The women have all of the heat this year, thanks to a handful of bravura performances at the hands of gifted, courageous filmmakers like Lisa Cholodenko, Darren Aronofsky, Debra Granik, John Cameron Mitchell, Doug Liman, Derek Cianfrance, Mike Leigh – these directors have given women some great incarnations. We can talk about the lack of diversity overall in this year’s Oscar race (which hasn’t officially begun, it’s also worth saying) in the acting categories, though that ground has been covered already and there isn’t anything that will change it in the immediate future. Perhaps it is a discussion for a different time. It’s now time to turn our focus on the men who have stood out all year, and those who seem to have the buzz going their way as Oscar season proper heats up.
Even though it already seems like the five slots for Best Actor are mostly sewn up, it’s worth noting Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version. Giamatti as the titular character as someone who takes a bite out of life, comes at it in bursts, and maybe destroys everything he values.¬†¬† Giamatti’s Barney is a heartbreaking, at times hilarious portrayal — always engaging. Giamatti is great at digging into characters who somehow manage to charm the pants off of us even while playing what most people would consider an unsavory character, both in looks and behavior. ¬†I’ll save much of my Giamatti love for a piece I’m working on about him — but for now, though it feels like trying to crowd one more passenger into a lifeboat, Giamatti’s work here, under-buzzed though it is, caught me off guard. ¬†He’s always good. ¬†He was great in Cinderella Man — his only Oscar nod. ¬†He was great in Sideways (my favorite performance of his). ¬†One of the reasons for this is that he is one of those actors who really does just want it to be about the work rather than the circus. ¬†He is always getting great roles, so career positioning doesn’t seem to be a motivator to bang the drum for Oscar. ¬†He doesn’t hold back with Barney – but lays it on the line, warts and all. The chances of him being one of the five in a very crowded year are slim, but he’s worth mentioning here.
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech – there are several factors coming together at once for this being, at last, Colin Firth’s year. The first and most important of these is his transformation as King George VI. With Firth, it is always about the performance, but somehow he goes deeper than ever before with this. Arguably, Firth also gave the best performance last year in A Single Man, but as is usual with his work, it’s always hard to tell the difference between his performance his likability – both as a character and as an actor. The King’s Speech, though, is showy enough to distinguish what is the actor from who is the man, or the character. Although this is an incredibly sympathetic and likable character, what makes it a brilliant performance are the shadings underneath the bluster. The weaker moments of guilt, fear, surprise, elation and finally, trust. It is a collaborative work as well: he wouldn’t be this good without Geoffrey Rush to play off of. Both give two of the best male performances of the year. Somehow, Rush is going supporting and Firth lead, though they (like Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right) are really co-leads.¬† Firth has all of the heat, partly because The King’s Speech itself is so hot heading into the race, but it isn’t just that. It’s all forces coming together: Firth being overdue, being a well-liked and generous actor, being someone who is ready to finally claim his rightful place in the Hollywood kingdom. It doesn’t seem like he can lose.
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network – Squarely opposing Colin Firth’s King George VI is Mark Zuckerberg and realized by the talented Eisenberg. Like Firth, you don’t really have a great film without this central performance, and yet the two couldn’t be more different. One is a leader born into his place, quintessentially British, reluctant to fulfill his duty but knows he must or risk losing their position. The other is self-made, quintessentially American – a scrappy underdog who climbs his way to the top based on ability alone, with nothing whatever to do with breeding. One is a gentleman, the other a snake. Eisenberg makes a thrilling anti-hero, delivering Aaron Sorkin’s missives like a professional dart player. Every line that comes out of his mouth is a memorable moment in the film. Even though he is playing a ruthless winner, an American icon of new media and social upheaval he manages to give us glimpses of humanity throughout. He shows flutters of fear – we believe in him because he keeps his focus on the task at hand, even if he doesn’t seem to know what he is doing half of the time. Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network IS to the King’s Speech what America is to Britain. It is therefore fitting that these two actors seem to lead the way.
James Franco, 127 Hours – Franco’s turn in 127 Hours comes out of nowhere as no one knew Franco had this in him. Only a director as adept and trustworthy as Danny Boyle would have been able to wring such an exposed, spectral take on a dying man’s fight to stay alive. Franco looks to have been given the freedom to explore his own ideas about what might have happened to Aron Ralston in those 127 hours he was trapped in a stone fissure. Many of the best performances this year – Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and Colin Firth in The King’s Speech have been about transformations – getting from one state of being to another either by sheer will or circumstance. Franco must do what is necessary to get out, but he must also become someone else in order to first accept his own failings, and second, come to terms with his own fragile nature: he isn’t Superman after all. The entire film rests on Franco’s performance, most of the time, right on his face. Like Natalie Portman, this is all about his internal world. If it weren’t for Firth, Franco might be considered a strong contender to win the whole thing.
