Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Supporting Actor Project: 2012


Remember my Supporting Actor project which was begun last year simply because the supporting actors are uniformly the most forgotten of the six major Oscar categories and I was interested in delving into the field? I produced my personal ballot for the year in February and meant to get on with posting my thoughts on the actual Oscar ballot, but whoops. That didn’t happen. So, eight months later here goes… Still, spending the last two weeks rewatching the performances intermittently I was reminded that my lateness in posting this was as much a case of irresponsibility on my part as it was a reluctance to even consider this slate of nominees after the ceremony. Because, boy was 2012 a bleak year for this category.

Winner: Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
The Nominees: Alan Arkin Argo
Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Evaluating the Field: Even as I found the slate of nominees impressive, with the exception of Arkin who most people seemed reluctant to bat for, each of the nominees had their champions and the race seemed like surefire bet for Jones and then a two-horse race between Jones and Waltz with De Niro as a likely spoiler. Waltz sailing across too win both the Golden Globe and BAFTA seemed to spell out his triumph, though; an oddity, somewhat, considering that he was still not a certain predicted nominee in November. Aaah, November 2012, a more peaceable time when young (relative to the nominees at least) potential spoilers like Leonardo DiCaprio (Golden Globe nominated) or Matthew McConaughey were being touted, or later curveballs like SAG nominated Javier Bardem seemed likely. But what we were left with was a slate of nominees where the average age was 62 and a total of 66 Oscars among them with 12 additional nominations. The tally makes the fact that this is the field we got that much less exciting when you consider with the exception of one, the actors are all playing variations on types they've played before and better. It's a real shame considering the types of performances that were passed up from some game actors offering sides of themselves we rarely see (DiCaprio, Law) or offering up profound takes on personalities we've seen them play before (McConaughey, McGregor, Jackson.)

My ballot: HERE

The Field: D+

(How'd I'd rank them, links takes you to "reviews")

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master ★ ★ ★ ★
The second time around didn't make me warm anymore to The Master, in fact I may have been even more disenchanted with its abstruseness without reason; but this time around I'm even more struck at how good Hoffman is.  Hoffman has always been an actor I like more often than not but even I will admit that playing things close to his vest has never been his best attribute. In that way, Hoffman's Dodd is something like Geoffrey Rush's Logue in The King's Speech - an actor especially good at scene-stealing plays it softer both to give his lead actor a better chance to shine and to the film work better. Those early scenes between Freddie and Lancaster are giving Phoenix significantly more to work with so it's to Hoffman's large credit that just by reacting to Freddie he's projecting so much information about his character and his fascination with this bizarre man. The processing scenes, one of the few moments where the film completely works for me, work as much because of Phoenix giving it all as it does because Hoffman is right there matching him. It's this groundwork of quiet that makes his obnoxious moments (snapping at a disbeliever, or exasperated with Dern's insistent follower) that much more insidious and intriguing. And it's not until you think back you realise that the film functions on the point that we really no little about Dodd for all the time we spend with him, making the image of this realistic person we're presented with that much more impressive.

From Hoffman at the top, here's how I'd rank the rest...

Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained ★ ★
A small change here, another adjustment there and it’s very well likely that I could really like this performance. As it stands, though, the performance that we are given by Waltz is not one that I’m wholly dissatisfied with even if I find it difficult to completely impugn it on literal level. For a movie I like fairly enough it’s baffling how the two lead performances of Django Unchained are such ciphers in the strangest of ways. Waltz’s Dr. King has much to do and even more to say but in all aspects it fails to register. Who is this man? It’s as much the fault of a script which tells us many things about him (he’s bilingual, he’s witty to a fault, he’s effortful but charming) except the things which matter most – what does he really think of Django? With so many criminals to catch, why the interest in these particular ones? What does he do with his life before Django? Asides like him clucking at Django the same way he clucks at his horse in the beginning reveal greyer aspects than the talkative but the not very nuanced character Tarantino gives us. Presented with a gargantuan amount of dialogue to play (he’s carrying most of the film’s first half) Waltz plays him Schultz credibly and charmingly and maybe (significantly) I'd be warmer to this performance if it didn't seem to exist simply to give Waltz the chance to play a silver-tongued, well-meaning but still somewhat of a cardboard creation of a man. Oh, certainly, he recites his lines well but I've seen the film three times now and I still can't weigh in in significantly on who this man is. More the fault of the script than Waltz, probably and yet I'm not as moved by the performance to truly care why.

