Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook

If I had to rank the biggest gambling locks of the new millennium, the list would probably look something like this:

1. Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for There Will Be Blood (2007)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King winning Best Picture (2003)
3. The Patriots winning the Super Bowl over the Giants (2008)
4. Colin Firth winning Best Actor for The King's Speech (2010)
5. Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture (2008)
6. The Lakers winning the NBA Finals over the Sixers (2001)
7. Anne Hathaway winning Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables (2012)
8. Helen Mirren winning Best Actress for The Queen (2006)
9. Brokeback Mountain winning Best Picture (2005)
10. Rafael Nadal winning the French Open (any year when his knee was fully intact)

Now, as items #3 and #9 can attest, even the biggest lock is never truly a lock until it actually happens. But while we can't tell the engravers to start etching Anne Hathaway's name onto the Oscar statuette just yet, it's clear that there isn't a safer pick in this year's entire field. An attractive actress who uglies herself up and plays a destitute character who just happens to perform a devastating musical number? The ballot practically writes itself.

It helps that she's facing minimal competition. Adams will break through and snare a trophy eventually – this will be her fourth Best Supporting Actress loss in the past eight years, but I'm still not worried about her venturing into Randy Newman territory – but her atypical work in The Master is likely too stern and off-putting for most voters. The Sessions accumulated less than $6 million at the domestic box office, and any slim chance of Hunt scoring an upset dissipated when John Hawkes failed to land a mirror nomination. So, short of Jacki Weaver pulling a Tilda Swinton in 2007 (when Swinton's win for Michael Clayton shocked everyone, including herself, leading to her to describe the announcement as a "reverse Zoolander moment"), Hathaway's only legitimate challenger is Sally Field, and that's more due to Lincoln's frontrunner status than Field's unmemorable performance; it basically needs to sweep all 12 categories in which it's nominated for Field to have a chance here, and I don't see that happening.

So in a gambling sense, Hathaway may not be as rock-solid a lock as the '08 Patriots, but luckily for her, David Tyree isn't on the ballot. Anne Hathaway wins her first Oscar.

(Historical "how the hell did this happen?" tangent: Let's time-travel back to 2004. Anne Hathaway has just appeared in her second of two Princess Diaries movies; her only other credit of note is her moderately appealing work in a forgettable film called Ella Enchanted. Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan has just demolished the leading role in Mean Girls, one of the most iconic and insightful comedies about teenage life ever made. You're told that nine years from now, one of them will be winning her first Oscar, while the other will have just finished shooting a sexually explicit movie with James Deen. Who picks Hathaway as the Oscar winner? How the hell did this happen?

(And for the record, I still haven't given up on Lindsay Lohan. She's only 26 – she still has a chance to develop into the great actress she was always intended to be. She just needs to shed the bad influences from her orbit. I blame her mother. She's a life-ruiner; she ruins people's lives. But as it stands now, no potential superstar has squandered this much potential since Len Bias. Let's move on.))

I have very little to say about Sally Field's performance in Lincoln, mainly because I remember very little of it. To the best of my recollection, she speaks all of her lines in a clear, intelligible manner, and she hits all of her marks without stumbling out of frame. Otherwise, there's virtually nothing commendable about her work. It isn't bad, mind you – and, to be fair, Field can hardly be blamed for being hidden in the shadow cast by Daniel Day-Lewis' towering titular performance – but it certainly isn't Oscar-worthy.

Neither is Amy Adams' performance in The Master, though it's considerably more elusive. As the wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman's cult leader, Adams is an alternately warm and prickly presence. She plays the public relations game, but there's also the sense that her clipped, polite demeanor masks a baser, more nefarious individual with her own dark agenda. Unfortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson – as he does with much of The Master, a film rife with potential but scant on content – leaves the scenario thinly sketched and open to interpretation, and the result is that Adams' performance, however intriguing, is ultimately incomplete. But it's nevertheless a welcome reminder of the versatility of a highly talented actress who had been teetering toward predictability with a recent string of bubbly roles.

"Bubbly" would be the antithetical description of Jacki Weaver's prior Oscar-nominated performance, when she introduced herself to American audiences two years ago as a ruthless mother in Australia's Animal Kingdom. That context makes her turn in Silver Linings Playbook as an entirely different sort of mother all the more impressive. Seamlessly adopting a Philadelphia accent, Weaver's anxious, fretting performance is a striking portrait of maternal love, as she warily watches her time bomb of a son with a pained mixture of empathy and apprehension. It may not be the year's showiest performance, but it is among the most quietly moving.

