Here Come the Actors. Where and Who Are the Actresses?

29 Nov

Well, the Oscar race will officially kick-in next week when such groups as  the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announce their picks as the year’s best.  At this point, I think the race for Best Picture is being led by Argo and Lincoln;   I expect the long awaited big screen adaptation of Les Misérables (from the ever-popular stage musical incarnation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel) to be a strong contender as well, but that film is still being kept under wraps–for now. The official release date is December 25th, natch, though I’m sure many influential, high profile critics are being treated to screenings for the sole purpose of awards consideration. At this point, I’m not convinced that Oscar winner Ang Lee’s 3D version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has what it takes to go the distance though it has its champions.  Likewise, Cloud Atlas could sneak into some categories, bur it no longer seems like a major contender. On the other hand, some of us are anxiously awaiting the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the story about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden–and Bigelow’s follow-up to her 2009 Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker.

Right now, I think the tightest race has to be that of  Best Actor.  This could very well be the most competitive this category has been since the 2005/06 season when there were 5 legitimate contenders–and, to clarify, no filler: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote-w), Terrence Howard (Hustle &  Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck).  Though the Oscar ultimately went to Hoffman, many pundits were of the opinion that any of the other four could have won in less competitive years. In 2008, there was definitely a heated race between two front-runners, Sean Penn (Milk) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), but the rest of the bunch paled in comparison when taking into account ALL the variables: Penn’s transformative performance as Harvey Milk in a timely, fact-based offering (coming out around the time of California’s Prop 8 debacle), and Rourke’s widely heralded comeback in a film by arty/indy fave, Darren Aronofsky. The remaining lineup consisted of Richard Jenkins (in the acclaimed if low-profile The Visitor),  Frank Langella (recreating his Tony winning role as President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, a Best Picture nominee that failed to find a huge audience in spite of its major nods), and Brad Pitt (competing against the dazzling aging/anti-aging effects in leading Best Picture nominee The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).  One more: last year, the Best Actor race was dominated by a wildly over-hyped front-runner, Jean Dujardin the eventual winner, in the  unstoppable Best Picture frontrunner The Artist.  Sure, last year saw two genuine movie stars in contention, George Clooney (The Descendants) and, once again,  Brad Pitt (Moneyball), but their vehicles were not as well positioned as The Artist in order to  dethrone Dujardin–and Pitt actually appeared in two Best Picture contenders (Moneyball AND The Tree of Life); last year’s other nominees, Demián Bichir (A New Life) and Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) were certainly worthy of their nods; they just could not overcome the obstacle of appearing in lesser-seen, and less publicized, films.

This year, I believe we’ll be enthralled by a real nail-biter of a race.  It’s interesting to me that the leading contenders  all appear in films that are currently in release at this relatively early stage. That almost never happens. Oldman’s film from last year didn’t go wide until January or so, even though it had played the film festival circuit for weeks and months.  Again, this year is  no one is waiting on a last minute entry to sweep in and shake things up, as was the case with 2009’s Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges, a strong sentimental favorite who, after earning  4 previous nods in the 1970s, ’80s, and early 200os, snatched victory away from George Clooney (Up in the Air) who had generated the most buzz until Bridges’s 11th hour emergence.   Here are the actors that I believe are the faves as of this moment:

John Hawkes (The Sessions): Hawkes has been around for years. He has 116 credits listed as an actor on the IMDb, dating all the way back to 1985; however, he didn’t achieve “breakthrough” status, for lack of a better word, until two years ago when he played a key supporting role in Best Picture “sleeper,”  Winter’s Bone.  For that intoxicating portrayal of an aging hoodlum from the Ozarks, he earned not only an Oscar nomination, but he also claimed an Independent Spirit Award. Since then, he has snagged more high-profile roles, including the lead in The Sessions, as poet Mark O’Brien, a severely disfigured polio survivor who spends most days in an iron-lung and seeks the services of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) in order to realize his long-held dream of sexual intimacy with a woman. Hawkes, a resourceful character, reinvents himself in this role in a way that none of us could have imagined after The Winter’s Bone; as a bonus, he has a small role in Spielberg’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis. PS: He was just nominated for a Spirit Award.

Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln): DDL already has already won two Best Actor Oscars (My Left Foot, 1989; There Will Be Blood, 2007); if he earns a nod for Lincoln, it will be his fifth. Lincoln could very well turn out to be a Best Picture front-runner, which might help Lewis since no actor has ever won in this category three times. Jack Nicholson has three Oscars, yes, but one of those is a supporting win. True, any actor playing President Abraham Lincoln is akin to Ben Kingsley playing Mahatma Gandhi in terms of
gravitas. No doubt. This is the sort of role that wins Oscars–and how. Still, can you believe that this is only DDL’s second movie since There Will Be Blood? He made a foray–mixed as it was– into movie musicaldom with 2009’s Nine. My point is that a third Oscar at this point might be too much too soon.

Joaquin Phoenix (The Master): Phoenix has never won an Oscar, but if he snags a nomination this year, it will be Oscar race number 3 for him. His last nomination was for his brilliant leading turn in Walk the Line, the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic. Prior to that, he netted a supporting actor nomination for the 2000 Best Picture winner, Gladiator. With all his crazy stunts, such as bad-mouthing the Oscars, Phoenix appears to be a publicist’s nightmare though Dustin Hoffman used to trash the awards all the time–and he now has two Best Actor trophies. I just think Phoenix is crazy like a fox.  In The Master, he brilliantly plays a disillusioned WWII vet who falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader, the irony being that the charismatic cult leader is at least as unhinged as Phoenix though, of course, the latter is too far gone to pick up on that. The problem,  if there is one, is that The Master may very well be too stylized to break through with Academy voters in spite of Phoenix’s superb work. The movie simply looked more attractive earlier in the season when there was less competition.

Denzel Washington (Flight): Washington earned his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for 1989’s Glory (and well deserved); his second Oscar, and first for Best Actor, came for 2001’s change of pace Training Day, in which Washington, normally cast as good guys, played a terrifyingly dirty cop–and I do not even like the word “cop,” but it definitely fits in this case. He is looking to score Oscar nomination number six with Flight–and his first nomination since his last win. Though he has made several reliably exciting action fueled pics in the last decade, this is definitely the meatiest role he has had in a good long time. Funny thing: Flight has been marketed as a movie about a heroic pilot who appears to have been framed for causing the very accident that prompts all that hero talk in the first place; however, what the movie is really about is the downward spiral of a man whose various addictions are out of control, and Washington navigates the various twists and turns brilliantly.

Unless I don’t totally know my stuff, my guess is that the four actors in the above profiles are the sure-bets; however, there are still at least two more guys duking it out for the fifth slot.

Ben Affleck (Argo): Affleck’s third directorial offering has been, until now, the most seriously buzzed-about Best Pic contender. Plus, it has been a huge, huge, box-office hit. This could very well be the movie to beat for the top trophy as Academy members are often predisposed to favor actor-hyphenates though Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is as imposing as, well, say, Mount Rushmore. That noted, Affleck is generating more buzz for his work behind the camera than in front of it though I would not rule him out just yet. Of course, Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing 2007’s Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon. As a director, he has guided both Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone) and Jeremy Renner (The Town) to Oscar nominations (in the supporting categories). Among a celebrated batch of actors-turned-directors, Laurence Olivier won an Oscar for his self-directed Hamlet after earning a nod for his adaptation of Henry V. More recently, Clint Eastwood has earned two Oscars for directing films in which he also earned Best Actor nods (Unforgiven, 1992; Million Dollar Baby, 2004). On the other hand, Mel Gibson took home the Best Director trophy for 1995’s Braveheart though that film failed to earn a single acting nod–and that includes Gibson’ starring performance. Update: Affleck was just named Entertainment Weekly’s “Entertainer of the Year.”

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook): Cooper has been a star ever since he appeared in the outrageously raunchy box-office smash The Hangover. Since then, his credits include at least one film that almost seemed too specifically tailored for Oscar consideration, The Words (released earlier this year); however, that vehicle seemed too obvious and contrived to be taken seriously. With Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper might have very well found the role that will cement his status as a “serious” actor on top of his matinee-idol charisma. Frankly, I’m still wrecked that he wasn’t at least Globe nominated for The Hangover, but I digress. This latest offering is directed by none other than David O Russell, whose last film, The Fighter,  earned (supporting) Oscars for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.

There was early buzz–dating back last winter’s Sundance Fim Festival– for Richard Gere’s outstanding turn in Arbitrage, but a groundswell of killer praise never developed for this well-crafted look at a high-flying wheeler-dealer facing ever-increasing scrutiny about messes he’d rather see buried. (It’s like Wall Street meets Chappaquiddick.)   It’s also possible that either Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman could be nominated for Les Miz.  At this point, I can’t see that Jack Black has much chance for Bernie though he might snag a Golden Globe nomination; he was just announced as a Spirit Award contender, so good for him. I love Bernie and Black’s performance in it, but even I can see that his work pales in comparison to the towering performances of Hawkes, DDL, Washington, etc.

