Wed 17 Feb 2010
Posted by Ethan under Oscar Talk
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Another year, another edition of Oscar Talk featuring myself and my fellow movie-mad pal, Nick Spagnoli. Read our discussion of the Best Actor and Best Supporting races below.
Jeff Bridges: Crazy Heart
George Clooney: Up in the Air
Colin Firth: A Single Man
Morgan Freeman: Invictus
Jeremy Renner: The Hurt Locker
Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon: Invictus
Woody Harrelson: The Messenger
Christopher Plummer: The Last Station
Stanley Tucci: The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz: Inglorious Basterds
Every year, there are generally one or two races that attract the bulk of the attention from those of us that obsessively cover the Oscars. Last time around, for example, all eyes were on the Best Actor category as comeback kid Mickey Rourke squared off against Sean Penn. Meanwhile, there was very little buzz surrounding the Best Picture race because it was clear to virtually everyone that Slumdog Millionaire was the runaway winner, especially with The Dark Knight out of the mix. We’ve got the exact opposite situation this year, with the Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker face-off dominating the awards landscape and driving everyone’s attention to the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Compared to that–pardon the pun–titanic showdown, the acting races all seem…well boring. Part of the issue is that the winners in all the categories are so blindingly obvious it feels as if the Academy should just hand out the statues right now and spare us the wait.
That’s particularly the case with the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor races, where Jeff Bridges and Christoph Waltz are guaranteed to go home with the gold. In fact, I’m going to say that Supporting Actor is easily 2010’s most boring category. How boring? So boring that the Academy essentially gave up trying to pick five worthy performances and threw away two nominations on Matt Damon and Stanley Tucci from Invictus and The Lovely Bones respectively. Now I like both of these actors, but I can name at least five other roles from each guy that are more interesting and varied than the ones they’ve been nominated for. (Seriously, in a year where Damon delivered one of his best-ever performances in The Informant! the Academy voted to recognize his bland turn in Invictus???) At least all five of the Best Actor nominees actually deserve to be there, including Morgan Freeman who really is the only reason to see Clint Eastwood’s otherwise underwhelming take on Nelson Mandela’s legacy.
Now I should mention that I have no objection to Bridges and Waltz’s front-runner status. Both men do fine work in their respective films, often outclassing the material they’ve been given. To be honest, I consider Waltz to be the lead actor in Inglorious Basterds; Brad Pitt may be the name above the title, but Waltz dominates the proceedings and his character is central to each one of the movie’s many narrative throughlines in a way that Pitt decidedly isn’t. But Harvey Weinstein decreed he was a Supporting Actor and that’s where he’s ended up. Bridges, meanwhile, is the only reason Crazy Heart exists as a theatrical feature at all. Without someone of his caliber in the role of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake, it’s the kind of script that would have ended up as a movie of the week on Country Music Television. I actually threw on my screener of Crazy Heart the other night intending to only check out a half-hour or so (mainly to take another look at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance, which we’ll talk more about it in our Best Supporting Actress talk), but wound up watching it almost all the way through–fast-forwarding at times I have to admit–entirely because I enjoyed seeing Bridges sing, stumble and drink his way through the movie. The argument has been advanced that the Academy is opting to honor Bridges for his entire body of work rather than this specific performance and I think there is some truth to that. After all, Bad Blake isn’t as rich a character as The Dude from The Big Lebowski or Jack Lucas from The Fisher King. Nevertheless, Bridges is genuinely great in Crazy Heart and if this is the role where the stars align for him to win an Oscar, that’s fine with me. There have certainly been far worse Liftetime Achievement acting Oscars–Al Pacino for Scene of a Woman, anyone?