Robert Duvall, Get Low – one of the most memorable and moving turns this year comes from Robert Duvall, who arguably gave a career best performance this year. It’s funny to imagine Duvall’s work here outshining his work in so many other great roles, like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies, etc. But Duvall does something different here, something a little more risky than he’s done before. Sweet and sad all at once, his is one that has stuck with me through all of the silliness of the season up to now, and though I’ve seen some great work by others, Duvall’s keeps coming back to me. I suppose there is something mournful about his character, along with the brilliant Sissy Spacek. But it is also watching Duvall and Spacek together – two pros still working at the top of their game. Duvall is most definitely in the running – and if it weren’t for Firth he too might be a strong contender to win, on both the strength of his performance and his general stature within the industry.
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine – Gosling proves with Blue Valentine what his fans have long suspected about the actor: at his core he is a character actor, someone who can slip into someone else — disappearing into this confident young man who must then get older, sadder, and eventually fall off the deep end into despair is reminiscent of a young De Niro. Gosling has the ability to really go there and it is with Blue Valentine that he proves it. It is a shame that the movie has to be tainted as erotica by the MPAA when it is really a movie about a dissolving relationship not unlike Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. These characters are on their way to becoming the worst people – alcoholic, embittered, fighting all of the time. Again, like many of the other performance-driven films this year, Blue Valentine is as much about Williams and Gosling playing off each other as it is anything. It is the year of the great pairings.
Javier Bardem, Biutiful – the awards watching community, and many of the critics took Bardem in Biutiful too literally, I always thought. ¬†This isn’t to say that I am the only smart one in the room, that I know better than everybody else (“no, it’s awful.”) but just to say that I saw something different in both the film and the performance. ¬†To me it was magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – he was a “very old man with enormous wings,” carrying the burden of human suffering. ¬†Maybe the critics also saw this but felt it to be too much to take. ¬†One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Javier Bardem shines in the role. Bardem turns himself out when he takes on characters, doesn’t he? ¬†Before Night Falls, No Country for Old Men – what a fine actor we have in Bardem. ¬†His work here should not go unrecognized.
Matt Damon, Hereafter – It is always harder to underplay than it is to slip into an exaggerated persona, or emote broadly. ¬†Damon takes what could have been a ridiculous portrayal of a psychic and not only makes it believable but makes us sympathize with his plight. ¬†Damon’s portrayal, in fact, reminded me a little of Robert Redford playing Death in an episode of The Twilight Zone. He doesn’t want to be able to touch people and read their pain. ¬†It is in the moments where he can’t touch them for fear of knowing more about them than he wants to deal with that Damon’s performance reaches a level of excellence beyond what we’ve seen him do previously. ¬†With all of the Bourne hoopla and the Sexiest Man Alive mishegoss, one tends to forget what a good actor Matt Damon is. ¬†He’s so reliable that he’s easy to see slip through the cracks. ¬†I dare say Hereafter is one of his best.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island and Inception – Oh, Leo. ¬†Speaking of reliable actors who practically can do no wrong, when we look back at 2010, mark my words, both Shutter Island and Inception will stand out not just because they are great films but because DiCaprio’s work in them will be remembered along the same lines as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart when they appeared, repeatedly, in Hitchcock’s best films. A lightning rod for creative vision, what makes DiCaprio so magnificent as an actor is that he gets the material, just as Grant and Stewart it. ¬†He normalizes it, brings it all back down to earth for us. ¬†In Shutter Island he plays a man coming unglued. ¬†A great double feature might be Shutter Island and Black Swan – two films centered around a performance you simply can’t take your eyes off of because you might miss one facial expression that might give you a clue as to what they’re really thinking.
In Inception, DiCaprio is much more in control, or seems to be. ¬†But as the film unfolds, his subconscious is laid bare, his love for his wife (in both films, really) is burning the edges of his psyche, getting closer to destroying him by the minute. ¬†These crazy, beautiful women, these ghosts, are more powerful to his internal world than anyone else. ¬†They come alive for us too. ¬†DiCaprio separates them in the two films because he is playing two very different people – but maybe, in some parallel universe, they are related.
For his willingness to go deep, for his ability to translate that into a performance, DiCaprio may be the best actor in this year’s race. ¬†But we all know how the Oscars work. ¬†It is a popular vote, so the ones most people agree on, or like, will make the cut.
We can now talk about whom we think will likely be nominated, and I would list them this way:
1. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
2. James Franco, 127 Hours
3. Robert Duvall, Get Low
4. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
5. Javier Bardem, Biutiful
6. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
7. Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter
8. Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception
9. Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version
10. Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
11. Matt Damon, Hereafter
Still waiting on: Jeff Bridges, True Grit