Monday, February 2, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actor


Josh Brolin, MILK

Last year, everybody said that Josh Brolin had "arrived". He had extensive roles in several pictures, including a misogynistic superior in In The Valley of Elah, and a corrupt, smart-ass police detective in American Gangster. But let's not get misguided as to what was truly Brolin's breakthrough: the lead character of the Coen Brothers masterpiece No Country For Old Men. The film was a stirring, perfect piece of cinema, and Brolin was the main star of it all. He embraced the main character of Lwellyn Moss, but come awards time, other heavy-hitters pushed him out. So, how does Brolin follow up that year? Well, for one, he does an exceptional job impersonating a disgraced president in W., but more importantly, he played Dan White in Milk.

To be fair, Milk is filled with a number of exquisite supporting performances to back up the main star, Sean Penn. Brolin, though, does a stupendous job of making the stage his whenever he's on the screen. White, a homophobic politician who would become the eventual assailant of Harvey Milk is a deeply disturbed man with twisted fantasies that interrupt the conservative ways he's been taught to believe all his life. Was Dan White a homosexual? Well, the film certainly leads you to believe so, but that is hardly the point. What Brolin is able to do with White--create a horrific, but still empathetic portrait of a strait-laced man breaking down--is masterful acting. After 2007, people realized that Brolin was much more than just a country boy with a sweet mustache. After Milk, they realized that he is truly one the best actors in the game today.

Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

Years from now, people may look back at this nomination and scratch their heads--the Academy actually recognized broad comedy? Interestingly enough, this nomination has seemed, now, to be a long time coming. Downey Jr., a true thematic chameleon since he first burst onto the scene, has had a much publicized roller coaster career. Constantly battling drug abuse and eventual jail time, nothing has ever prevented Downey Jr. from embracing his roles to their fullest potentials. No matter what he does in his own life, it's always a wonder to watch him up on the screen. Of coarse, his more successful film from 2008 was the comic book film Iron Man--a film in which its success is almost forgotten because of The Dark Knight. That film cemented Downey Jr.'s comeback, so what else for him to do?

How about a satire co-written and directed by Ben Stiller. That description alone certainly isn't something that screams Oscar nonination, but seeing is believing as Downey Jr. becomes a character so entrenched in vanity and self-congratulatory mannerisms, it's almost impossible not to laugh hysterically. As "five-time Oscar winner" Kirk Lazarus, Downey Jr. plays upon the bad-boy images of touted actors Russell Crowe, and the puzzling method acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, all while maintaining a certain objectivity as to point the finger at all actors. As Lazarus dyes his skin brown to play an African American character, nobody says a thing, except his black co-star. It's a performance of comedic genius, and an example of Downey Jr.'s unbelievable versatility and charisma.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT

Interesting piece of trivia: Hoffman is the only actor nominated this year who was also nominated last year as well. I point that out for two reasons: for one, Oscar noms usually tend to come in bunches for actors and having only one holdover is rare; also, because Hoffman has quickly emerged to a point in his career where he has become a default nomination. True, all of the principal actors within Doubt were nominated, but Hoffman has truly gained "best actor of his generation" status since his win for Capote in 2005. Not that I'm complaining, Hoffman has been a brilliant and versatile thespian since the mid-90's, riveting in such films as Magnolia and Happiness. On top of that, he has accomplished all of this with a physique that does not cry out movie star, and that is always to be commended.

But let's stick to Doubt, and Hoffman's Father Flynn. The movie itself revolves around the obligatory question: did he do it? In search of guilt, a nun goes through a unseemly means to prove her intuition that Father Flynn may have, in fact, sexually abused a child at a Catholic School. The casting of Hoffman is interesting, when you consider that Flynn's guilt is meant to always be up in the air, and Hoffman has a history of playing grimy figures. That aside, Hoffman brings great warmth to the character, inparticularly in the inpromptu scenes not directly involved with the film's mystery plot. Speaking with the young boys, laughing with the towns church cardinals, Hoffman creates a gregarious man who isn't afraid to defend himself in a boisterous manner. Doubt may flub in some areas of its story construction, but it never does with its actors, and Hoffman is no exception.


Is it a long-gone conclusion that Ledger will win the Oscar posthumously? Probably. It's a shame, since it seems like too little too late, especially after his loss for the tremendous, generation-defining performance in Brokeback Mountain. Win or loss, one thing is true: no other performance from last year has had a stronger effect on audiences and critics alike. In the Batman series, The Joker is a character that we as viewers feel we have already defined in our minds. Particularly, we know that he's a sadist, equipped with a wicked wit and an unquenchable thirst for mayhem. He was defined by the zany antics of Cesar Romero in the 1960's Batman televison program, and then encaptured by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman. So like I said, everything we know about the Joker is pre-supposed.

Then, not only does Ledger do a great job in the role, but he revolutionizes everything we'd ever thought about the character. Adding an anarchic, self-loathing aspect to the Joker, this version is no longer fun, nor is he particulary fear-enducing. It's the length at which Ledger goes to express this Joker's anguish that makes him so compelling. Does he want total chaos? Well, the meticulous nature in which he orchestrates the said chaos is a complete contradiction of that. It is not chaos that this Joker wants, but he wants suffering. We don't know about the Joker's past, but Ledger expresses enough in his stream-of-concious monologues to know that he has lead a life of pain. All he wants from life is for the whole world to share his pain, and he is just demented enough to pull it off.


Michael Shannon has been kicking around the film industry for the last couple of years playing unsightly characters within harsh films such as Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and Bug, but when you cast a film with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, you expect them to own every scene that they're in. That's true, except for two scenes, and those are the two scenes that involve Shannon. Playing John Givings, a formerly brilliant mathematician, now deranged due to shock therapy treatment, Michael Shannon is flabergasting, ripping through his dialogue with such ferociousness that nobody else on the screen can be seen. Surely, it's a credit to screenwriter Justin Haythe that the character is so rich, but Shannon takes a character that can easily be seen as a sack crazy man, and makes him intricate to the story.

As the story goes, John therapy treatments may have effected his math skills and more or less his judgement, but it has not effected his honesty. Staring at the phony harmony in which Frank and Arpil Wheeler attempt to display their haggard marraige, John goes out of his way to expose them for what they are: a quixotic couple who will never fully grasps their ambitions. What Shannon does with the character is interesting, because he is supposed to be antagonizing for almost the entire time that he's on the screen, yet when he is there, there is no other character that seems more sensible. Brewing with agressiveness and an itch to start trouble, it's Shannon's miracle that John does not come off pithy or annoying. It's always fun to see an actor of Shannon's versatile ability, yet limited star appeal, get recognition.

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