Alan Arkin in Argo ★ ★
Alan Arkin doesn’t do very much in Argo. This was the uniform criticism against Arkin’s place as a perennial nominee all season last year and I’m as willing to acknowledge that as any even though this is my third favourite of the performances. A case of slim pickings? You betcha and yet... The dividing line between Arkin’s slight performance here and a similarly slight but genuinely very good performance like Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love is two-fold. For one, Argo doesn’t make as good use of Lester Siegel as well as it could because as much as I do like Argo it isn’t as certain of its irreverent aspects to stay where it plays best (a Hollywood picture with touches of Iran would be more effective than a picture in Iran with touches of Hollywood, but I digress). There’s also the case, though, that even with more screen-time than someone like Dench’s eight minutes there is not much depth to Lester. Sure, that scene where he silently allows the Hollywood big shot to embarrass him before showing his cards speaks to a potential sadness beneath but the film isn’t quite interested in exploring that, or even observing it from a distance. It’s the most fun of the performances to watch (even more than Waltz) because Arkin is enjoying playing this sometimes funny rascal but like with Waltz and Schultz there's the sense that Lester isn’t written as a real person but as a sometimes-funny aside. Any emotional dexterity is left on Affleck’s Mendez as the film's close force us to contemplate his life, and Arkin’s Lester though enjoyable when on screen fails to truly register when he’s not.

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln 
Chalk this one up to the most significant divide me and the general consensus on an Oscar nominated performance of the last decade. With the exception of Hoffman each of the supporting actors are playing some variation on their own selves and it's true that Tommy Lee Jones on the whole is just not a particularly enticing venture for me but when I consider that in the same year Tommy Lee Jones being Tommy Lee Jones was one of my top thirteen lead performances, even I can't quite account for how inconsequential this performances comes across to me. It does not help that I'm not  very fond of Lincoln which though immaculately mounted and sincerely made fails to register as little more than a well-intentioned history lesson. My favourite moment of Jones comes opposite Field at the Inaugural Ball where fending off Field's lioness-First Lady one can understand how this implacable man only becomes more stolid when having to deal with people he does not quite like but otherwise for all the moments he has I am left stolidly unmoved. I second-guess my grading of him just because it suggests a shoddy performance, which on a technical it is not but even I can't find it when a performance so uniformly fails to register with me.

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
I hesitate to say that this is a terribly acted performance, but there were so many moments in the film where I found myself watching and going: "What are you doing Robert?!" There are many things working against Robert De Niro, here, though. For one, he's the crux behind the film's most problematic arc, that of Pat's final dance moment hedging on a bet his father makes. De Niro is stuck playing a variation on a single theme Pat Sr has a short fuse and it's not so much that playing variations on a single theme leads to poor performances but De Niro in particularly unimpressive form is doing little to aid himself within the confines of the script so that he's roundly out-acted by Cooper (his main scene partner) in every scene they share. I'm no less positive on Silver Linings Playbook this time around, but when it gets bits right it's especially pleasant to watch but for De Niro who arguably the film's finest actor seems to be the one doing the most floundering. His moments with Wever suggests something of the suburban older couple content to grow older, but their relationship is given sparse attention by the film allowing him to go nowhere with that arc. His illusory take on Pat Sr is as headspinning a the film's frenetic camera-movements and after seeing how he's tried at making true drivel workable in something like Meet the Fockers it makes his turn as Pat Sr. all the more perplexing.

PREVIOUSLY: 2011, 2010

Up next: 1961, and 1993

I know, though, each of these men - except Arkin, perhaps, - has a staunch defender in my blogging buddies but I'm curious if the entire field registers as uninspired for everyone else as it does for me.

We're heading into the 2013 race at full speed but think back to 2012. How did the Supporting Actors measure up for you?


Brittani Burnham said...

With the exception of Hoffman and Waltz, whom I think rightfully earned their noms, last year's supporting actor race felt a little too safe. I'm hoping it's more interesting this year, and gets more first time nominees.

Emma Farley said...

Hi! I've nominated you for a blogger award. The link won't be live until 5pm Tuesday though.

I miss my old film blogging days (I had Final Cut) and would love it if you would check out the film section of my blog or the guest posts I write for aliljoy.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I think I remember saying last year that this was kind of a solid lineup. Certainly Waltz (who made my Lead Actor ballot) and Hoffman (sixth on the same ballot) belonged here, and a win for either would have been wholly satisfying -- **** for each.

Tommy Lee Jones was also outstanding, a character I felt I really knew. His soft-voiced approach to the acid tongue reminded me of some of the men in my family, and let you in on that more tender side before the final revelation. ****

Alan Arkin, I felt, had a lot going on with his character, and it's interesting that you don't highlight his sad convo with Affleck about the family he missed as a possible contribution to his nomination. He gets *** from me.

Agreed on De Niro, though. What the hell was happening there?