Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Supporting Actor Project: 2011

Back in November I promised you guys I’d be taking a look at the 1961 Supporting Actor race. It was part of my newly minted plan to take a year by year look at the least revered acting category of the Oscars’ – at least, that what it seems to be. No, I’ve not assessed the 1961 field yet (soon, I promise) but since it’s the Oscars’ tomorrow I decided I’d take a look at this year’s field and make my assessment. I’ve not even decided on my own supporting ballot as yet. Of the main eight categories it’s the one which is presenting the most difficult to me in narrowing it down to ten, much less five. For example, I think this ballot is the strongest of all the categories and yet I’m not sure if more than one might make it into my personal ballot. So, maybe assessing the Academy’s picks might make me decide on my own.
Winner: Christopher Plummer in Beginners
The Nominees: Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Two of these men have been sitting pretty for months now. Branagh was a threat for a nomination since he signed on and Plummer has been in the conversation since the very early release of Beginners. For some time it seemed as if they’d be joined by Albert Brooks in Drive a performance I was never very passionate about but one which achieved great support. One would imagine that he was the sixth nominee, although strong cases could be made for Pitt in The Tree of Life and Ben Kingsley in Hugo, both of them in Best Picture nominees. Then, there were those choices which never quite built momentum but seemed like strong contenders, like Viggo Mortensen with that Globe nod for A Dangerous Method or Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris and John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene who turned up in places, but never quite caught on. And, then, there were those performers who seemed to never be in the race like the entire Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy roster, or Ezra Miller in We Need to talk about Kevin. Still, Oscar didn’t do too bad – going for the surprising pick of Sydow (who seemed out of the conversation) and Nolte and Hill who were turning up everywhere, but still kept seeming like uncertainties.

I say, another strong slate of nominees from the AMPAS. This year, the supporting actors were their strongest picks, and it’s ironic how I give the overall slate here a lower grade than last year’s (when I thought THAT slate was the third best of the acting category), but I guess it goes to show what I think of the slate of nominees this year.

The Field: B

(And, hell, that’s a strong grade.)

How I’d Rank Them (Links take you to movie reviews, where available.)

Christopher Plummer in Beginners ★ ★ ★ ★
Plummer on his own exudes such an air of sanctity that the wave of sweetness that bathes the entire narrative of Beginners makes it easy to look at everyone, including the very flawed parents, through rose tinted glasses. Imagine if some other godly old man, say Morgan Freeman, was playing Hal. In that key scene where Oliver is probing him for the way his marriage worked I could see Freeman eschewing any sort of culpability in Hal which would rob the character of its melancholy which is essential (and Oliver of the catharsis, also essential). Plummer relishes those moments, though. And, the sanctity which seems to loom over Hal turns into not de facto old man wisdom, but actual learned moments deriving from a painful existence. But, he’s not intent on exploiting the sadness either, focused instead on delightful in little, specific things like new discoveries, completely knowledgeable about his state and moreover more able to accept the good with the bad (sharing his boyfriend, for example) and so steeped in the happiness of his “beginnings” that he almost sadly dole out advice to his son. Also, that gleeful chuckle after the house music discovery.

Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn ★ ★ ★ ★
The Laurence Oliver that Kenneth Branagh must play becomes a more difficult creation to pull off than the Marilyn Monroe which Michelle Williams must. For one, despite his constant appearance in the film his character is strategically presented as a plot point both for Marilyn and Colin to use at their behest, and two, the film doesn’t much care for him in the straight sense. His inclinations all seem hollow and his arc seems protracted. And, he’s already playing an actor that so many know and that he’s been compared to before. What to do, what to do. What Branagh does is turn in a gargantuan performance that seems hardly interested in evoking Olivier in the truest sense of the word (but one which recalls him in the slightest bits). The film is no comedy, it knows that but Branagh’s robust performance suggests otherwise as he torpedoes through the film deliberately calling attention to the performance, not because he’s showboating (or, better put, not because he’s showboating alone) but because the character of Olivier he is playing is a showboat. Also, when Michelle is at her best, she gets it, but Branagh is the only one who completely and consistently gets the bauble like sweet-silliness of it all in his line readings, one of them a favourite: “Marilyn, Marilyn. You are an angel and I kiss the hem of your garment but why can’t you get here on time for the love of FUCK.”

Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ★ ★ ★
The film is such a character specific outpour from its decidedly distinct protagonist means that Sydow’s Renter in a great way his role is a reactionary one. Considering, too, that the performance is a wordless one means that it’s not just reactionary, it’s reactionary. Those bits we might consider extraneous in a performance with words become key indication so character-specific sensibilities. The gestures, and the facial expressions – yes, but also, the way he picks up the pen to write, the slowness (or quickness) with which he raises his hands, the way you can almost see him internalising everything Oskar tells him. The character really is only the peripherals, though, even though his work and his tagging along with Oskar more than any of the supporting players tricks us into thinking he’s more indelible. For example, when the narrative loses a need for him the film doesn’t suffer but we miss him because of how good he was. Bonus points, though, for his few seconds at the end where he all but lumbers in behind Okar’s grandmother expressing not just with his face but with complete physicality potentially elusive, but still significant happiness.

Jonah Hill in Moneyball ★ ★ ★
Hill’s first scene plays out like a mixed bag. Well, not his first scene, but his first real scene which is in two parts opposite Pitt where the older man is trying to suss out this young economist. Hill is, presumably, playing up the nervousness of Peter but seems decidedly ill-at-ease which is odd for a character who is a nervous type but generally comfortable in his idiosyncrasies, and considering he owes Billy nothing it doesn’t work as an honest character tic. Still, it’s the only part of the film where I find him to be particularly objectionable. I believe in everything that Brand does. This is the sort of guy I’d imagine adds number in his heads, or one that will bashfully high-five his boss after doing something good. And, perhaps, it doesn’t exist on something is quite the level of a virtuoso (which is, of course, debatable) he succeeds where it’s most necessary in making it look unforced.

Nick Nolte in Warrior ★ ★
Like all members of the main acting quartet in Warrior (because, yes, the film wants to ignore it but Jennifer Morrison is a part of it) Nolte is giving a much better performance than the film itself deserves. Conversely, though, he’s the one who comes off as seeming least able to overcome the dodgy and often unsophisticated issues of the film, itself – and this is because he seems unable to combat the non-character he’s playing with. The “narrative” is exasperating specious about examining just what these skeletons are that this family has in its closet and Nolte frustrates by alternately evading the issue and then sporadically slipping into caring father mode which is, often, the film’s issues but he doesn’t help it much by at times qualifying his performance by turning it into a more growling perspective of Tom Wingo. It’s sort of why the performance feels like too much and too little at once. And, more exasperating is seeing the moments he gets it so gloriously right– ironically, those moments the narrative seems least interested in examining – like weighing the dilemma in having to choose with choice to put his support behind. Yes, there’s an incomplete man here, but Nolte at least makes him diverting.
Curiously, but then again perhaps not, I’ve noticed almost everyone noting how terrible a field the Academy put together this year. And even though I’d bounce a slew of them from my actual ballot, this is a solid group of gentlemen, I think.


But, what of you? A good batch or an embarrassing one? Plummer all the way, or do you spy a more deserving winner?


Alex in Movieland said...

wow, I kinda agree with you this time! :) I also have Plummer as number 1 and Branagh as number 2. My 3rd is Nolte (I've heard a lot of his Oscar scenes were left on the editing floor). To me, he was exactly what the role required.

Max is my 4th, and Jonah my 5th. I don't hate any of the performances, which is rather surprising (you might remember I disliked your darling Mark Ruffalo last year).

Of course, no such line-up should exist without Brad Pitt for The Tree of Life.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

alex yay for agreements. what did you think of mwwm (more than a month i haven't reviewed it). kenneth and christopher are both delightful to me, and i like the others in turn. but, yes, pitt not being here is a shame.

Paolo said...

I don't know why I'm giving Jonah Hill more slack because he's playing against type. Not that I've seen enough of the movies that he plays type...

Alex in Movieland said...

I thought My Week with Marilyn was pretty bad. Like a 5/10... :) and we will surely disagree once I go back to my Best Actress 2011, as I'm not that much of a fan of Michelle's.
I thought Branagh was fine. Dame Judi was fine. The only thing the film made me curious about was Paula Strasberg, and I doubt that was the purpose of MwwM... And Julia Ormond - such a poor poor choice to play Viv. In my opinion, both Marilyn & Viv should've been played by unfamiliar faces.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

paolo i know he was in knocked up which i saw, i can't say of the rest. he's good, as words suggest. but he seems limited, hopefully i'm wrong.

alex the film is a bit of a strange one for me, i find it easy to watch but so strangely focused. there are bits where michelle seems forced, and there are others where i think she's just divine, and i think branagh is just great.