Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: The Acting Categories

Want suspense? Look somewhere else. It's a shame, but of the four acting categories in this year's Oscar race, three are completely sewn up, while the fourth is hardly a tossup. And while this means I can comfortably pad my prediction stats, it sadly removes any element of intrigue from what are usually among the ceremony's most intriguing races.

But such is life. Besides, given the sudden drama developing in the Best Picture race (more on that in my next post), it's rather soothing to be on such firm footing. Let's get to it.

Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

For the majority of 2009, this appeared to be George Clooney's award to lose. Then Fox Searchlight had an epiphany when it recognized this formula: "Long-beloved actor" + "Inspired, heartfelt performance" + "Zero current Oscar wins" = TROPHY. I'm speaking, of course, of Jeff Bridges and his performance in Crazy Heart, which wasn't even supposed to be released until 2010 before the studio wised up and plunked it into theatres in mid-December. Since then, Bridges has been dominant on the circuit, winning at both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors' Guild, as well as a panoply of other critics' groups. Those desperate for an upset could look to Jeremy Renner under the theory that The Hurt Locker will sweep all of the major awards, but Bridges – a four-time Oscar loser – has been awaiting this moment for nearly 40 years. Factoring in that lifetime achievement angle, you can't deny the simple truth: The Dude abides.


Given the pervasive depth of talent among actors in today's cinema, it's become almost impossible for the Academy to bollocks up this category; this year is no exception, as these are all fine performances, and all superlative examples of self-control. I think Bridges' work has been a tad overpraised (similar to Mickey Rourke's performance last year in The Wrestler, a film to which Crazy Heart inevitably compares), but it remains a soulful, deeply affecting performance. His country crooning is effortlessly authentic, while he doesn't overplay the demons tearing at his soul, shading his character with both humor and remorse.

In adopting the accent and cadence of Nelson Mandela's speech patterns, Morgan Freeman could have delved too far into linguistic showmanship, but he wisely keeps a piece of Mandela withdrawn from his audience, only hinting at the unmistakable pain and regret the beloved leader must have carried with him. There's a wonderfully sad moment when a subordinate asks him how his family is doing, and as he responds ("I have a very large family – 42 million"), his eyes take on a haunted thousand-yard stare. It isn't an overly memorable performance, but that's exactly the way it should be.

Colin Firth, that paragon of British restraint and refinement, brings some much-needed discipline to Tom Ford's otherwise wildly undisciplined A Single Man. Firth recently bemoaned that his incarnation of Mr. Darcy in the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice" will forever overshadow his remaining work, and there's certainly an element of Darcy's fierce pride on display here. But as George Falconer, Firth reveals a far more tragic figure – removed, troubled, disgusted with his own superiority. We can never quite get inside George' head, but that's because he's made it his business of fortifying himself from the world, and Firth refuses to sentimentalize George's existential predicament.

As bomb disarmament technician Will James in The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner portrays a potential stereotype: the lone wolf who breaks all the rules. But though James may be a virtuoso, Renner doesn't play him as a preening showoff. It's more as if James can't help his own gung-ho tendencies, and that ingenuousness provides both the character and the performance with a sense of natural artistry. There's a late scene in the film where someone asks James how he can do what he does, and James can't really answer him; he just does it. Same for Renner.

But if I'm forced to pick a winner, I'll unsurprisingly select George Clooney for his magnificent performance in Up in the Air. I've often been accused of possessing a man-crush on George Clooney, a charge to which I'll happily concede – few movie stars are more consistently compelling on screen. As Ryan Bingham, it initially appears that Clooney is in cruise control, secure in his dominion of the lesser mortals of the world, and it's difficult to distinguish the actor from the character. But as the film unfolds, Bingham's carefully constructed façade of invincibility begins to crack ever so slightly. Clooney doesn't push it; the disintegration of one's identity doesn't happen in a flash. Instead he gradually reveals Bingham's emotional vulnerability, exposing the need for human connection that has lain dormant his entire life. The last scene of Up in the Air features one of the most beautifully written voiceovers I've ever heard, and Clooney delivers it with an agonizing combination of quiet pain and muted acceptance. In a movie replete with snappy one-liners and crackling wit, it's these moments of bare humanity that make it immortal.


