Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Herrington & Akers on the Oscars, Day 2: Lead Performances

Posted by on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 8:22 AM

After starting our five-day Oscar talk marathon with the least glamorous of the 10 categories we're considering — Editing and Cinematography — we're swinging to the opposite end of the interest spectrum today to hash out the most glam categories — Lead Actor and Actress. Ladies first:

Best Actress
Nominees:
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn).

The Helps Viola Davis: We think its going to be her night. And we approve.
  • The Help's Viola Davis: We think it's going to be her night. And we approve.

Chris Herrington: Close and Mara are the Just Happy to Be Here nominees, one getting what's likely last her nomination and the other getting her first but likely not last nod. And given the lack of traction for the film itself, I don't see Williams' Marilyn Monroe riff gaining much traction either. Which brings us to Streep and Davis. If Meryl Streep can't win an Oscar for a great Julia Child impression in the good Julie & Julia, she's not winning one for a good Margaret Thatcher impression in the desultory The Iron Lady. Please. So, this one is easy. Will Win: Viola Davis.

Should Win: And this is an even easier pick for me than it will be for the Academy. I think Rooney Mara does very good work in Dragon Tattoo. Noomi Rapace was very memorable in the first, Swedish, adaptation, and the title performance seemed like the one area where David Fincher's version was doomed to fall short of its predecessor. But, ultimately, I think Mara's conception of the character is better — more hurt and skittish, with a keener since of the victimization at the root of the feminist avenger surface. But, still, it's Viola Davis. I agree with everybody that Davis' performance is better than the film — or rather, I would argue, that it deepens the film — and since I think much more highly of the (still problematic) movie than most, I think Davis' gravity, groundedness, and imperfect humanity as middle-aged maid Abilene is one of the highlights of the movie year.

Got Robbed :It's become cliche to say there aren't enough good roles for women in contemporary movies, and it's often true. But what makes this slate of nominees so depressingly mundane and unimaginative is that, this year at least, there are so many good choices left out. And that doesn't include a couple of lauded performances I haven't been able to see — Anna Paquin in little-seen indie Margaret or Yun Jung-hee in equally little-seen South Korean import Poetry. So, if it were up to me, I'd toss out everyone but my winner-regardless Viola Davis — yes, including even Rooney Mara — and add four new contenders. And such are the riches that even then I wouldn't have room for Tilda Swinton's typically bold work in the dicey We Need to Talk About Kevin, Elizabeth Olsen's subtle shifts in Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, Felicity Jones pumping some blood into an otherwise lifeless Like Crazy, or Kirstin Dunst humanizing her director's corrosive world view in Melancholia.

Instead, my alternate picks, in ascending order, would be: Kristin Wiig's finding physical grace in alleged gross-out comedy — her limber-legged sex scene with an overeager Jon Hamm, her priceless impersonation of an expectant penis, her flapper walk through a roadside sobriety test — in Bridesmaids, where she's been unjustly overshadowed by Melissa McCarthy's broader supporting work. Charlize Theron topping her own Oscar-winning performance in the easier Monster by not caring what you think in the nervy comedy Young Adult. Juliette Binoche's emotionally hungry and flamboyant performance in my beloved Certified Copy. And my ultimate pick here: Keira Knightly not hiding but transforming her natural beauty — all jutting jaw, sharp elbows, and hungry eyes — as patient-turned-student, the true lead in David Cronenberg's deft, subtle study of the birth of psychoanalysis A Dangerous Method. What a great year for lead actresses. What a relatively unexciting group of nominees.

Akers: First of all, on your behalf I'm retiring any more Kristin Wiig "expectant penis" references. That's your third mention of it in your Flyer writings about Bridesmaids. I've notified the Academy that "expectant penis" needs to be part of their In Memoriam segment this year.

Will Win: As noted in Day 1 of this Oscar talk, I spent some time this year looking at historical trends in predicting Oscar wins. The Best Actress category gave me the strongest trend there is. Nine years in a row, a Golden Globes Best Actress winner (there are two each year, one for drama and one for comedy/musical) has won the Oscar in the category. Nine years in a row! That's crazy strong math. The winners of this year's Globes were Streep and Williams. As you noted, Williams and her film haven't made much of a dent in the zeitgeist. And Streep is the favorite according to many handicappers. If you want to play it safe, pick Streep.