As for showy performances, considering Anne Hathaway's work in Les Misérables reminds me of – bear with me – basketball. There's a school of basketball analytics that focuses on per-minute averages, operating under the theory that scaling a player's production to his actual time spent on the floor yields a more accurate quantification of his value rather than merely totaling his overall statistics. It's grounded in simple math: If Jamal Crawford scores as many points per game as Josh Smith (currently 16.5 each), but Smith averages six whole minutes more per game than Crawford (35 vs. 29), then Crawford is probably a more talented scorer than Smith, even though they score the same number of total points.

But movies are different. Screen time is an important criterion in evaluating a performance's overall weight, and while actors can certainly make a memorable impression in a short span (witness Alec Baldwin's legendary single scene in Glengarry Glen Ross), greater volume affords them the opportunity to round out their characters, adding nuance and dimensionality. I bring this up not to digress into the arena of nerdy statistical sports analysis but to acknowledge that, on a per-minute basis, Hathaway's performance as Fantine in Les Misérables is quite something. She effectively establishes her character's plight in her preliminary scenes, with her timid voice and wide-eyed expressions accentuating Fantine's mounting panic and desperation. And her mesmerizing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" – performed in a single take, and one of the few moments in the film in which director Tom Hooper blessedly resists the urge to artificially enliven the material with rapid-fire cutting – stops the movie in its tracks, temporarily transforming a hectic, overly busy ensemble picture into an intimate depiction of one woman's suffering.

But shortly after her signature song, Hathaway disappears from the movie, which – and this is arguably another point in Hathaway's favor – suffers irretrievably in her absence. The result is that, while Hathaway is unforgettable whenever she appears on screen, she does so in such a limited capacity that her ultimate contribution to Les Misérables is relatively slight.

That's especially true when compared to Helen Hunt's performance in The Sessions. As with Hathaway, Hunt's portrayal is so assured that her movie loses its luster whenever she's not on screen; the difference is that Hunt thankfully spends a great deal of time in the audience's view. (In fact, in a more honest awards' culture in which the phrase "category fraud" had no meaning, Hunt would be competing in the Best Actress category.) As a sexual therapist drawn to a disabled client, Hunt initially displays deep reserves of decency and compassion. Those noble qualities never dissipate, but over time, they mingle with a more private longing, as well as an innate sadness. It's a touching, thoroughly honest performance that emphasizes her character's own wants and fears, along with her selfless desire to teach a wounded man about the overlapping worlds of sex and love.

Emily Blunt – Looper
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Diane Kruger – Farewell, My Queen
Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The 29-year-old Blunt delivers the most daring performance of an already-extraordinary career, conveying steely toughness that camouflages her vast loneliness. As bluntly terrific as Hathaway is in Les Misérables, she's even better in The Dark Knight Rises, where she seizes the opportunity to spin a fully developed character, complementing her jewel thief's spiky aggression with subtle suggestions of regret, indecision, and dread. Kruger's Marie Antoinette is a spellbinding creation, careening from playful impishness to haughty imperiousness while also hinting at repressed sexual longing and a tinge of madness.

In her first major post-Harry Potter role, Emma Watson wisely selects a markedly different character, jumping across the pond to play an American navigating the far more normal but no less treacherous path of adolescent confusion. Remnants of Hermione's intelligence and earnestness remain, but they're now filtered through an entirely different screen persona, one more wild and impetuous but also tender and nakedly vulnerable. There's a breathtaking moment in The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which Watson stands up in a moving car, her arms outstretched, and spares a conspiratorial glance down to the camera before turning back to the heavens, her face lit like a moonbeam. She's exultant, and rightly so. This is her time.

My ideal winner: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Samantha Barks – Les Misérables
Jennifer Ehle – Zero Dark Thirty
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook
Rebel Wilson – Pitch Perfect

Barks goes toe-to-toe with Hathaway and more than holds her own; her hypnotic, emotionally wrenching rendition of "On My Own" is the indisputable high point of the movie's otherwise turgid second half. Ehle takes a patchwork of seemingly throwaway scenes and somehow weaves them into a distinct individual, one whose passion for her work suggests an indefatigable spirit. Wilson obliterates any preconceived notions about how big-boned women in cinema should behave, belting out her numbers and clomping through her dance moves with an unashamed delight that instantly passes to her audience.

Also deserving: Kate Beckinsale – Total Recall (for striding through the computer-generated dystopia with unapologetic savagery); Rosemarie DeWitt – Your Sister's Sister (for the same luminescent tenderness she brings to every role); Eva Green – Dark Shadows (for gleefully devouring the scenery in the sexiest way imaginable); Keira Knightley – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (for her inimitable blend of winsome charm and heartfelt feeling); Genesis Rodriguez – Man on a Ledge (for this); Juno Temple – Killer Joe (for imbuing a preposterous character with mystery, savagery, and beauty).

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