George Clooney – Up in the Air
Sharlto Copley – District 9
Tobey Maguire – Brothers
Souleymane Sy Savane – Goodbye Solo
Michael Stuhlbarg – A Serious Man

Comments: My thoughts on Clooney are known, and while he's the lone actual Oscar nominee who appears on my ballot, that's less an indictment of the Academy's choices than an indication of the wide-ranging excellence among lead actors in 2009. Copley takes his character's transformation from twitchy, eager bureaucrat to, well, something else (I won't spoil it, though the trailer certainly does), and makes it grippingly real. Maguire continues to expand his range, portraying a soldier capable of both quiet warmth and explosive rage. Savane's bubbly enthusiasm informs Goodbye Solo with an infectious optimism that belies its depressing story. And Stuhlbarg, as the Coen Brothers' de facto Job, absorbs blow after hilarious blow of humiliation with mounting exasperation ("He didn't look busy!").


(As I've said, it was quite a year for actors, and while these performances didn't quite crack my ballot, they were nevertheless highly memorable. Note that I don't consider actual Oscar nominees in the "deserving" section, only on the ideal ballot. Trust me, it makes sense. At least in my head.)

Nicolas Cage – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. Nicolas Cage has never been the most subtle actor around, but damn can he be fun to watch.

Russell Crowe – State of Play. Another movie, another unnervingly excellent performance from Russell Crowe. Ho hum.

Matt Damon – The Informant! I'm not sure I'd call this the performance of Damon's career as some have (I'd still go with The Talented Mr. Ripley), but it's a terrifically cagey piece of work.

Robert de Niro – Everybody's Fine. It's been awhile since de Niro has delivered a truly compelling dramatic performance (since Ronin in 1998, actually), which makes this quiet, self-searching turn all the more welcome.

Johnny Depp – Public Enemies. There's a moment early in Public Enemies where Johnny Depp, putting the moves on Marion Cotillard, suddenly and electrically takes total command of the film: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?" Not a thing.

Robert Downey, Jr. – The Soloist
. Iron Man himself deservedly earned positive notices for his titular performance in Sherlock Holmes, but it was this portrayal of an opportunistic, self-loathing journalist that really stuck with me.

Jesse Eisenberg – Adventureland. Bumbling, insecure, romantically naïve, verbally spastic Jewish kid looking for love? Check please.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt – (500) Days of Summer. The movie may been an atypical love story, but this is a typical Gordon-Levitt performance – dynamic, intelligent, and evocatively emotional. When you watch this (incontrovertibly amazing) scene, you feel everything he's feeling.

Sam Rockwell – Moon. I can't disclose too much about Rockwell's work here without spoiling the movie's central surprise (again, just watch the trailer), but it's a canny, nuanced performance that is utterly essential to the film's success.


Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Of the four acting races, this is the only one that isn't a complete lock. But it's close. For a time, it appeared that Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep would be dueling for the statuette all the way until the ceremony, but then Bullock won at the Screen Actors' Guild, and things have been one-sided ever since. Streep continues to have her resume held against her (most members would rather vote for a first-time nominee than one who's been to the Kodak a ridiculous 16 times), while The Blind Side proved to be an absurdly massive hit with audiences (it's about to cross $250 million). Throw in the fact that she delivered a sassy, no-nonsense performance that (unfavorably) recalls Julia Roberts' award-winning turn in Erin Brockovich, and Sandra Bullock bags her first Oscar. You'll forgive me for thinking it's also her last.


Sadly, the overall quality of this group pales in comparison to their male counterparts. (And before you accuse me of misogyny, check out my evaluation of last year's Best Actress race, where I said some very nice things about women.) Bullock is perfectly fine in The Blind Side, which is to say her performance is monotonous and ingratiating. It isn't bad acting, but I'd like to think that in evaluating an Oscar-winning work, I'd be able to muster up a more positive adjective than "fine". I also wasn't particularly impressed with Helen Mirren in The Last Station – she seems to be having a grand old time hurling herself in the camera's direction, but that hardly counts as craft.