Based on the other nominees in their respective categories, I’d also cast my vote (if I had one) for Bridges and Waltz. However, there are several notable omissions that probably would have changed my mind. The Academy’s biggest oversight, in my opinion, was not nominating Michael Stuhlbarg for his terrific comic performance in A Serious Man. His presence is pivotal to the film, bringing an emotional resonance to a character that the Coens clearly have little sympathy for. I was also a big fan of Michael Sheen’s fiery turn in the little-seen soccer drama The Damned United. Normally associated with stately turns as public figures like Tony Blair and David Frost, Sheen shows off a whole different set of skills as the brash football coach who can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
I’m having a harder time thinking of overlooked supporting actors, which either confirms how completely Waltz dominated the landscape or proves that this was a weak year for supporting performances (a theory that’s lent further weight by an equally lackluster crop of Supporting Actress contenders). One name that’s come up a great deal is Peter Capaldi, who played the foul-mouthed Scottish politician in my favorite comedy of the year, In the Loop. I love Capaldi in that movie, but I consider that more of an ensemble piece; his performance only works as well as it does because he has a crack cast to play off of. Funnily enough, the only performer that springs to mind is also from Crazy Heart, Colin Farrell. Watching the movie the other night, I was once again impressed by his low-key presence and seemingly effortless charisma with Bridges. As far as I’m concerned, Crazy Heart would have been an infinitely better movie had it focused on their relationship instead of the romance between Bridges and Gyllenhall. Turns out he’s a pretty decent country singer too.
Okay, over to you. Which Supporting Actors have I overlooked? Are Waltz and Bridges your first choices as well? Or am I being unfair to Damon, Tucci and Freeman?
Since, yes, Bridges and Waltz are easily my top choices, and since, as you pointed out, it’s pretty much a lock that both will win, I’ll keep my comments on this category brief.
There is one glaring omission in the supporting actor category. Christian McKay’s bold and charismatic turn as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. If Waltz weren’t in the running, I’d not only nominate McKay, but give him the award. The film is engaging, though a bit frustrating and uneven at times, but it comes alive anytime McKay is on screen. It’s a larger than life performance that’s never over the top. You feel like you’re watching the real Orson Welles, not an impersonation of him. To make room for McKay, I’d probably bump Damon, though I do think he’s good in Invictus.
Other than that, I don’t have any issues with the other nominees. All do good work, even if none jump out as particularly outstanding. Of the rest, I’d probably go with Christopher Plummer’s Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station as my second choice.
On the lead actor side I can’t disagree with you about Michael Stuhlbarg–he does a terrific job in A Serious Man–but there’s no one that I would knock out to make room for him. This is a very strong category with five solid performances. Among them, Bridges is easily the standout. I think the film itself is underrated (I consider Crazy Heart to be one of the best movies of the year) but Bridges is the reason it works as well as it does (along with the music). Sure, some may say he’s the favorite because he has a lifetime of terrific, overlooked performances, but “Bad” Blake is up there among his best and he is unquestionably deserving of a win for this role.
Among the rest, I don’t have a clear second choice. Morgan Freeman brings the wise and distinguished presence that we’ve come to expect from him, while finally losing himself in the role in a way that we haven’t seen before. George Clooney also brings a lot of his persona to Ryan Bingham, but also a nuance that we don’t always get from him. Just as Bridges elevates Crazy Heart, Clooney’s performance and presence make Up in the Air an infinitely better film. My #2 is a toss-up between Freeman and Clooney.
Who would you cast your fictitious vote for if not Bridges and Waltz? Do you agree that McKay was overlooked?
Good call on McKay–I somehow managed to completely forget about him, but he absolutely deserves to be among the five nominees (certainly in place of Tucci and/or Damon) and he’d be the only actor I’d be tempted to place above Waltz. Like you, I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie, but the way he channels Welles without simply doing a Saturday Night Live-style impersonation is really something to see. And, as with Waltz, I almost want to classify him as the movie’s leading actor since he so thoroughly dominates the proceedings. Poor Zac Efron all but vanishes off the screen whenever McKay enters the frame.
Of the folks who actually are nominated in the Supporting Actor category, I’d probably agree with you that Christopher Plummer would be my second choice. In fact, in another year he probably would have won the statue outright since–and I was really surprised to hear this–his first-ever Oscar nomination. But with Bridges (and likely Sandra Bullock, but we’ll get to her later) already set to win a career achievement Oscar, it’ll be tough for Plummer to ride the same sentimental groundswell. Also, Waltz has the good fortune of being nominated for a much better film. For me, The Last Station only really springs to life in the final act, when Plummer and Helen Mirren are given some truly intense drama to play. And a big part of me feels that Plummer has actually been nominated for the wrong film–as good as he is as Leo Tolstoy in Station, I much preferred his Shakesperean-like star turn in Terry Gilliam’s chaotic, intermittently brilliant carnival, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
It sounds like your a bit more satisfied with the Best Actor category than I am. Of the five current nominees, the only two that actually excite me are Bridges and Colin Firth, who gives an incredibly moving performance in A Single Man. I’ve never been a big booster for Firth, but he showed a different side of himself here and his emotional connection to the material helps alleviate some of writer/director Tom Ford’s more pretentious visual flourishes. If I was going to cast my fictitious vote for anyone besides Bridges, it would be for him.