Meet Quvenzhané Wallis. She plays “Hushpuppy” the lead character in the post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria known as Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of the yea’s most celebrated indie flicks. Wallis was a mere 5 years old when she auditioned for the part. I believe she is now 8. She could be poised to become the youngest Best Actress nominee ever, besting the previous record-holder Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was only 13 years old when she was nominated in the same category for 2003’s The Whale Rider (from New Zealand). Wallis was recently nominated for a Spirit Award (which I still stubbornly call the Independent Spirit Awards, but i digress.) Additionally, two of my favorite films and/or performances are all up for Spirit Awards: Jack Black in Bernie (YAY!) and Wes Anderson’s Moonsrise Kingdom, which netted 5 nods, tying for the most nominations with Silver Linings Playbook.

On the other hand, the bigger question mark is that confounded Best Actress race. Is there really a front-runner? Sure, there are some likely candidates,  such as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty),  Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone),  Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings  Playbook), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), and Naomi Watts (The Impossible).  Of these, I think Chastain might still be riding the enormous wave of goodwill she generated last year when she appeared in a half-dozen films, including two Best Picture contenders: The Tree of Life and The Help; she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the latter. Goodwill aside, some early reports indicate that her character in Zero Dark Thirty is on the sketchy side, but I bet the whole thing is still very exciting.   Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is certainly well-poised, what with her leading role in the blockbuster known as The Hunger Games.  This young woman’s rise has definitely been meteoric.  Now 22, she was still in her teens when she filmed Winter’s Bone,  the indie darling that garnered raves, played in theaters for weeks and weeks, and earned Lawrence a Best Actress nomination–and was likely the right film at the right time to help her land the role of  Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger GamesSilver Linings Playbook repositions her as a grownup actress, but will the Academy take the bait? I would not rule out the possibility of Helen Hunt as the sex-therapist who teaches John Hawkes about intimacy in The Sessions. Oh sure, I know that the studio releasing the film is positioning Hunt, so to speak, as a supporting player, but Academy members ultimately decide these things.  Publicists can only make suggestions. Besides, no less than Susan Sarandon was promoted as a supporting actress for 1981’s Atlantic City, but her peers rightfully nominated her as Best Actress.

Left to right: Maria Belon, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Spanish woman played by blonde haired, blue-eyed Brit Naomi Watts in The Impossible.

Now, about Naomi Watts in The Impossible. This is a fact based story about one white family’s survival in the aftermath of  the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.  The trailer begins with this announcement: “In 2004 Hundreds of Thousands of Lives/Were Suddenly Changed Forever/By the Worst Natural Disaster of Recent Times.” It continues: “From Director J.A. Bayona/One Family’s True Story.” Well, I have to admit that when I saw the trailer for the first time,  I was a little stunned.  I mean, the images accompanying the message are of a seemingly happy white family (headed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor),  and I wondered who chose a white family’s experience to be representative of a disaster that affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of brown-skinned humans.  Oh sure, I get that we’re meant to understand that these people were merely tourists, strangers in a strange land, looking for a little rest and relaxation,  and that a tsunami was an unexpected shocker; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, I guess that makes for a dramatic story, yet it still bothers me because the message implies that the suffering of white tourists is somehow greater than the suffering of the non-white indigenous folk.  What’s worse, as I soon learned, is that the real-life couple that Watts and McGregor are portraying isn’t even British.  Okay, technically McGregor is from Scotland, and Watts is well-regarded as an Aussie though she was, in fact, born in England. At any rate, these two actors are white, and the people they are playing are…Spanish, meaning not necessarily white. I understand how movie-financing works, so I’m sure that casting non-Spanish actors was a marketing move to make the film more commercial, but I still say such literal whitewashing of the truth is phony, and it stinks. Will I see The Impossible when it comes to Dallas? Yes, probably. I like Watts well enough. I don’t think she earned enough praise for her role as wrongfully exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2010’s Fair Game (in which she was perfectly cast as Plame’s stand-in); moreover,  her breakthrough performance (in dual roles?) in David Lynch’s trippy Mulholland Drive still revs my memory–of course, the downside is that to get the full impact of Watts’s particular greatness in the film, one must be willing to sit through the entire movie, and that is easier (much, much, easier)  said than done.  Talk about impossible.

Thanks for your consideration….

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