The remaining three are, at least, strong performances. Sidibe's most distinguishing feature is her hulking frame, but she uses her bulk to incongruous effect, drawing within herself and shrinking from the camera, emphasizing her character's meekness and fear. As Julia Child, Streep is jarringly perfect yet again, imbuing an iconic figure with a lust for both food and life. But neither performance is as fully realized as that of Carey Mulligan's in An Education. Playing a talented student anxious to discover the world, Mulligan's Jenny is both naïve and keenly self-aware, and Mulligan gives her a world-weary wisdom that contradicts her youth. Watch her go toe-to-toe with screen legend Emma Thompson, and you'll recognize that you're witnessing the birth of a star.


Alison Lohman – Drag Me to Hell
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Saorise Ronan – The Lovely Bones
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia
Tilda Swinton – Julia

Comments: Mulligan and Streep are undoubtedly deserving of their nominations. If the Academy knew the meaning of justice, Swinton would have joined them. The lone performance of 2009 that made my best of the decade list, Swinton's riveting work as the title character in Julia is a masterwork of finely honed craft and fearless improvisation. Lohman may not reach that level of hegemony, but there's something giddily rewarding about watching her transform from a sweet, mild-mannered everywoman to a bedraggled warrior battling the forces of darkness. (The image below of her standing rain-drenched in a graveyard is one of the most satisfying shots of the year.) For her part, the British Ronan flawlessly slides across the pond in portraying an impish American whose dashed hopes and dreams are palpable.


Abbie Cornish – Bright Star. The movie itself is a bit languid, but Cornish's performance as John Keats' devoted companion is consistently moving.

Michelle Pfeiffer – Chéri. I've never been a huge Pfeiffer fan, but here she bravely presents herself as an aging but beautiful woman who comes to terms with the gradual loss of that beauty. Her lingering, dead-eye stare into the camera makes for a powerful final shot.

Natalie Portman – Brothers. Amidst a swirl of high melodrama, Portman grounds her character's sympathetic predicament in reality, highlighting her character's fundamental decency and compassion.

Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz. The Austrian has been a one-man wrecking crew ever since he won Best Actor at Cannes back in May. Any additional analysis I attempted to provide would be entirely superfluous. There are no potential spoilers. This is over. Let's just move on.


Every so often, the voters get it right. The remaining performances in this category are all serviceable, particularly Damon's intensity and Tucci's intense creepiness, but none even approaches the magnetism of Christoph Waltz's eloquent, multilingual monster. With an unctuous, disturbingly polite tone that drips menace with every word, he glides through Tarantino's ornate dialogue with inveterate ease. Now we just need to hope he drops "That's a bingo!" in his speech.

Jim Broadbent – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Peter Capaldi – In the Loop
Fred Melamed – A Serious Man
Jérémie Renier – Lorna's Silence
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Comments: The only supporting performer of 2009 who could possibly rival Waltz's charisma is Capaldi, who slices his way through In the Loop's satiric smarm with profane relish. As the newcomer to an established fantasy franchise, Broadbent had his work cut out for him, but he invests his cowardly Potions master with palpable, tremulous fear. Melamed creates yet another iconic supporting character in the Coen Brothers' canon, a grotesquely understanding lothario. And as the jittery junkie in Lorna's Silence, Jérémie Renier (anyone else wonder if he's Jeremy Renner's Belgian cousin?) infuses his character's doomed circumstances with brittle pathos.


Bradley Cooper – The Hangover. "Fuck, I keep forgetting about the God damn tiger!"

Colin Farrell – Crazy Heart. Bridges is the star of the show, but Farrell brings a surprising sensitivity and pragmatism to his role as the student who has surpassed his teacher.

Stephen Lang – Avatar; Public Enemies. His gleefully villainous performance in Avatar was a delight, but Lang also effuses solemn dignity as a not-so-coldblooded lawman in Public Enemies.

Benoît Poelvoorde – Coco Before Chanel. In one of the more purely enjoyable performances of the year, Poelvoorde oozes aristocratic charm as Coco Chanel's benefactor.

Ryan Reynolds – Adventureland. Is it me, or is Ryan Reynolds quietly becoming a consistently excellent actor? His sneakily subtle work in Adventureland makes me wonder.

