Saturday, February 16, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actor


For some reason, when an actor or actress is in a supporting role, they see to have more freedom to ham it up. What I mean is, that the main character cannot be on overdrive for an entire film, but the supporting roles cannot not be on overdrive, or else we'd barely noticed they were even on the screen. Which is why you have so many supporting roles that can dominate an entire picture. Think for instance, of Joe Pesci's ferocity in Goodfellas, and how you walk away remembering him more than anything else in that film. Also, think of last year's winner, Alan Alda in Little Miss Sunshine, and the powerful effect he has on the story, even after he's gone. Trying to do the best you can in the limited time given is what makes a supporting performance superb.


Despite the fact that you have to take a deep breath before you say it, after watching the film recently, it seems the title fits the flow of the film perfectly. Affleck, playing Robert Ford, is obviously not going to get higher billing than the other star of the picture, Brad Pitt, but there has been a lot of rumblings as to why Affleck was considered "supporting" if he's the main character. When watching the film, I think Affleck was absent from the screen long enough to make the nomination at least a bit sensical. But I can understand the rumbles, cause when he is on the screen there is nobody else there that matters more. Affleck's nomination comes after what was essentially his breakout year. First his big brother Ben starred him as the main character in Gone Baby Gone, and then he got universal praise for Assassination.

Robert Ford is such an interesting character. He worships the James gang, particularly Jesse. So large is his worship, he actually memorized a list of trivial attributes that him and Jesse have in common ("You're 5'8'' tall, I'm 5'8'' tall"). Then, slowly but surely, that worship turns to resentment, and that resentment leads to murder. Perhaps, you don't totally get the total grasp of Affleck's performance until the last half-hour or so, where he is the main character. Ford thought everyone would embrace him for taking down the most notorious criminal of the time, but instead they turned on him. They hated him so much, that the man who would eventually murder him was pardoned of the crime. It's tragedy at it's highest form, but Affleck tackles everything with subtlety and a creepy, menacing grin that never leaves his face throughout the film.


If I remember correctly, in my original review of No Country For Old Men, I described Javier Bardem's murderous Anton Chigurh as "the Terminator with less mercy". Having seen the film numerous times since then, that feeling has not changed. Bardem, a Spanish actor most known in America for his performance as the paraplegic in The Sea Inside, is unquestionably perfect for the role. In Cormac McCarthy's original novel on which the film is based, Chigurh is a mysterious character, with no physical characteristics described, and a name that doesn't connect with any particular racial group. Bardem, with his bob haircut and indistinguishable accent incorporates McCarthy's descriptions fully. He speaks in one calm tone, and essentially anyone who is unlucky enough to hear that unmelodious voice ends up dead within minutes.

It is Bardem who is the unrelenting tide that keeps the film in it's tense state, because he is completely impenetrable (truly, he has more of a case for a lead role than Affleck does). The story is about Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin), but Chigurh is the figure of death that will haunt our dreams. Equipped with a cattle stun-gun for blowing out locks, and a shot gun with some kind of beer can silencer, Chigurh's body count doubles and triples every minute he's on the screen. People say that Anton Chigurh is a symbolic representation of Death, but the hole in that argument is that it doesn't factor in the car crash in the end (spoiler, sorry). I'm more inclined toward the theory that Chigurh represents the unstoppable force of fate. Even he is not able to escape it. Symbolism and metaphor aside, the true genius of Bardem's performance is the small nuances that add up to create one of the greatest screen serial killers in recent memory.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

The interesting thing about the character of Gust Avrakotos, and Hoffman's portrayal of him, is that more than any other person, Gust was the single most important factor of the whole operation. Charlie Wilson was the face of the co-opt war that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union, but Gust was the mastermind. Gust, a chain-smoking alcoholic with a quick temper and a sharp tongue, sacrificed his role in the CIA to help the cause, and ended up very successful in the end. Hoffman, who is slowly shifting his career from useful supporting actor to dominant lead, presents Avrakotos with a lot of cigarettes, a lot of screaming, and a well-groomed mustache. I couldn't tell you if Avrakotos was as big of a personality in real life as he was in the film, but what Hoffman shows is that either way, it's more interesting if he is.

With two great lead performances in The Savages and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, it seems the academy settled for Hoffman's most crowd-pleasing role of 2007 (though he had less than a chance in the lead actor category). That said, a performance that is "crowd-pleasing" is still a performance that is successful. As a whole, Charlie Wilson's War was a delightful film, that told a true story which is rarely told in the history books, but many were underwhelmed by it's lack of profundity. I think the film works best as a smart comedy, as opposed to the war drama many wanted. Hoffman has his helpings of hilarious dialogue ("Can we just take a moment to reflect on all of the ways that you are a douche bag?"), provided generously by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. With Hoffman, we have an actor in his prime, who is finally being recognized regularly by Hollywood.

Hal Holbrook, INTO THE WILD

It's nearly two hours into the epic Into The Wild before we see Ron Franz. He's old, haggard, and willing to help the stranded Christopher McCandless. Like everyone else Chris has met on his journey, Ron becomes connected to him. Ron has lost his entire family, and lives alone awaiting the time when it is his turn to go. He is god-fearing man, who is not afraid of death, until he is given a new breath of life when he comes into contact with Chris. Holbrook, a veteran actor who was finally was given an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Franz, melts you heart with his performance. This is much more than a generous nomination for Holbrook's age (see Ruby Dee), but a realization that after all this time in a great actor's career, he can still give the best film performance he's ever given.

Franz, a stubborn old man, and Chris an equally stubborn adventurer, learn so much about each other. The two become so close, that Franz pleads with Chris to let him be adopted by Franz. It's one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of the movies this year, as Chris leaves considering it, but never returns. As Chris moves from person to person on his journey north, he meets all kinds of people who discover his charm and love him, but it's only Franz who actually makes an attempt to teach him. McCandless' inner anger at family and society make him secretly bitter, a bitterness only Franz sees. "When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God's light shines upon you," Franz tells Chris as they sit together on a hill. Holbrook is the greatest part of a great film, and I don't feel any other actor could have captured this character so well.


It's quite a testament to the Clayton that it is the only film to have multiple acting nominations (three in all). That said, it is Wilkinson's Arthur Edens that gets the entire story undey way. The film opens in fact with a long, spiraling speech by Edens which causes two realizations for the audience early in the film: one, the Edens character is giving a speech we hope is not important since it is so scatter-brained we can't keep up with it; and two, the Edens character has gone completely mad. Edens, a formerly great lawyer, decides ambitiously to kick his anti-depressant medicine, and then figures to bring down his big-time corporation client by exposing their wrongdoings. How does he go about doing this? By getting naked during a deposition and running through a parking lot. Edens must be dealt with, the law firm concludes, Edens has gone off the deep end.

Wilkinson is in the category of those oh-so dependable British actors. He always excepts that hard supporting role which has the pressure of making the world of the film more believable. Try and think how good Shakespeare In Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would have been without Wilkinson's riveting work in both. Clayton continues that trend, but this time Wilkinson is on a grander stage. He creates the figure of a crazed man, but at the perfect moment (in the alley, with the bag full of bread), he switches and composes himself. He will not stand back and be judged as a mad man, he will take charge and use his expertise to his advantage. This drastic shift in character is a lot harder than it appears, yet Wilkinson does it so swiftly. In a film filled with top-notch performances, Wilkinson separates himself among them as the heart of the entire picture.

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