So I spent all that time doing the research, and now I'm going to ball it up and chunk it. Viola Davis is taking the Oscar this year. She won the SAG and her film won the SAG for Best Ensemble. The Help is an actor's movie more than any other film this year. Davis seems beloved in the industry, and her character is immensely likeable. Contrast to Streep's Margaret Thatcher, probably mostly unliked in Hollywood as a real person and not really likeable as a character. And the movie is a mess, which even her champions admit. I'm fine with Streep winning another Oscar (it really should have come with Julie & Julia), but it can't and won't happen this year for The Iron Lady.

Should Win: I agree with you that Viola Davis is deserving of the victory. She's so fantastic in The Help. It's a substantial role in a substantial film. Streep is substantial in an unsubstantial film.

Mara is my second favorite of the five nominees. Every time Lisbeth Salander takes center stage, the film gets a jolt of energy. (I like Daniel Craig in general, but he was a little too inert in the film for my taste.) Salander is a fairly terrifying role, I imagine, and Mara absolutely tames it. Dragon Tattoo is disappointing, ultimately, but it ain't Mara's fault. (Let's be honest, the source material is fairly overrated to begin with.)

Glenn Close was fine in a chore of a movie. She and Janet McTeer, who we get to talk about in our Supporting Actress discussion tomorrow, were much better than the script.

The love for Williams as Marilyn Monroe befuddles me. (I endorse her otherwise.) It just made me think about the Kristin Wiig (she's everywhere!) character Shanna, from SNL. All breathless and over the top.

Got Robbed: In my fantasy world, Joyce McKinney wins a special Oscar for playing herself in the hilarious documentaryTabloid. But I can't get away with that, so I'll give the nod to Elizabeth Olsen as the title character in the way under-appreciated (by most people, not us) Martha Marcy May Marlene. There's a lot going on in Martha's head, and Olsen ably demonstrates all of it.

Herrington:Fine, you got me. Look, I write too much stuff about too many different things to come up with new material all the time. Consider this back-and-forth partly a compendium of greatest rhetorical hits. On another point, how did Streep and Williams both win Golden Globes again? Was The Iron Lady or My Week With Marilyn considered a "comedy/musical?" Color me confused. On a related note, when are we going to disagree on something — or at least disagree with what we — no doubt, wrongly — expect from the Academy?

Best Actor
Nominees:
Demián Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Give this Frenchman the Oscar or the dog gets it.
  • Give this Frenchman the Oscar or the dog gets it.

Akers: Will Win: As I refer again to my research notes, increasingly wrinkled from use (not really, I'm using an electronic file, silly), I see that the SAG winner for Best Actor has won the Oscar seven years in a row. Dujardin won the SAG this year. And I see that when one actor wins the SAG, BAFTA, and Golden Globes, they go on to win the Oscar six out of the seven times that confluence has happened since 1996. Dujardin also won the BAFTA and Golden Globes this year.

It's a lock, really. Jean Dujardin. Unless pre-Mayan 2012 madness infects the Academy and they go with Clooney or serious dark horse Pitt.

Should Win: You know, as much as I have a problem with The Artist (we'll be discussing that film more under Best Picture, I suspect), I don't have a beef with Dujardin. He's genuinely charming in the role and is believable as an Errol Flynn-type. It's not his fault the film is such a freakin' rip-off of other, better movies. Pitt is palatable in a mostly unpalatable film. (I hate to keep doing this, but I'll save my Moneyball diatribe for Best Picture — that last post is getting longer and longer on the drawing board.)

Bichir is better than Pitt, but I regard his film as even worse than Moneyball. For the record, since we won't be talking about this movie again: A Better Life is a capital-M Message Movie Travelogue looking at the plight of undocumented Mexican workers in America. It's a preachy procedural disguised as a family drama, which is what's annoying with the script: Once you figure that trick out, it holds few more surprises. Bichir is really good, no argument here. And I appreciate the message itself. But I couldn't get over the impression I formed in the opening credits: A couple white writers and a white director were telling this story. It made the whole feel inauthentic regardless of the outstanding locations, however much it strove for vérité.

Clooney was outstanding in The Descendants. This was one of his few films that I thought his part could have been played by just about any actor and didn't necessarily rely on Clooney's considerable attractiveness or charm. This was as close as Clooney has come to playing an everyman. There was something about it that seemed a little liberating to him.

