My Thoughts: We now move into the Big 4, and we’ll see if I continue my Academy-matching ways (we’ve yet to have all four of the acting winners match up with Oscar…and oddly enough I’ve yet to agree with the Academy in a lead race). The men of 2009 are kind of titans of acting-all but one have picked up an Oscar, and he’s the youngest of the bunch so it could still happen. In fact, since I’m always on the hunt for a segway and whom to start with, we’ll go with the guy still hunting for that first Oscar: Jeremy Renner.
Renner’s work as Sergeant First Class William James is the sort of acting that feels like an acquired taste. There’s a dominant force in film criticism that seems to value this sort of he-man higher than most-the brooding tough guy, driven to the brink of madness (or perhaps over the edge into its abyss), operating within his own spiraling inferno. To say this is Renner’s finest work is both obvious and insulting, since he’s never really done anything since that was remotely as important or as riveting. I love the way that he interacts with himself in the film, the inner demons that he is constantly addressing. Renner isn’t quite as good when he’s trying to find connections with his fellow actors-he falls far into clichéd machismo and male-bonding, but that’s not to say there isn’t something very worthwhile in what he’s doing.
Colin Firth also excels in his own personal demons in A Single Man. A stylish gay period piece, the film is at first glance more about actors-as-props, but Firth finds something within his character that shows it’s more than the sum-of-its-parts, and brings that out in two of his key costars (a splashy and fabulous Julianne Moore and an unnervingly sexy Nic Hoult). You don’t have to have him address his deeply inhibited sexuality to understand that he’s become a master of control, and this break in his life (the death of his partner) is a life-changing shot. The vein of suicide runs through the film, but Firth’s performance is also informed with the sense of what-to-do-next. That’s the real thing that frightens him, that his life could go on without his Jim. I love the way that that’s the thing that starts to push Firth’s George toward the end of the film. That combination of stuffy, period-informed repression and deeply conflicted emotion that he dare not speak of-that’s the stuff of great acting, and that’s what Firth is giving here (he, too, gives his best performance in this movie, and that’s a slightly more complimentary statement considering the breadth of his body of work).
I’m not quite sure if George Clooney is also doing career best (I really need to re-view Michael Clayton before we get into 2007), but his Ryan Bingham is definitely one of his ballsier creations. I remember people talking about how Clooney plays himself in every movie, and in some ways that’s true (he’s frequently the dapper man-with-a-twinkle), but Ryan Bingham is an inverted, darker version of Clooney, and probably his ballsiest role choice to date. In some ways he’s similar to George, in the way that he has to encounter a part of his life that he’s long since avoided, but here it’s his impending age. Because that’s what rings through Up in the Air-the threat of missed opportunities. Clooney makes his Ryan a man confident that he made the decisions he should have made, and yet smart enough to know when to drop his guard and self-assuredness. There are no great epiphany moments like we’re used to in a movie with his mistress Alex, but Clooney knows to put them in the way he cuts words at her and restrains his face. It’s a truly marvelous piece of work from an actor that, even in his over-celebrated current Academy state, doesn’t often get enough credit for his ability to escape into a role.
Jeff Bridges is an actor that is celebrated as a chameleon, however, and he gets to that point in Crazy Heart, where he plays yet another hang loose personality. Bridges is one of those actors (in some similar ways to Brad Pitt) that makes relaxed look easy onscreen, and I think some people assume that’s the actor behind the performance. However, there’s clearly an artistry in the way that he pushes Bad Blake through all of these scenes. Most actors would have had his drinking seem over-the-top and exaggerated, but Bridges holds back in some scenes, only having his later moments, when he’s just slipping, be truly informed by the wild swings within his character. Bridges understands that this is a man consumed by decades of alcohol, not just two hours worth, and doesn’t give us everything the character has been through. He also finds a hope within the way that he sings, and pines for the dream career that has long since passed him by that is now given to the younger Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell…another actor who makes it all look easy). Bridges is hampered by something that Clooney and Firth don’t have to deal with (he’s not in a good movie), but that doesn’t keep his Bad Blake down-being the best in his film doesn’t stop him from being one of the best of the year.
Finally, there’s Morgan Freeman in Invictus. I feel I do myself a disservice by discussing this too harshly. I mean, it’s perfect casting. Morgan Freeman was born to play Nelson Mandela, and this is a film that had to be made. I just wish he’d been given a better movie to do it in, to be honest. Freeman hits all of the right notes, and though he does some of the things that people accuse George Clooney of (relying on his persona, which he does to help sell some of the schmaltzier moments in the script), there’s still an informed light behind his eyes. I think there’s something to be said for being the right person for the right role at the right time, even if I don’t think this is as great as either Freeman or Eastwood could have delivered (the film relies too heavily on pushing the point of harmony and less on selling the actual script).
Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes found room for all but Renner in their lineup, skipping him in the drama race in favor of Tobey Maguire in Brothers (the Globes didn’t really go for The Hurt Locker), a nomination I don’t think anyone assumed was possible (Bridges won). The Comedy/Musical nominees included Robert Downey Jr. for Sherlock Holmes (the winner), Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine, Matt Damon in The Informant!, Michael Stuhlberg in A Serious Man, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer. The SAG Awards found a carbon copy of the Oscar list, both in terms of nominees and the winners. The BAFTA went to Colin Firth (country pride), and skipped Freeman (huh?) for Andy Serkis in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (double huh). As far as sixth place, I have no clue. This was clearly the list that was getting nominated (I would assume sixth place was extremely distant). Perhaps Viggo Mortenson in The Road or Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine? That’s my best bet.
Actors I Would Have Nominated: This is, all things considered, a very strong list, particularly considering the field. I would have probably included Gordon-Levitt and I admittedly have never seen The Road, but there’s not a lot to quibble with.
Oscar’s Choice: Feeling the insane pressure to finally honor a well-respected industry veteran, Jeff Bridges took out George Clooney and Colin Firth, in that order.
My Choice: I’m going to go with Firth, with Clooney a closer-than-expected second. I will put Bridges in third, followed by Renner, and then Freeman, though I don’t want that to sound like Freeman is last as I still think that was a worthwhile performance to be had.