Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actor (can DiCaprio knock off McConaughey?)

During my senior year of high school, my friends and I played Madden together after school. It was more fun than it sounds, if just as dorky. We adopted the Cleveland Browns as our franchise, only we created versions of ourselves and placed those avatars into the game, resulting in a freakishly talented roster that routinely rolled over teams by 50-plus points. (My particular avatar was a wide receiver in the Ed McCaffrey mold who won the MVP after racking up roughly 200 catches for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.) The Browns hadn't been this relevant since the halcyon days of Jim Brown and Milt Plum. It reached the point where we even used Madden's ingenious feature that allowed you to compete against teams from the past, slaughtering juggernauts like Bill Walsh's West-Coast 49ers and Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain. We were the Dream Team of Madden folklore.

What does all of this have to do with this year's Best Actor race? Well, the competition this year is so loaded that the category is basically the Oscars' version of my old unstoppable, self-created team from Madden. Four of the five nominees deliver downright superlative performances (the fifth isn't half-bad), while at least a half-dozen contenders who failed to crack the ballot are just as deserving. If you plugged 2013's Best Actor field into the Academy equivalent of Madden and let it face off against Oscar categories of yesteryear, this year's quintet would jump out to a 35-0 first quarter lead before the computer "accidentally" reset the game due to unexplained system failure. If there's ever a category that could hope to justify the indefensible switch from "And the winner is" to "And the Oscar goes to", it's this one.

Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

I could tie myself in knots here, but I'm just picking McConaughey. Ejiofor won the BAFTA (where Dallas Buyers Club failed to receive a single nomination), while DiCaprio has the whiff of a frisky upset pick who happens to carry a superior movie. But McConaughey won at both the Golden Globes and SAG, he dropped a startling amount of weight (the Academy loves physical transformations), and his career is peaking at the perfect time. (Seriously, have you been watching True Detective? The dude is out-of-this-world good in that show.) He's hardly a lock, but at this point, it seems foolish to pick against him.

Of the five nominees, Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska is the only one that didn't blow me away, but that's partly by design. It's a steadfastly unsentimental portrayal, and to his credit, Dern flatly refuses to romanticize his crotchety codger. (When asked why he impregnated his wife despite not necessarily wanting children, his indignant response is, "'Cause I like to screw!") He also does a brilliant job conveying the onset of dotage without overdoing it, frequently just staring into space for no reason and responding to questions with an aggravated bark of "What?". Yet as persuasive a portrait as Dern paints, he fails to traverse much of an arc; Nebraska derives its catharsis from Will Forte's emotional journey, not Dern's. It's unfair to penalize him for accurately reflecting his character's obstinacy and inability to change, but it's also difficult to connect to a performance that operates so resolutely on a single plane.

As Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey traverses a far more archetypal arc in Dallas Buyers Club, the well-told story of one man's redemption. Yet McConaughey is equally crafty in declining the temptation to oversell his journey toward salvation. At least, that's true figuratively; literally, his transformation is right there on screen, where you can see the ribs of this American beefcake poking out through his gaunt, skeletal frame. But there's considerably more to McConaughey's acting than mere dieting. He approaches his partnership with Jared Leto's drag queen more out of shrewd entrepreneurship than moral compassion, and he flashes cruelty even when ostensibly behaving with kindness, as when he bullies a bigot into acknowledging Leto's humanity. For the most part, however, this is a warm, soulful performance, rich with detail and wily intelligence. Dallas Buyers Club is nominally a movie about AIDS, but McConaughey's multi-faceted work suggests hidden depths that the movie can't quite fully explore.

Little is left unexplored in 12 Years a Slave, least of all the ceaseless suffering of its protagonist. The marvel of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is that he maintains his character's dignity while repeatedly revealing the extreme indignity of his predicament. His farmhand, Platt, is subjected to unimaginable punishment throughout the film, and Ejiofor—through a combination of robust physicality and deeper emotive technique—makes you feel the sting of every lash. Yet Platt is also disturbingly smart and pragmatic, and there's a sly sense of subterfuge in Ejiofor's work, the sense that Platt is manipulating his situation the best he can, despite having the deck so severely stacked against him. It's a beautifully layered performance, and in refusing to (as Platt puts it) fall into despair, Ejiofor conveys not only the dogged resolve of keeping hope alive but also the exhausting, agonizing costs of clinging to that hope.

There's nothing so painful about Christian Bale's performance in American Hustle, one of the most purely enjoyable portrayals this now-legendary actor has ever submitted. I say "legendary" with complete sincerity, but I'm still not sure I'd call Bale a movie star, his gruff incarnations of the Dark Knight notwithstanding. Most movie stars, from Cruise to Clooney to the next actor on this list, wield their general charisma as an actorly tool, and we derive pleasure from watching them adapt their supersized personas in a manner that distinguishes each role. But Bale is different. He simply inhabits his characters, and each new performance is wholly distinct from the last. Watch American Hustle, and then watch The Fighter. You're telling me the schlubby, flabby Irving Rosenfeld and the jumpy, crack-addled Dicky Eklund are played by the same actor? It doesn't seem possible.

