Saturday, February 9, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Supporting Actor

During the course of the moviegoing year, the Manifesto keeps a running internal document of all feats that I consider to be worthy of Oscar recognition. It's not an official record, more of an in-the-moment recordation system that helps me ensure that nothing deserving of mention slips through the cracks come Oscar season. It's particularly helpful for films released early in the year; while my memory is strong enough to recall what won Best Picture in 1945 or who won the World Series in 1987, absent this tally I might forget to acknowledge the creepily immersive sound design of The Woman in Black or the sleek and supple costumes of John Carter. It's a bit like Nixon's recording system, only not quite as many people care about mine.

Anyway, in terms of quantity, roughly 5-10 movies typically make the list in each specific field. For example, in the Best Cinematography category, the document currently lists six different films whose photography I found to be sufficiently noteworthy to scribble their names in my metaphorical notebook (three of them overlap with the Academy's choices, but we'll address that in a later post).

Here's my point: For the Best Supporting Actor category, the document currently lists 27 performances. Twenty-seven. Such is the caliber of today's actors. Contemporary thespians are absolutely demolishing supporting roles in studio productions on a regular basis. This category might need its own entire three-hour telecast at some point.

Alan Arkin – Argo
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Cristoph Waltz – Django Unchained

True story: As we watched the credits in Lincoln start to roll, my father leaned over to me and whispered, "You know who's going to get nominated, right?" He wasn't talking about Sally Field. But Tommy Lee Jones' role is practically tailor-made for an Oscar win. Not only does he receive some of Tony Kushner's most bitingly hilarious dialogue ("Mr. Wood, you perfectly named, brainless, obstructive object"), but he plays a maverick politician whose enlightened philosophies on race will surely appeal to the Academy, a body that prides itself on its social consciousness regardless of how many old white men are still in charge.

So why can't I fully convince myself that he's going to win? Perhaps it's because the narrative surrounding this category has been strangely quiet for the past month. The industry seems to be abuzz about whether Emmanuelle Riva can pull off an upset in the Best Actress field, or just how historic a lock Anne Hathaway is over in the Best Supporting Actress category, or of course whether Argo can steal the Best Picture trophy absent a nomination for its director. Yet few pundits have bothered to even address the Best Supporting Actor race, which suggests not that Jones is a lock but that the Academy's leanings up to this point are largely uncertain.

That said, it would be easier for me to pick against Jones if I could make a plausible case for any of his competitors. It doesn't help that all five of these actors have already won Oscars, so there's no potential sympathy vote in play. (In fact, Jones' 1993 win for The Fugitive gives him the second-longest drought of the field, so he has a decent claim to the reprehensible "Well, he was due" logic. See: Newman, Paul for The Color of Money.) De Niro likely needs a Silver Linings Playbook sweep to sneak in here, and that's not happening unless "Bradley Cooper vs. Daniel Day-Lewis" is the "Villanova vs. Georgetown" of our generation. Notwithstanding its three plaudits for its cast, The Master has seemed DOA ever since the nominations were announced, so Hoffman's out. And as much momentum as Argo has generated lately, it's centered mostly around the crusade for justice for Ben Affleck, meaning Arkin's odds have hardly improved.

The one challenger who gives me pause is Waltz. Django Unchained has picked up some steam after being released so late in the year, and Waltz delivers another supremely assured performance, one that's essentially the heroic mirror-image of his delectably villainous Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. Still, Waltz won that Oscar a mere three years ago, and voters may be reluctant to bring him back onstage so soon; the last time the same actor won multiple Oscars in a three-year span was when Tom Hanks repeated for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump in 1993 and 1994.

And so, in the end, predicting anyone other than Jones is a case of actively searching for a surprise even though there's virtually no evidence to support such a scenario. That is, unless you consider that moronic "Tommy Lee Jones is not impressed" meme from the Golden Globes to have robbed Jones of his goodwill. Maybe I'm naïve, but I give the Academy a bit more credit than that.

