of undeniable creepiness and discomfort. With his bizarre diction and prickly tendency to take umbrage at the slightest insult, Robert is such a weird, bewildering individual that it’s no wonder Jesse occasionally spurns him. Affleck takes a great many risks in constructing Robert, and all of them pay off, most notably with his vocals – his earnest accent, the stilted syncopation of his speech patterns, the random fluctuations in volume. As a movie, The Assassination of Jesse James doesn’t always work – it’s excessively deliberate and seems to lack a point – but Affleck’s performance is flawless.

Tom Wilkinson has a preference for playing perceptive, intelligent characters, and Arthur Edens – the lawyer he essays in Michael Clayton – certainly fits that billing. But Arthur isn’t nearly as composed as most of Wilkinson’s characters. Instead, he has a manic intensity that is evident from the film’s first frames, which are overlaid by his rushed, rambling voiceover (for the record, anytime someone uses the phrase “patina of shit”, I’m on board). Superficially, Wilkinson plays Arthur as a man who has just awakened from a deep sleep and located his long-submerged conscience, but initially there are tremors of fear mixed in with Arthur’s newfound exhilaration. Consider a brief phone call he has with Michael’s son, who tells Arthur about his new book, in which characters have been “summoned”. Arthur feels a summoning from within as well, but he approaches it with trepidation as well as excitement.

That excitement eventually becomes absolute, however, and it manifests itself in his secure sense of virtue. Wilkinson takes great enjoyment in leveraging his innate intelligence for benefit of his audience. When he realizes his apartment is bugged, he records a phone call to himself, systematically shredding his former client’s case. He grins and taunts and almost cackles, luxuriating in his recent rediscovery of justice.

And then there’s that sad confrontation with Michael, where he tenderly, patiently lectures the younger man on his mistakes. Arthur is not indifferent to his friend’s predicament, but he’s been summoned to a higher purpose, and Wilkinson plays him as a man newly compelled to apply his intelligence not to shield his corrupt clients but to serve humanity. Arthur is not as saintly as he’s made himself out to be, and he may even be a little nuts, but Wilkinson understands that in this man’s head he has found peace, and he represents that inner satisfaction with an absolute moral certainty. And that’s why he should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men. The true star of this year’s Best Picture winner, Brolin also delivers what I perceive to be No Country for Old Men’s best performance. 2007 represented an astonishing coming-out party for Brolin, whose most memorable role before this year was probably as Sean Astin’s brother Brand in The Goonies, and that was when he was 17. I’m not sure why he was so suddenly rediscovered, but he had one hell of a year. In addition to enjoyable minor turns in Grindhouse and In the Valley of Elah, he slithered through the bloody streets of American Gangster as Trupo, a greasy, repugnant, morally bankrupt detective so corrupt he made Michael Chiklis’ character from “The Shield” look like Dick Tracy.

But it’s in his performance as Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men where Brolin truly shows what he can do. He doesn’t speak much, and when he does he seems to spit out words with contempt, as though he has better things to do with his time than talk. What he does do – instinctively and entirely with his eyes – is grasp his surroundings with keen awareness. Brolin was born in California, but in this movie he’s a Texan through and through, most at home in the dust and dirt. He navigates the Coens’ barren landscapes with confidence, as though he always knows precisely where everything is, and where he needs to be.

For such a hardened, sunbaked, instinctive creature, Brolin also imbues Llewelyn with an almost incongruous sense of integrity. There’s a brilliant scene early in No Country for Old Men where Llewelyn is lying awake late at night, completely still, his eyes open. After a few moments, he finally shakes his head and growls to himself, “Alright”. We soon realize with context he’s been wrestling with a dilemma about whether or not to risk his neck and help a stranger. Moments like that are what make Josh Brolin such an intriguing actor, when he can say so little and yet seems to say everything.

Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac. I don’t know if the real Paul Avery – the journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle first assigned to the Zodiac murders – was anything like the version depicted in the movie, but if he was then I’m fairly certain he and Robert Downey Jr. are somehow related. Downey plays Avery as a brilliant, alcoholic, sardonic, drug-addicted louse – is he even really acting at all? I don’t care. He’s so tremendously comfortable in this role, and his own personality is so charismatic and absorbing, that it doesn’t really matter whether he’s playing a part of just loafing around in front of the camera. Every single thing he does in this movie – every twitch, every snarky aside, every murmur – is just fucking hilarious. Watch Downey’s face when Jake Gyllenhaal’s character orders an aqua velva at a bar – the astonishment, the beat that he takes, then the inevitable insult. The guy is a comic goldmine. Let’s just please keep him away from the drugs.

Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Utterly terrifying. This guy is like Hannibal Lecter without the sense of humor. He’s polite, perceptive, and brutal. His repeated line “Did I mention money?” and our gradual realization of its meaning is profoundly disturbing.

Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises. 2007 was clearly a good year for low-key, soft-spoken, undeniably monstrous villains. I give credit to Mueller-Stahl, who somehow received an Oscar nomination in 1996 for his embarrassing, over-the-top performance as Geoffrey Rush’s tyrannical father in Shine. Whereas in that film he was all growls and sneers, in Eastern Promises he scales things back and refuses to mug for the camera. He communicates his character’s wickedness through long, sinister pauses and gentle, purposeful gestures. Such pervading quiet makes him all the more frightening.

Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma. If Ivanov and Mueller-Stahl are delicate and graceful in their depictions of human evil, Foster is almost cartoonish as Ben Wade’s fanatically loyal lieutenant. Yet there’s something mesmerizing in his devotion – he’s so intense he even seems to make Wade uncomfortable. I also love his simplest line, spoken after he performs mass murder with ruthless efficiency: “I hate posses.”

Foster is an actor to watch. He starred years ago in Barry Levinson’s lovely family drama Liberty Heights, then disappeared, only to reemerge earlier this year as a frenzied bulldog of a drug addict in Alpha Dog. He may not have great range, but he is certainly capable of bringing energy to a production.

Ethan Hawke, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Ethan Hawke is another actor whom I tend to like and most other people tend to despise. He’s not exactly versatile (although his stirring turn in Gattaca is a worthy departure from his usual fragility), but he has an appealing quirkiness that can be valuable in the right part. (I firmly believe his fumbling sincerity in Before Sunrise remains a classical example of the contemporary male romantic lead). Hank Hanson is exactly such a part in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Downtrodden and helpless, he’s desperate and stupid enough to go along with his brother’s foolish scheme, and when things go wrong, Hawke’s squirrelly nature aligns perfectly with Hank’s involuntary downward spiral. Observe the exasperation on his face near the end of the film when his brother asks him, “Are we good?”. Ethan Hawke may not be a great actor, but in this part, he answers that question perfectly.

Jeremy Davies, Rescue Dawn. It isn’t particularly surprising that Jeremy Davies has yet to catch on with mainstream audiences. Ever since his brilliant turn as the cowardly interpreter in Saving Private Ryan, he’s flatly refused to even dabble in mainstream fare (although apparently he now has a recurring role on “Lost”), preferring instead to play jittery, anxious men in small-scale productions like Solaris. His work in Rescue Dawn is no exception, and he’s downright fascinating it. Playing a slightly crazed POW in Vietnam, he conjures up a variety of eccentric physical tics, and when he speaks, he draws out his sentences for ages, as though he’s piecing the words together from a puzzle. It’s a highly mannered performance, but it effectively conveys the psychologically damaging nature of war.

Robert De Niro, Stardust. There’s a great scene in High Fidelity (but really, is there any scene in High Fidelity that isn’t a great scene?) where Jack Black wants to discuss Stevie Wonder’s career. He asks: “Is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins – is it better to burn out or fade away?” You could easily ask the same question of De Niro’s career. Here’s a guy who was an absolute legend for his intense dramatic work in films like The Godfather, Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Now, in the last six years he’s offered his services to movies like Analyze That, Shark Tale, and Meet the Fockers. This is not my father’s Robert De Niro.
But here’s the thing: He’s great in Stardust! He plays Captain Shakespeare, the commander of a zeppelin that seems to be designed to bottle lightning. He supervises a crew of licentious mercenaries, he’s well-learned in music, literature, dancing, and swordplay, and he also happens to be a tremendous fop. It’s phenomenal. And to the canon of classic De Niro lines – including “Are you talkin’ to me”, “One shot,” and “There’s a flip side to that coin” – we now must add this, his explanation for his advocacy of nonviolence: “Ever try to get blood out of a silk shirt? Nightmare!” Spoken like the true Godfather.

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