But it is, and there's more behind it than Bale's extraordinary physical commitment. (McConaughey earned headlines for his weight loss, but let's not neglect Bale's paunch. That unflattering belly, combined with his once-in-a-lifetime combover, prompted my father to gape in amazement during American Hustle's opening scene, "Who is that? ... That's Christian Bale?!" Note that we'd seen the guy literally two weeks earlier in Out of the Furnace.) His real genius lies in his ability to magnify his characters' personality traits, and in American Hustle, that trait is abiding, heartbreaking decency. Irving is a two-bit conman who cheats on his wife, but there's an undeniable nobility about him, whether it's in his heartfelt courtship of Amy Adams or his peculiar insistence on keeping jobs small and working them "from the feet up", as though he's adhering to a private moral code. Being a David O. Russell movie, American Hustle is primarily a hoot, but Bale brings true pathos to the picture; his scenes with Jeremy Renner, the half-corrupt politician he inadvertently sacrifices to his ravenous police overlords, carry a hint of tragedy. Irving may be a smalltime huckster, but Bale's wondrous, generous performance suggests that perhaps the movie should have been called American Hero.

Jordan Belfort, the greedy, wealth-obsessed central figure in The Wolf of Wall Street, is decidedly not an American hero. Or perhaps he is, given that he accumulates money, power, and sex, objects that every young man dreams of achieving. Or maybe he just seems heroic, given that he's played by one of America's great movie stars in Leonardo DiCaprio. Martin Scorsese's picture has been criticized—unfairly, I would argue—for glorifying the excesses it depicts, but to the extent that position is defensible, it's likely rooted in the magnetic, effortlessly seductive nature of DiCaprio's performance. Jordan is a whoremonger, a drug addict, and a swindler. He is also stupendously likable and easy to cheer for, and it's startling how easily DiCaprio makes Jordan's vices seem enviable rather than contemptible. (Not since Denzel Washington in Training Day has an actor made being bad look this good.) This is not to suggest that his work is self-congratulatory; on the contrary, DiCaprio's work is entirely scrubbed of vanity, and he cunningly spikes his natural charisma with canny self-deprecation. (The much-celebrated Lemmon 714 scene not only highlights DiCaprio's prodigious gifts as a physical comedian but also affords him the rare opportunity to look like a complete idiot.) All told, he concocts a character of staggering success whose selfish and buffoonish tendencies only make him all the more laudable. So when people whine about The Wolf of Wall Street's deification of sinful behavior, they aren't entirely wrong. They're just focusing on the wrong god.

Well shit, I need to pick a winner, don't I? Frankly, I'll be happy if anyone other than Dern takes the Oscar, but for my hypothetical vote, it's a race between Bale and DiCaprio. And for the same reason I selected Cate Blanchett over Amy Adams, I'm picking DiCaprio. In my view, Bale gives the greatest of many great performances in American Hustle, but that movie remains an ensemble piece, whereas DiCaprio is the towering figure who anchors The Wolf of Wall Street on his own. It's hardly a perfect movie, but the performance is as perfect as it gets.

Christian Bale—American Hustle
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Tom Hanks—Captain Phillips
Oscar Isaac—Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix—Her

Hanks delivers his best work in over a decade, and his final scene is unequivocally the most powerful two minutes that 2013's cinema had to offer. Isaac imbues his wayfaring artist with deep melancholy while also exhibiting a rich and full-bodied singing voice. Phoenix embodies the mundanity of everyday existence and elevates it to the height of an epic love story.

My ideal winner: Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street.

Daniel Brühl—Rush
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Ryan Gosling—The Place Beyond the Pines
Ethan Hawke—Before Midnight
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

Brühl does the impossible and creates an interesting character in a sports movie, one who balances his obsessive desire to win with a refreshingly logical approach to his craft. (For the record, he is in no way a supporting actor in Rush, no matter what Universal would have you believe.) Gosling is a delightfully ambiguous anti-hero, compelling our interest while also frightening us with his coiled intensity. Hawke slips into his three-quel character with inveterate ease, demonstrating a nuanced mastery of passive-aggressive marital combat.

Also deserving: Aniello Arena—Reality (for making the maddening fascinating); Christian Bale—Out of the Furnace (yeah, he's pretty good); Leonardo DiCaprio—The Great Gatsby (ibid); Steve Coogan—Philomena (for being a prick); Benedict Cumberbatch—The Fifth Estate (for refusing to play nice); Alexis Denisof—Much Ado About Nothing (for supplementing his intelligence with absurdity); Hugh Jackman—Prisoners (for jettisoning his parachute and just going for it); Mads Mikkelsen—The Hunt (for his silent agony); Miles Teller—The Spectacular Now (for his nimble behavioral shifts).

Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

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