It's unfair to accuse Alan Arkin of being on autopilot in Argo. That would imply that he provides less-than-full effort in his performance, and that's decidedly inaccurate. It's less a case of lackluster acting than perfect casting, because really, who's a more natural fit as an irascible, acerbic movie producer than Arkin? (A potential answer would be John Goodman, but he was busy playing a different plum part in Argo.) Still, while I can't condemn Arkin for accepting a role suited to his talents, I also can't commend him for stretching his range. As with all of the terrific character actors who populate the cast of Argo – a preposterously talented list that includes Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, and Richard Kind (many of whom you won't recognize by name but certainly will by sight) – he fits snugly into his part and invests it with just the right amount of personality to make it memorable but not too much to distract from the larger narrative. That's good acting – it's just not one of the five best supporting performances of the year.

Upon first blush, Robert De Niro's casting in Silver Linings Playbook might appear to echo Arkin's role in Argo: A venerable actor is called upon to infuse the film with a combination of lightweight playfulness and elderly gravitas. But as is the case with the majority of Silver Linings Playbook, there's more to De Niro's performance than initially meets the eye. From his very first scene when he welcomes his mentally ill son home – a greeting he handles with an exquisitely modulated mixture of excitement and apprehension – De Niro establishes his character as a concerned father with his own anxiety demons nipping at his soul. Those issues gradually but persistently accrete over the course of the film, resulting in a portrait of a fundamentally decent man who is nevertheless emotionally impotent. Everything builds to a beautiful moment when De Niro frantically pleads with his son to watch a football game with him, a seemingly mundane gesture that doubles as a quietly devastating demonstration of confused, fumbling paternal love.

If De Niro's performance is underlined with painful subtext, Jones' work in Lincoln is pure text, but it's wonderfully readable text. As Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, Jones evokes haughty moral superiority at every turn, taking near-obscene pleasure in verbally eviscerating his rival (and unquestionably inferior) democrats. For the most part, it's pure scenery-chewing, though Jones does allow some sadness and doubt to creep into his eyes when Stevens must consider equivocating in regard to his staunch philosophical beliefs for the purpose of political gain. But those flickers of hesitation only amplify the crowd-pleasing elements of Stevens' grandstanding, moments that Jones delivers with hearty, veteran relish. On the level of pure enjoyment, it's among the best performances of the year.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's work in The Master is distinctly less enjoyable, partly because The Master is not a film meant to be enjoyed. But Hoffman buys into Paul Thomas Anderson's concept completely – his title character is mysterious and unknowable, prone to spasms of anger as well as displays of charisma. It's a performance that necessarily keeps its audience at a distance, at least until his final scene, when Hoffman delivers an emotionally naked rendition of Frank Loesser's "On a Slow Boat to China". Going up against Joaquin Phoenix's extraordinary turn as a wayward sailor searching for a home was no small task, but Hoffman provides a brilliant counterpoint, answering Phoenix's raw, erratic energy with stern, indomitable authority.

As a marauding but eloquent bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained, Cristoph Waltz initially appears to be quite the indomitable authority figure himself. The brilliance of his performance is that Schultz isn't nearly as vicious as he initially appears. He's more of a businessman who happens to employ violence as a means of conducting his affairs, at least until he finds himself out of his depth. Waltz's delivery of Tarantino's ornate dialogue is predictably impeccable, but it's his fearfulness that distinguishes him from a stock avenger, as well as his silent (but clearly visible) disgust toward bigotry. He's a man of quiet confidence who knows he has righteousness on his side, and the tragedy of his performance is just how little that means in the end.

So, yeah, this is quite the strong group, but for my winner, I'll go with De Niro. And don't look now, but after an absolutely brutal run of useless performances that included Meet the Fockers, Hide and Seek, and Righteous Kill, he's been on quite the turnaround, with compelling dramatic work in Stone and Everybody's Fine to go with his hilariously madcap turn in the underrated Stardust. Bobby D. just might be back.

