Monday, February 9, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Leading Actor


Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR

People really rallied behind this performance last year, to the point that its most loyal supporters were able to overtake the already rabid Oscar fan club inhabited by Clint Eastwood's performance in Gran Torino. Surely, Jenkins' nomination is pleasant in many ways, if only because Jenkins is a fine supporting actor who has pledged his time in small but memorable comedic roles in films such as There's Something About Mary and Flirting With Disaster. In Tom McCarthy's film The Visitor, Jenkins is finally given his opportunity to take on a lead role, and what a juicy role it is. Playing the clinically reserved widower, Walter Vale, Jenkins never lavishes in the melodramatic opportunities that the film opens to him, instead taking advantage of the subtleties of a very layered character.

The Visitor's biggest flaw is when it doesn't focus its sights on Jenkins. When Vale makes friends with two immigrants who were squatting in his city home, he's disturbed to find out how easily his friends can be taken out of the country. By the time this major plot point hits the story, the film's focus becomes muddled, but Jenkins stays consistent throughout. It is always a pleasure when films take advantage of actors not usually remembered--much like Melissa Leo in Frozen River--but this recognition of Jenkins is so much sweeter because there are so many who know who Jenkins is, if not by name. Jenkins went from the man in the background, and became the man in the spotlight. So, let's hope he gets more roles along these lines.

Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON

Playing people from popular American culture is a big 'A+' if you're hoping to win an Oscar nomination. Play Richard Nixon, while still reprising a role that won you a Tony award for, and you become the valedictorian of the Oscar contenders. After playing the notorious president on the stage, notable stage actor Frank Langella decided he would also like to play Richard Nixon in the play's big screen makeover. Watching Frost/Nixon, you are presented with a very obvious observation, and that is that Langella neither looks or sounds very much like Nixon. Isn't that a negative? Remember when you couldn't tell the difference between Jamie Foxx and Ray Charles? That single-handedly won him the gold statue, but in Langella's case he used his crafty veteran acting tactics to create something more rapturous than glorified mimicry.

Of course, it must be stated that Langella's brilliant work is matched by fellow actor Michael Sheen's performance as flamboyant television personality David Frost. In the American TV spots of Frost/Nixon, the film is promoted as David slaying Goliath, an underdog journalist bringing big shame to an insecure former president. That is not what the film is about at all. Surely David Frost eclipsed expectation when getting Nixon to admit wrongdoing, but the movie itself is about how these two men met mano y mano. The film itself doesn't really take a side, and with that Langella is able to make so much more of his Nixon character than a curmudgeon politician, and is able to formulate a sometimes ferocious, sometimes charming destructive icon.

Sean Penn, MILK

Milk is an incredibly beautiful film, not only for its modern relevance with gay rights issues today, but because of its relevance with all human rights struggles throughout history. Penn, playing Harvey Milk, does some of the best work of his career. The performance is neither fearful of the homosexuality, nor is it exploitative of gay culture. Nobody cries foul for Harvey throughout the film (except for the film's ending), and he's not lionized into legendary status, but the character is so charismatic and enrapturing that its a wonder to watch him on the screen. In Penn's Oscar-winning performance in Mystic River, you could single out several scenes that really got him the award. Not so in Milk, the performance as a whole works strongly despite its lack of real 'actorly' flash.

Milk has one of the very best ensemble casts of 2008, but not one of the great performances in the film touches Penn. I'll admit that I am not incredibly knowledgable on Harvey Milk as a historical figure--about ninety-five percent of what I know of Milk I learned from this film--but the way he dissolves into the role is fantastic. Penn, a notorious Hollywood badboy, does his job so well that you never question the sexual prowess of the character--kind of like the EXACT OPPOSITE of when Rupert Everett attempts to play a straight man. Penn is already seen as an iconic actor within his generation, but this performance, along with Dead Man Walking and Mystic River, is a true cornerstone to a career that may be seen as one of the best ever.


Supposedly, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about a man who ages backwards. How come, then, is he born as an infant? Sure, he's all wrinkly and a doctor says he has the health of an old man, but he is still born as a baby, just ugly. It's things like this that make me scratch my head when I think of Benjamin Button. Surely, the work of director David Fincher is inspired visually, helped greatly by wondrous cinematography (dir. of pho.: Claudio Miranda) and top-notch special effects. But when I hear some say that Button is a rip-off of Forrest Gump (like its been accused of in this video) I feel doesn't give the either film proper justice, since Forrest Gump is an immensely entertaining film about those unexpected moments in life, while Benjamin Button is a gloomy, hum-drum film about death.

So, let's talk about Pitt. Like I did with Kate Winslet in the 'Best Actress' category, I'm going to talk about a 2008 Brad Pitt performance I enjoyed (why focus on the negative?): Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers film has a screenplay lined with inept characters, but Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is easily the most incompetent. As a gregarious gym employee who is intensely interested in useless CIA intelligence, Pitt encompasses an entire class of men who know nothing about life that isn't learned inside a locker room or on a bicycle. Sure, Chad meets himself with some very unfortunate circumstances in the movie, but even in his absence, the film is saturated by his presence.

Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

Much has been said of Rourke's big screen comeback in The Wrestler. The film has made the once troubled actor an envied talent once again. Once so cherished as a young man in films like Diner and Angel Heart, Rourke became a story of warning: tarnished by drug abuse, mishandled career choices, and basically immaturity. His fall from grace was so far down that many forgot about his thespian talents, and that there were many who considered him "the next Brando". To be sure, the title of "next Brando" has never been placed upon the most accomplished actors, but Rourke seemed at times to earn it. Now, at age 56, Rourke is given another opportunity to flex his muscles--literally--and he comes through with the performance of a lifetime.

There are certain movie roles and performances that are so perfect that you can't imagine anybody else playing the part. Most actors are never given their one big role. Pacino got his Dog Day Afternon, and Nicholson got his One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Now, Rourke was given the perfect character and he rose to the occasion. Rourke not only gives the best performance in this category, but the very best performance of the year--and its not that close. There's a magic that forms when there is that perfect blending of player and part, and the magic of watching Rourke play Randy "The Ram" Robinson is intoxicating. Some may say that the character's resemblance of Rourke's actual fortune may have helped, but I say range has nothing to do with it. This is one of the best acting jobs I've seen in a while, and Rourke has earned his comeback.

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