Peter Sarsgaard – An Education. Preying on sexually vulnerable teenagers is hardly an appealing task, but Sarsgaard couples his character's natural deceit with a curious longing. He isn't quite as bad as he seems, which is what makes him so believable and deplorable.

Paul Schneider – Bright Star
. Half-villain, half-confidant, Schneider's Mr. Brown is a bundle of contradictions, and the actor's three-dimensional portrayal defies labeling.

Jason Segel – I Love You, Man. For a man who's made a living playing quirky, sexually awkward men, Segel's foray into the universe of the cool couldn't have gone smoother.


Penélope Cruz – Nine
Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo'Nique – Precious

If voting had taken place back in December, Mo'Nique might have been in trouble, given that she was grousing about the awards season and generally making a mockery of the campaigning process. But she's been a good girl since then, and even if she hasn't been blazing the campaign trail, she's been relatively polite and has let the ferocity of her performance do her work for her. Ironically, had either Farmiga or Kendrick been excluded, the other might have mounted a challenge, but they're destined to split some votes. Perhaps the unlikeliest Oscar winner in the history of the world, Mo'Nique takes the statuette.


Contrary to the lead categories, this group is stronger than the Best Supporting Actor quintet. The only nominee who clearly doesn't belong is Cruz, whose work in Nine is entirely forgettable with the exception of a scorching, near-pornographic dance number (technically, it's more of a "writhe number"). The rest, however, are sterling examples of immersive screen acting. Gyllenhaal is entirely believable as a single mother seduced by Jeff Bridges' southern charm; she knows Bad Blake is bad news, but she can't help herself. Farmiga effortlessly matches George Clooney's charisma (no easy task), fashioning a formidable romantic foil with her own unique set of values. And Mo'Nique storms through the majority of Precious in full-tilt, diabolical fury, then somehow rises to another level in the film's harrowing final scene.

But my pick of the litter is Anna Kendrick for her gruff, scrupulous, and marvelously real performance in Up in the Air. Exuding the pluck and entitlement of a self-righteous teenager, she too matches wits with Clooney, but on an intellectual rather than romantic plane. And similar to Clooney's character, she too undergoes a journey of gradual self-discovery, but these revelations in no way mitigate her crackling intelligence and fiery spirit. Late in the film, someone suggests that hiring Kendrick would be the best decision anyone could possibly make. It's as if he were speaking straight to casting directors.


Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mélanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds
Mo'Nique – Precious
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Comments: It isn't often that I agree with the Academy on a majority of its choices, but that's the case here with Farmiga, Kendrick, and Mo'Nique. It could easily have been four of five if Harvey Weinstein had possessed the humility to campaign for Laurent in the Supporting category. Regardless, Laurent's poised, passionate portrayal is one of Basterds' strongest components. Meanwhile, Watson continues to confirm her status as one of Britain's finest young actresses, ably mingling light comedy with the pangs of adolescent romance.


Helena Bonham Carter – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. On the page, Bellatrix Lestrange is a vaguely one-note servant of evil. On the screen, Bonham Carter is so howlingly wicked that she makes Mo'Nique's character in Precious look like a candidate for Mother of the Year.

Emily Blunt – Sunshine Cleaning. Another British actress who refuses to be pigeonholed within a specific archetype, Blunt is quietly devastating here as Amy Adams' black-sheep sister who's haunted by her past.

Jennifer Garner – The Invention of Lying. Where did this come from? I'm hardly a Jennifer Garner supporter, but she positively sparkles here, radiating a winsome charm that hilariously contrasts with Ricky Gervais' innate bumbling. Besides, it's tough not to get behind her very first line: "You're early. I was just masturbating."

Paula Patton – Precious
. Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe have deservedly earned the majority of the praise for Precious, but Patton brings enormous depth of feeling to her role as an inner-city teacher striving to change the lives of the less fortunate.

Evan Rachel Wood – Whatever Works. Unlike Jennifer Garner, I've always admired Evan Rachel Wood, but as with Garner's performance in The Invention of Lying, I never knew Wood possessed this kind of comedic talent. Playing opposite Woody Allen surrogate Larry David, she's both winningly buoyant and delightfully sincere.

One more post to come.

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