Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Actor and Actress

Is there an industry in America right now experiencing a bigger talent boom than the acting trade? Pick a movie playing at your local multiplex, and regardless of its overall quality – which is typically dependent on the talents of the director and the screenwriter – it'll invariably be headlined by highly talented lead performers, whether they're in-their-prime movie stars, chameleonic character actors, ageless veterans who can still reach 95 with their fastball, or frighteningly self-assured up-and-comers. Throw in a preposterously deep pool of imported talent, and English-language actors are on a "UCLA in the '60s and '70s" run right now.

Don't believe me? I'll break it down for you:

Movie Stars: George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt.

Quasi-Movie Stars: Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Steve Carell, Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Tobey Maguire, Jeremy Renner, Kristen Stewart, Justin Timberlake.

Character Actors: Casey Affleck, Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Chris Cooper, Vera Farmiga, Ben Foster, James Franco, Paul Giamatti, John Hawkes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Melissa Leo, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Edward Norton, John C. Reilly, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Shannon, David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michelle Williams.

Veterans: Jeff Bridges, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington.

Up-and-Comers: Jesse Eisenberg, Elle Fanning, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Olsen, Hailee Steinfeld, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood, Shailene Woodley.

British Imports: Christian Bale, Emily Blunt, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Andrew Garfield, Michael Gambon, Rebecca Hall, Tom Hardy, Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, Emily Mortimer, Carey Mulligan, Gary Oldman, Daniel Radcliffe, Saorise Ronan, Michael Sheen, Tilda Swinton, Juno Temple, Naomi Watts, Tom Wilkinson, Kate Winslet.

Imports from [Random Country X]: Javier Bardem, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Nicole Kidman, Rachel McAdams, Ellen Page, Natalie Portman, Noomi Rapace, Ryan Reynolds, Geoffrey Rush, Cristoph Waltz, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Watson.

That's one hundred names, and I didn't even break a sweat. They're consistently good in everything they star in, and frequently great. And let's not forget the four-dozen performers whom I stupidly forgot and will sue me for libel (or they would, if the Manifesto's readership ever reached above 17). These are historic times for the movie industry. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

(And yes, printing the above list means that the Manifesto is one step closer to publishing its Actors' Fantasy Draft, conceptually described here, in which I imagine a fantasy rotisserie league – featuring categories such as earnings' potential, awards won, overall talent level, and public image – then rank every living actor for each category, then conduct a fantasy draft that determines, in order, the 100 greatest actors currently working. We're still about a decade and a half away, meaning there's a 10% chance that Suri Cruise will be the top pick when I finally get around to it. It's my White Whale. I'm pacing myself.)


Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

At the time the nominations were announced, I declared that this race would likely be a showdown between Clooney and Pitt, with Dujardin possibly lurking. Things have changed. Over the past few weeks, Dujardin has scooped up wins at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors' Guild, giving him the coveted Precursor Triple Crown (and yes, I'm trade-marking that term). I could posit halfway-plausible theories describing how Clooney (perhaps voters will admire how he sheds his movie-star magnetism in a low-key performance), Oldman (Lifetime Achievement Award alert!), or Pitt (see: Clooney, George) might sneak in for the victory, but throw in the fact that The Artist is the Best Picture favorite as well, and it's foolhardy to pick anyone else. Vive la France.

Unsurprisingly, this is a rock-solid group. Bichir is easily the best thing about A Better Life, with his world-weary physicality and restrained emotional palette lending welcome nuance to an otherwise rote drama (and remake of The Bicycle Thief). As Billy Beane, Pitt remains as charismatic as ever, but he also conveys the sorrow of lost potential, a loss that clearly animates his ardor as an executive. Dujardin is pure, beaming delight, and his broad facial expressions and limber movements expertly seize upon the film's conceptual ingenuity.