Jason Clarke – Zero Dark Thirty
Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
Tom Hardy – The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Holland – The Impossible
Sam Rockwell – Seven Psychopaths

It says something about the depth of this category that I wholly approve of the Academy's nominees, yet none of them cracks my own ballot. Clarke is Zero Dark Thirty's most magnetic screen presence, a ruthlessly pragmatic soldier who's nevertheless aware of the consequences of his actions. Speaking of magnetism, DiCaprio casually dominates every scene he's in without even needing to raise his eyebrows; the screen just seems to burn a little brighter when he's around, to the point where the film suffers irretrievably in his absence. Hardy embodies "necessary evil" with fearsome physicality, as well as an exacting vocal delivery that has you hanging on his every word. Rockwell contributes his own brand of manic unpredictability to the overall zaniness of Seven Psychopaths, elevating the material from curious to captivating. As for Holland, the makeup team may smear his face with dirt and grime, but it's his acute sense of panic and loss that makes you taste the blood.

My ideal winner: Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained.

Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Pierce Gagnon – Looper
Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Hugo Weaving – Cloud Atlas

Henry brings a sense of steely resolve and implacability to Beasts of the Southern Wild, fashioning a man determined to go on regardless of the forces arrayed against him, both natural and governmental. Gagnon delivers one of the most disturbing child performances in some time, using blunt facial expressions and deliberate movements to convey the impression of a child wise – and dangerous – beyond his years. Weaving, clearly having the most fun he's had since The Matrix, marks each of his nefarious characters in Cloud Atlas with their own distinctive brand of despicability.

Sacha Baron Cohen – Les Misérables
Tom Cruise – Rock of Ages
Guy Pearce – Lawless
Michael Shannon – Premium Rush
Michael Sheen – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

Here we have five distinguished actors who abandon subtlety in favor of old-fashioned mugging, with spectacular results. Baron Cohen brings some much-needed levity to Les Misérables; his duet with Helena Bonham Carter of "Master of the House" provides a welcome jolt of energy to a film weighed down by dirges. Cruise embodies the concept of supernova-celebrity with indecent charisma, effortlessly seducing the audience along with every woman he meets. Pearce oozes malevolence as a foppish lawman who is devoutly unprincipled. Shannon is equally dastardly in Premium Rush, though he's less lethal than buffoonish. Sheen recognizes that the Twilight movies should have been camp classics from the beginning, flashing a flamboyance that shames the remainder of the cast by comparison.

Robert Downey, Jr. – The Avengers
Idris Elba – Prometheus
Michael Fassbender – Prometheus
Tom Hiddleston – The Avengers
Stanley Tucci – The Hunger Games

These actors loudly and vigorously dispel the myth that blockbuster entertainments are ill-suited to finely tuned performances. Downey, Jr. brings his inimitable mile-a-minute speech patterns to The Avengers, while Hiddleston adds a true element of menace amidst the spectacle. Fassbender is typically hypnotic as an android fond of quoting Lawrence of Arabia, while Elba's off-the-cuff performance of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" is one of the funniest bits of screen comedy this year. As a studio host in The Hunger Games, Tucci practically winks at the audience, but that sort of self-conscious demeanor is perfectly suited to a movie about a society selling a product to an audience that routinely tunes in to watch people die.

Richard Jenkins – The Cabin in the Woods
Fran Kranz – The Cabin in the Woods
Bradley Whitford – The Cabin in the Woods

Among other talents, Joss Whedon invariably provides showcases for his actors, and his and director Drew Goddard's script for the meta-horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods gives each of his players time to shine. Kranz's sly turn as a perpetually suspicious stoner steals the show, while Jenkins' and Whitford's bureaucratic repartee would feel right at home in a 1940s screwball comedy, with each playing the role of Cary Grant.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the "Cabin in the Woods" category.