Monday, February 11, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Actor In A Leading Role


Yes, I know that in the hierarchy of Oscar categories, I skipped Best Supporting Actor, but seeing as I am still yet to see The Assassination of Jesse James..., I feel it would be unfair to write about Casey Affleck's performance when I haven't seen it. And so, we move on to Best Actor. The most interesting aspect of the all the nominees in this category is the varying degrees of great acting we have in it. You have your subtly-controlled performance (Clooney), as well as your ferocious melodramatic performance (Day-Lewis), and one that is a little combination of both (Jones). For good measure, they also threw in a singing, throat-slitting barber (Depp), as well as Russian mafioso who's just as deadly with or without clothing (Mortenson).


No other actor today (not Pitt, not Cruise, not anyone) is more well-liked than George Clooney. His boyish charm, conniving grin, and dashing good looks send us back to the golden age, with the charismatic talents of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. And even though he has already won the Oscar (Syriana, 2005), it was fair to say that Clooney was never better than he was in Clayton. We don't actually see Clayton until a while has passed in the film, we first hear Arthur Edens' (Tom Wilkinson) pleading voice-over, and then we the stern Marty Bach (Sydney Pollock) trying to push a settlement through, and then we see Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) sweaty in a bathroom stall. When we finally see Michael Clayton, he's calm, but brooding, sitting at a high-stakes poker table.

The magic in Clooney's performance can be summarized in his entrance. His life is caving in, with endless amounts of pressure coming from all angles: from his job, from his family, and from his independent business ventures. Yet, through it all, Clayton sits with every hair in place, and his nicest suits. Not that there isn't scenes when Clayton loses his cool, essentially every scene Clayton shares with Edens consists of Michael pleading his case. He knows his deranged friend, Edens, is up to something, but the powers that be might be too strong to protect either of them. As has been much publicized, Clayton is a fixer, he is paid by one of the most prestigious law firms in the country to clean up the messes left by lawyers and clients alike. In a movie filled with tense drama that slowly seeps through the surface, Clooney completely personifies everything that this thriller presents.


The first fifteen minutes of There Will Be Blood pass by methodically, as we watch Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) mining for gold, and later, for oil. These fifteen minutes are free of dialogue and begin the slow process of building Plainview's character throughout the next two and a half hours. In one of the most strangely compelling films of the year, many phrases have been chosen to describe There Will Be Blood--epic, depiction of greed, or attack of religiosity. At it's absolute base, though, the film is a character study, and as soon as we hear the rumbling voice of Plainview ("Ladies and gentlemen...."), we have become entranced by him. He's not particularly likable, but he is incredibly charming; his apparent scorn for humanity never stunt his ability as a salesman. The product he sells? Wealth.

Day-Lewis, a known chameleon, who's absolute dedication to his roles has prevented him from working often, transforms himself again. The more we learn about Plainview as the film goes on, the more and more we notice how Plainview's sanity is quickly disappearing. In fact, the film culminates with an uncanny scene in a basement bowling alley, where Plainview has his final showdown with his arch-nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Sunday is a preacher who has spent most of his time in the film haggling Plainview for money, and pleading his case for the lord. Plainview's disgust with Eli's apparent spiritual fraudulence creates the main conflict of the film. Many have said that the final scene is inappropriate or eccentric, but what it also is, like Day-Lewis' performance, is unforgettable.


Depp, the sudden darling of the Academy Awards the last few years, has made a career with Tim Burton. It's strange the way certain actors have chemistry with certain directors, but through six films together they have created magic in films like Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood. But aside from all their synergy, many were still surprised to see Burton cast Depp as the blade-wielding barber in Sweeney Todd. Depp, an actor with no previous singing experience beforehand, was given the extreme pressure of having to recreate one of the most beloved characters of the theater stage. Not one to shy away from strange, dark characters, Depp stepped in with limited voice, and helped the audience discover something that we'd never realized before.

What we discovered was how interesting musicals can be when emphasis is placed on what the song is about, as apposed to how they sound. There are many loyalists who would forbid to accept this theory (what's the point of a musical if the music--which includes voices--isn't perfect?), but it did bring up a concept that was very interesting. Despite all the issues of the singing, Sweeney Todd is a character of extreme complexity. Todd is a man so obsessed with his feeling of vengeance, that it blinds him. It blinds him so much, that he is unable to realize the huge mistake he will go on to make at the film's conclusion (won't give it away), which ends in a truly Oedipus-like fashion. The performance is bleak but booming, strong though Depp never really explodes as much as we expect from a man who spends his days killing large amounts of people. It is a beautifully felt performance, one of many that only help to build the lagacy of the much-beloved Depp.


In a matter of a few months, Jones went from the favorite to win the Oscar, to the shockingly surprising nomination (who begrudgingly annoyed Into The Wild fans when he bumped out Emile Hirsch). Of the few who actually were able to see Elah, most of them walked out of the theater with two conclusions: one, that this was a film that was disorganized in the way it tried to deliver it's heavy-handed message; and two, that Jones probably gave the greatest performance of his career. Playing Hank Deerfield, a former member of the military who's trying to find out why his son was killed hours after he returns home from Iraq, Jones performs every action and every nuance perfectly.

A strait-arrow Red-stater, Deerfield is a man of routine and discipline, but even he is unable to control his spiraling emotions when he learns of the death of his son--we learn later that he'd also had an older son that died in combat. He goes on his own search to find out what happened to his son, when he feels the police work unsatisfactory, and that is where the story of the film starts to become hazed, but Jones' performance never lets up. He approaches every line and scene with such controlled power and brilliance, that we never question the actions of his character, even if they aren't the correct actions. Of coarse, many found it hard to appreciate a performance that carries a film out of the gutter, but those who took his performance at face-value saw with how much skill Jones was able to flesh out such a stock-type character.


In their previous collaboration, Viggo Mortenson and David Cronenberg created the incredibly underrated masterpiece A History of Violence. In their second film together, they tackle similar themes, though they do it in very different circumstances and settings. Mortenson portrays Nikolai, a mysterious, but ruthless driver, who is linked to a notorious Russian mafia. When a mid-wife (Naomi Watts) is trying desperately to discover the family of which a bastard infant belongs to, she comes rather unwillingly into contact with the crime family, and with Nikolai. For most of the film, we can never quite put our finger on Nikolai's motives. Is he interested in being with the mid-wife romantically? Is it his goal to climb the social ladder of the family? We don't know till the end, but in the meantime, Mortenson is able to build a character of more mystery than a Bob Dylan song.

Much has been said about the infamous "knife fight" scene, in which Mortenson drops trou and takes on two knife-bearing assassins completely naked. It is unquestionably the most memorable scene in the film, and one that was able to keep the performance fresh in the minds of academy voters. What is so impressive about the scene though, is not Viggo's "bare essentials", but his ability to stay collected as Nikolai. In a scene like that, it is easy to get caught up in unintentionally funny "hide the salami" sequences (like so many Austin Powers films, though in that sense it was meant to be funny). Instead, Mortenson allows it all--literally--to hang out. It's the sort of moment where the audience grows respect for the actor because of his unflinching ability. Appreciate it, Viggo. Perhaps next time, we can have that moment when he's wearing clothing.

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