Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Actor

You know how some baseball teams decide to move in the fences in order to increase home runs? I feel like the movie gods have moved in the fences when it comes to this category. This year's Best Actor lineup is so loaded, they might as well hold the Oscars at Coors Field.

Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman РLes Mis̩rables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Daniel Day-Lewis has already won at the BAFTAs, the Screen Actors' Guild, and the Golden Globes. The last time a performer won all three such honors but lost at the Oscars in any of the four acting races was in 2001, when Russell Crowe racked up a litany of precursor nods for his performance in A Beautiful Mind but lost to Denzel Washington for Training Day. The only semi-plausible reason to go against Day-Lewis here is that he's already won two Oscars, so perhaps the Academy will be reluctant to give him the hat trick, but that's a rationalization posing as a reason. Anyone picking against Day-Lewis at this point is just trying to hit a lotto ticket. It's over.

"If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker." That's the first and perhaps most famous line from Rounders, and I can't help but think it's running through Hugh Jackman's head right about now. He has to be looking around the table and thinking to himself, "How the hell did I get here?". It's not that his work in Les Mis̩rables is bad, mind you. If nothing else, Jackman can sing, and there's an emotional clarity to his delivery that adds resonance to Jean Valjean's existential dilemma. (It doesn't hurt that he's often paired against Russell Crowe, whose singing ranges from mediocre to flat-out terrible, often making Jackman look like Stevie Wonder by comparison.) But Jackman has always been an actor of limited gravitas, and it's difficult to separate his earnest singing here from the enjoyably debonair routine he employed when hosting the Oscars in 2009. He's also hamstrung by a story that marginalizes Valjean as it embarks on its woozy exploration of revolutionary freedom-fighting. In the end, the remaining four performances in this field are all home runs Рit's just a matter of how far they sailed over the fence. Jackman hit a line-drive single.

Given the pedigree of the competition, you might think that Bradley Cooper – heretofore an engaging comedian with movie-star looks but uncertain range – would be the sucker in this quintet. But Cooper's work in Silver Linings Playbook is revelatory. It's a busy, antic performance, with lots of gesticulation and numerous bursts of volume and rage, but it's laced with an edgy, uncomfortable volatility that gives even the showier moments real dramatic heft. Cooper's offhand delivery of the line, "O.K., I snapped, I almost killed him" instantly establishes his character's psychosis, but with his piercing eyes and irrepressible energy, he also exhibits a magnetism that helps make the love story of Silver Linings Playbook so convincing.

Convincing audiences has never been a problem for Denzel Washington, an actor best known for his effortless displays of irrefutable competence. Washington is often criticized for simply playing a variation on the same type, a criticism that seems blind to his nuanced, darkly shaded turns in recent films such as American Gangster, Safe House, and Man on Fire (to say nothing of his riveting work in the '90s in Malcolm X and the underrated Courage Under Fire). Still, the joke's on us in Flight, the story of a supremely talented pilot who gradually withers into a broken man due to his own hubris. Washington's ability to exude cool aptitude is unrivaled, and it's the erosion of that command that makes his character's freefall into addiction all the more compelling. But the genius of Washington's performance is that he doesn't play that descent as a straightforward linear journey; rather, he melds his character's proficiency and toxicity into a unified portrait of a highly capable, deeply flawed man. And so, even when he's slurring his speech and cracking his head on toilets, we can still sense his ardent belief that he's the best damn pilot in the sky. Competence has never looked so marvelously unglamorous.

Like Washington, Joaquin Phoenix brought his own preconceived baggage to his work on The Master, thanks to his multi-year hoax project I'm Still Here; unlike Washington, he shreds any possible accusation of typecasting within seconds. As Freddie Quell, Phoenix is off-putting and often unpleasant – he mumbles frequently, and his movements have an agitated quality to them, as though he's a caged animal lurching about in an effort to escape. That impression of anger and confusion amplifies Quell's identity crisis tenfold, and it also encapsulates the plight of an entire generation of sailors and soldiers, all searching desperately for some meaning in their lives in a foreign postwar America. But Phoenix's performance is far too detailed and individual to be merely symbolic. Quell is his own singularly miserable creation, and his frustration with society stems less from his antagonistic circumstances than his own human failings. Yet Phoenix makes us sympathize with him all the same, and while The Master is ultimately lacking in emotional impact, the brunt of what we do feel derives almost entirely from Phoenix's unflinchingly honest depiction of a man who alienates everyone around him in his lifelong quest to be loved.