I don’t really have any major qualms about the three remaining nominees–that would be Clooney, Freeman or The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner–but none of them really excited me either. While I agree that Clooney is perfectly cast in Up in the Air, I think the material defeats him in the end. Like the movie itself, he’s at his best in the lighter scenes, such as that extended bit of flirtation with Vera Farmiga early on. Once the film starts asking us to view him as a kind of tragic hero, it lost me. Freeman’s take on Nelson Mandela is very respectful, very admirable and–again, like the movie–rather boring. I still feel that Clint Eastwood made a big mistake choosing to anchor the story around a rugby match. While I’m glad they didn’t go the usual biopic route, the material that dealt directly with Mandela’s transition into office was so compelling, I was disappointed to see the movie morph into a generic sports picture halfway through. Freeman’s performance suffers from the film’s transformation as well; by the last half-hour, he’s reduced to being little more than a cheerleader in the stands.
Last but not least we have Renner, who to me was the most surprising of the nominees, not because he doesn’t do good work in The Hurt Locker, but when I think of that movie the acting is really the last thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t help that, as written by Mark Boal, the characters are all fairly familiar war movie types–you’ve got the nervous guy (Brian Geraghty), the anal retentive by the book guy (Anthony Mackie) and the crazy daredevil guy (Renner). Clearly, Renner is a talented guy with a lot of natural charisma, but I don’t see this as a breakthrough performance a la Willem Dafoe in Platoon or Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket. Ultimately, I’d have no trouble replacing the trio of Clooney, Freeman and Renner with a line-up that included Stuhlbarg, Sheen and Damon (from The Informant!) or Stuhlbarg, Sheen and Plummer (from Parnassus) or Stuhlbarg, Damon and Plummer.
It seems like we’re pretty much in agreement on the Supporting Actor side of things.
On the Best Actor side, I am satisfied with the nominees, though I can’t say that I’m all that excited about them either (aside from Bridges). Firth was easily the best thing about A Single Man. In a film that was trying much too hard to be Important and Artistic, Firth did his best to keep it emotionally engaging. Last year I had a hard time pulling for Kate Winslet (one of my favorite actresses) because I thought her film was so awful. Similarly, I have a hard time working up much enthusiasm for Firth because I’m not a fan of his movie (though A Single Man is a much better film than The Reader). I should judge on the performance alone, but ideally, a good performance will be in the service of a good film.
I’m a bigger fan of Up in the Air than you are, and I think Clooney shines even as the script turns more serious. I’ll save my comments on the film itself for the Best Picture discussion, but take a look at his subtle, but telling reactions to two of the more stinging lines that he absorbs in the film (when told by his sister that he basically doesn’t exist to his family and later when he’s told that he’s a parenthesis). He is slowly being beat down and Clooney shows the pain and struggle beautifully. I’ve also already talked a bit about Freeman and think he’s deserving of the nod, but I agree with you that there’s not much for him to do by the end of film (which I found so disappointing because until the final half hour, Invictus is exceptionally good).
If I had to bump someone off the list, I would have to go with Renner. I think he does a wonderful job in the film, but I agree with you that the acting is not what makes The Hurt Locker so engrossing. The star of that film is director Kathryn Bigelow…more on her later. If you wanted to swap him out for Stuhlbarg or Damon (terrific in Steven Soderbergh’s underrated The Informant!) I wouldn’t complain. But for the most part, I think the Academy got it right this year.
Will Win: Jeff Bridges
Should Win: Jeff Bridges
Will Win: Jeff Bridges
Should Win: Jeff Bridges
Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Christoph Waltz
Should Win: Christoph Waltz
Will Win: Christoph Waltz
Should Win: Christoph Waltz
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