But for me, Gary Oldman Should Win. I love Tinker Tailor to an inordinate degree. And George Smiley is Oldman's best performance in his accomplished career. He nails all of the notes in the character: melancholic, angry, wounded, adrift, reserved, cruel, shrewd, calculating, brilliant, remorseful, vengeful. It's a symphony of acting, with the sound turned waaaaaay low. Lordy, I love it.

Got Robbed: Brad Pitt was way better in The Tree of Life, but that's probably considered a supporting role. Brendan Gleeson was a riot in The Guard. Andy Serkis was phenomenal in his motion-capture performance of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But I'll take Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. Shannon walks the line between victim and victimizer in the wonderfully nervy family drama. But he does it in fairly understated, seeking-for-answers fashion. He wants to understand the mystery as much as the viewer does.

Chris Herrington: Dujardin is a lock, huh? I guess this is where my refusal to pay attention to the other industry awards does me in. (There's a reason I've never won an Oscar pool before. Heck, I've won a couple of NCAA tourney pools and I don't even watch much college basketball. But this? I'm terrible.) It does seem to be pretty clearly a two-man race between Dujardin and George Clooney.

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter: The one that got away.
  • Michael Shannon in Take Shelter: The one that got away.
Clooney is Mr. Hollywood right now if anyone is, and while he won Best Supporting in 2006 for Syriana, he's never won Best Actor. And that surely has to change at some point. He's had two strong chances recently, getting nominated in 2008 for Michael Clayton and in 2010 for Up in the Air, but in both cases was the likely runner-up — to There Will Be Blood's Daniel Day-Lewis and Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges, respectively. Whatever the awards-season buzz is, I just don't see Dujardin's turn in The Artist having quite the same stature with voters as Day-Lewis or Bridges. I'm betting that The Artist's Oscar bubble started to deflate just enough by the time votes were cast to trip Dujardin up in a conventional five-nominee race. (Okay, so I can do a little bit of research. Just don't ask me to start looking at the Best Boy's Guild or Production Assistant Association award history.)

So, I'm staking my claim here. Will Win: George Clooney finally breaks through. It's been a long, hard slog for his poor, unfortunate soul.

Should Win: I'm pretty meh on these nominees. I agree that Pitt was nominated for the wrong film and agree that Bichir — a surprising nomination — is good but not quite good enough. I do like A Better Life a little bit more than you — though it got lost in the vast middle stretches of my year-end list. It's definitely a "message movie" (jeez, just check the hard-sell title), but a little less blustery than most, and I do think the performances and locations mostly rescue it.

As for the frontrunners. Dujardin's performance is pretty strong. He's got a compact, graceful physicality somewhat reminiscent of Gene Kelly, though the film could put it to better use. And his take on silent-film acting is not nearly as muggy as it might have been. I don't think Clooney is the best actor in his own showcase. He struggles with the intentionally clashing emotional tones in those hospital room scenes, something made apparent when teenage unknown Shailene Woodley strides in and nails it. But it's to Clooney's credit that he's willing to let such a rich supporting cast shine and mostly act as a steadying presence in the film.

And so, I'll cast my vote, as you do, for Gary Oldman, whose performance in Tinker Tailor is commanding and intense while also being very reserved.

Got Robbed: I'm going to assume you didn't get around to seeing 50/50, because I know the man-crush you have on Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His work in that surprising, underrated film deserves an honorable mention. As does both Gleeson in The Guard and, especially, Paul Giamatti in the — cliche alert! — criminally overlooked Win Win, where he gives his most relatable Everyman performance yet. And I feel like Michael Fassbender's work in Shame is substantial enough to warrant mention, but not strong enough to overcome a film whose unpleasantness is not redeemed. Still, I can't go anywhere here but where you've already gone. Long a great character and "B" actor, Michael Shannon finally got his close-up in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, delivering an unsettling performance that turns volcanic at just the right moment. The most memorable male acting turn of 2012.

Akers: This agreeing thing was getting annoying, so I'm glad you're going with Clooney. My wife says The Artist is the Adele of the Oscars. I suspect (fear) she's right. Dujardin is getting swept in along with the rest of the film's cultural gelt.

A couple other notes: My Week with Marilyn won the Golden Globes for Best Comedy/Musical. To be honest, I thought The Iron Lady was funnier. Does unintentional comedy count? Jim Broadbent is a real laff riot in that stinkeroo.

Your suspicions are confirmed, I didn't see 50/50. Otherwise my man-crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have been in full bloom in this discussion. I presume he's brilliant.

I also didn't see Win Win or Shame. Speaking of: Expectant penis.

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