So that's a trio of terrific performances. In the end, though, Daniel Day-Lewis makes them look like also-rans. It begins with his voice, that wheezy but wondrously articulated drawl that bubbles up from his diaphragm with pristine clarity. ("He speaks so beautifully!" my father gushed about Day-Lewis. Of course, that was 10 years ago, and he was talking about Gangs of New York, a film in which Day-Lewis employs a dramatically different elocution, but that decade-old analysis remains equally applicable here.) But acting isn't just about talking, and Day-Lewis' incarnation of Honest Abe is one of absolute conviction and sincerity. His Lincoln is less about grand speeches and formal eloquence than political glad-handing and convivial educating, and Day-Lewis delivers Tony Kushner's dialogue with folksy charm and wry, self-aware wit. These are small, quiet gestures, but they betray a deep, simmering passion, and the moments when a towering Day-Lewis invokes the full measure of Lincoln's presidential power are gloriously terrible to behold. It's a performance so good that it's almost unnerving to watch; Abraham Lincoln is such a beloved figure of American history, by all rights he shouldn't have been reimagined with such extraordinary vitality and humanity. But these are the movies, and they give us the opportunity to breathe life into what's been long dead. In that sense, Day-Lewis is less performer than necromancer, and in Lincoln, he proves yet again that acting is its own inscrutable form of magic.

Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone
Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour
Denzel Washington – Flight

Three of the Academy's five choices made my own list, and Cooper just barely missed the cut. Lie's performance is a companion of sorts to Washington's, as he illustrates with excruciating quiet that even once addiction itself is conquered, suffocating emptiness can remain. (In fact, Oslo, August 31st serves as a stern rebuke to the unwarranted sunniness of Flight's ending.) Schoenaerts answers costar Marion Cotillard's radiance with a touching mixture of brusque ferocity and hidden gentleness. Trintignant brings haunting realism to the part of a husband who is forced to watch his wife die, and watch his own soul shatter in the process.

(And yes, I'm including six actors on here because I unforgivably forgot to mention Trintignant on my first draft, and I didn't want to unceremoniously bump anyone. Sue me.)

My ideal winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln.

Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Richard Gere – Arbitrage
Jared Gillman – Moonrise Kingdom
Daniel Henshall – The Snowtown Murders
Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Gere affirms his status alongside Michael Douglas as one of America's leading slimeballs, and he brings just enough texture to his part as a wealthy philanderer to humanize him without lionizing him. Gillman perfectly captures the giddy confusion of young love, as well as the piercing pain of social shunning and its attendant emotions of spite and superiority. Henshall is never more terrifying in The Snowtown Murders than when he's politely serving a family breakfast – his smiling charm is the perfect cloaking device for his utter remorselessness. Lavant can't quite bring unity (or sense) to Holy Motors' disparate storylines, but he gamely slips from one nonsensical character to the next with stunning fluidity.

Also deserving: Matt Damon – Promised Land (for imbuing his corporate henchman with just the right tinge of ambiguity); Paul Dano – Ruby Sparks (for the courage to be insipid, selfish, and even cruel); Martin Freeman – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (for bringing a human center to a film devoted to whiz-bang excitement); Andrew Garfield – The Amazing Spider-Man (for reincarnating Peter Parker with the proper combination of earnestness and contempt); Anthony Hopkins – Hitchcock (for doing what he does); Greg Kinnear – Thin Ice (for his deliciously smarmy salesmanship); Brad Pitt – Killing Them Softly (for doing what he never does, namely being rough and unlikable); Matthias Schoenaerts – Bullhead (for bringing the same ferocity he brought to Rust and Bone, only double); Robert Wieckiewicz – In Darkness (for not overplaying his arc from mercenary to savior).

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