Throughout his banner career, Oldman has proven equally capable of playing a slimy DEA agent and a Rastafarian pimp, but in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he recedes within himself, swallowing years of life-threatening, soul-draining work and subsisting merely as a shell of bitterness, resignation, and regret. The film is most effective when it permits its talented actors room to breathe, and in one extraordinary scene – in which the weary civil servant recalls his first encounter with his most fearsome adversary – we can see the spark of life, long extinguished, briefly return to his eyes.

Strong work all-around from those four actors, but they're all a tick below George Clooney's understated, effortlessly convincing, utterly human turn in The Descendants. As a man whose wobbly self-made walls come tumbling down, Clooney is the essence of middle-aged exasperation, but he never overplays his hand, consistently countering his frustration and disgust with warmth, humor, and radiant fatherly love. Clooney could never be an everyman – he's too much of a star for that – but he wields his innate charm to add texture, shaping his character into an emotionally jagged but fundamentally decent man who also happens to be a hero.

George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Tom Hardy – Warrior
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

Hardy is pure ferocity, yet he still manages to shade his character, coloring his rage with buried torment. Shannon is a disturbingly intelligent actor, and in Take Shelter he articulates his character's mounting paranoia with small gestures and masterful indecision. DiCaprio continues to make a mockery of the art form.

My ideal winner: Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar.

Michael Fassbender – Shame
Mel Gibson – The Beaver
Ryan Gosling – The Ides of March
Brendan Gleeson – The Guard
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Fassbender perfectly captures the despair of a man who knows he's drowning yet compulsively keeps swimming out to sea. Gibson drills his character's accent and radical mannerisms in a bifurcated, immensely challenging performance. Gosling has received the majority of his acclaim for his brooding, diffident work in Drive, but it's in The Ides of March where he suavely mingles ambition, idealism, and self-loathing, beautifully complementing the film's ethos. As a cantankerous police officer, Gleeson has the most fun he's had in years, accentuating his character's brilliance and stupefying lack of grace with delightful absurdity.

Also deserving: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50 (for communicating his character's plight with heartbreaking earnestness); Chris New – Weekend (for fearlessly exuding sexuality); Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (for shouldering the weight of the world and the world's most successful film franchise on his slender shoulders and making us feel every gram); Michael Sheen – Beautiful Boy (for relenting to scorn and rage yet never yielding his dignity); Jim Sturgess – One Day (for traversing his character's emotional roller-coaster with steadfast authenticity).


Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn

Everyone has declared Davis the victor here and moved on, but I'm not entirely convinced. Streep won at the BAFTAs, though admittedly that's less than significant, given that she was playing Margaret Freaking Thatcher. More noteworthy is Streep's triumph over Davis at the Golden Globes, which is about as American as a ceremony can get. And Meryl also won with the New York Film Critics. So the perception that Davis has been romping through this category like a wildebeest is a bit misguided.

Davis does, however, have her victory at the Screen Actors' Guild, and in its 17-year history, the SAG's winner has matched the Academy's ultimate choice in this category 12 times. (It's really more like 12-and-a-half; in 2008, Kate Winslet won for The Reader for Best Supporting Actress at SAG but won for lead at the Oscars.) Still, that synergy isn't all that staggering. In my mind, the more relevant question is this: Will the Academy really be willing to hand out a major Oscar – and finally reward a long-suffering Streep, who has whiffed on her last 12 nominations – for a movie that is so categorically bad? The Iron Lady currently possesses a rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes (a figure that I find to be absurdly high, but no matter); the Manifesto's crack research staff has determined that would rank as the lowest score ever for a Best Actress winner since 1960, when Elizabeth Taylor finally received an Oscar for BUtterfield 8. 1960 is so long ago, Meryl Streep hadn't even won an Oscar yet.

So I'm taking Davis. But be warned – this is hardly a sure thing. The good news is that if she loses, Emma Stone has agreed to write an essay on her behalf about the racism lurking within the Academy's ranks.

Blech. In the past, I used to despise this category because I felt there weren't any good actresses out there; in related news, I was single and a bit of a chauvinist. I'm frustrated with the Best Actress nominations this year as well, but that's because the Academy failed to recognize any number of stellar turns from this year's leading ladies. Instead, we're left with four sturdy if unspectacular turns, and one absolutely knockout. C'est la vie.

Not that any of the nominated performances are bad, mind you. Close is appropriately reserved and tentative in Albert Nobbs, and if she fails to emote with any particular resonance, that's partly by design. Davis is the clear moral center of The Help, and her reticence is a bit more convincing, if not quite poignant. Streep delivers yet another technically flawless performance as Lady Thatcher, and if the vehicle carrying her is a train wreck, that's hardly her fault. And Williams' coy, seductive turn as Marilyn Monroe is pleasant and appealing, even if it never digs under the starlet's skin.

So those are four respectable performances. None, however, is remotely as memorable as Rooney Mara's searing work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Updating Noomi Rapace's inimitable portrayal from a year ago (a performance that found a spot on the Manifesto's 2010 ballot), Mara creates a character of heightened sensation, a fledgling spirit who's both sexually assertive and emotionally frail. Our hearts beat in tune with hers, and the instant she appears on the screen, she commands it, visibly emanating fear, hate, peerless intelligence, and suppressed longing. It's a dizzily electric, furiously compelling, ultimately devastating performance.

Keira Knightley – A Dangerous Method
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Saoirse Ronan – Hanna
Charlize Theron – Young Adult

Olsen announces her arrival on the scene like a gunshot, dominating every moment of Martha Marcy May Marlene as her dogged conviction gives way to acute paranoia. Ronan, with her ice-blue eyes gleaming like a feral beast, takes a vaguely stupid conceit and transforms it into a gripping, moving coming-of-age journey. With her personality as spiky as her heels, Theron tears into her morally ambiguous role with relish, laying waste to the notion that we must sympathize with our protagonist.

A brief word on Keira Knightley's performance is required. She plays Sabina Spielrein, a plagued patient of Carl Jung who eventually matures into both his lover and his professional equal. It's an intensely noticeable piece of acting, complete with a snarling Russian accent and a thrusting jaw. Naysayers might condemn the performance as overacting, and indeed a lesser actress might have dialed down the gesticulation for fear of accusations of needless brio. But Keira Knightley is not a lesser actress, and her absolute surrender to Sabina is testament to her commitment to her craft. The result is an unforgettable performance that shakes you, pulls you into its vortex, and relinquishes you only after you absorb Sabina's peculiar, sadistic jumble of pleasure and pain. It proves, yet again, that Keira Knightley can stop your heart and rattle your soul.

My ideal winner: Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Eva Green – Cracks
Liana Liberato – Trust
Brit Marling – Another Earth
Ludivine Sagnier – Love Crime
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

The opening scene of Cracks tells you all you need to know, with Green luxuriating on a rowboat, eyes closed, lips pursed, face tipped gently back toward the sky, embodying completely the conception of feminine power. It's that sense of supreme confidence that makes her subsequent descent into moral depravity so disturbing. Liberato essays fumbling teenage confusion with shattering accuracy. As a fractured women grasping for hope, Marling breaks your heart without ever tugging at its strings. Sagnier alternates between bewilderment and guile with clockwork precision. Wiig clobbers every line reading while also deepening her character's gnawing aimlessness.

Also deserving: Keira Knightley – Last Night (yeah, she's pretty good); Kate Winslet – Mildred Pierce (is it eligible yet?).

[Note: I feel that I should actively acknowledge that, through no fault of my own, I've yet to see We Need to Talk About Kevin, which supposedly features yet another staggering performance from Tilda Swinton. I look forward to seeing the film, but I'm willing to bet that the performance is indeed fantastic because, well, it's Tilda Swinton.]

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