Wednesday, May 25, 2016

OVP: Actor (2014)

OVP: Best Actor (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

My Thoughts: I told you we'd be tackling these at a clip (it seems people are enjoying the OVP write-ups, for which I am most grateful and happy).  We now move into the Best Actor category, the one where generally you're tackling titans of acting, and where the nominations are relatively clubby, but in a weird twist only one of these men, the one who arguably had the toughest time actually getting his nomination, is a previous nominee.  Otherwise we have two relative British newcomers, a former movie star best known for donning a leather suit, and a comedian most famed for his work on a British import.  All-in-all, this is, even if most of these nominations were predicted, on paper one of the stranger slates of nominees I've encountered in the usually very traditional Best Actor field.

We'll start with the youngster of the bunch, Eddie Redmayne, who was only the eighth youngest man ever to pick up an Academy Award in this category (ahead of him are such luminaries as Daniel Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando, and Jimmy Stewart, so there's a lot to live up to in order to not be, say, Adrien Brody, who has the all-time record).  Redmayne's work here is pretty much the stuff that Oscar bait dreams are made of, as he's playing a real-life figure with an inspiring story who also has a severe disability that he overcomes.  He technically also has an accent, though as it's the same one that Redmayne has in real life I don't know that we should count that in terms of AMPAS points.  Redmayne is quite good early on in the film, as his natural charm (he was born to play a Jane Austen love interest-why has no one done that yet?) flits through, but as the film progresses putting him into the realm of mostly physical acting he loses a lot of that ability.  Honestly, I've never been as wowed by something that is mostly technical and checking boxes, as this looks difficult to do, but we don't give out Oscars for athletic achievement (otherwise Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone would have more of them).  Redmayne's beginning is a delight, and he manages to have sparkling chemistry in his romantic run-ups with Jones, but overall the second half loses a lot of that spark and the script isn't giving enough to let Redmayne really shine.

Redmayne's chief rival for the Oscar was one of those guys that frequently finds himself an Oscar nominee late in his career, but never seems to be able to pull off the win.  Michael Keaton joined Peter Fonda and Mickey Rooney as a former matinee idol with a bit of a reputation who shows that he still has the goods to be able to deliver a knockout performance.  His Riggan is about as brave as a movie star can get onscreen, eschewing vanity (though for a man in his sixties Keaton is in pretty good shape to be running through Time Square in his underwear), and lambasting his own persona, both in that his core fame is from wearing a mask to his famously difficult offscreen persona during the Batman 3 years.  Keaton makes Riggan insane enough to clearly be deranged, but a good enough actor to maintain believability that people wouldn't notice he's completely off-his-rocker (or don't want to because he's a star that can't be challenged).  It's a wonderful performance, really something that I never would have expected from Keaton, and lands a difficult, complicated, but ultimately terrific picture.

Steve Carell is also an actor that defied expectations in 2014, getting his first Academy Award nomination for a very hard-nosed drama after a career that has focused almost exclusively on comedy.  Carell was never one of those comedic actors, however, who I didn't think would excel at drama-quite frankly it felt like it would be his forte.  Michael Scott on The Office was a humorous creation, but frequently (in the first couple of seasons) a vindictive one and (in later seasons) a tragic one, so Carell's abilities were never in doubt.  What was, and is an unfortunate side effect of Foxcatcher is his inability to take his comedian's pizzazz and timing and infuse it into this piece of work.  Instead, what we get here is a serious case of tic-acting, with Carell relying too heavily on his prosthetic nose and not actually giving us anything within this character.  Even when he's alone, when we should be able to see something, Carell is just performing, never really inhabiting the character, which is a shame as this feels like the sort of creation that could have been an all-time great persona for the actor.

This is exactly the same trap that Benedict Cumberbatch falls into with The Imitation Game.  Cumberbatch, unlike Carell, has never turned in a performance that has wowed me, but I do get the appeal.  He's intensely charming off-screen, and he tends to be a lovely human being who winks hard at his rabid fanbase, but his acting choices (and his agent's choices for his career) are so boring.  The script is not helping him in any capacity, of course, but it's worth noting that his choices to fill in the holes in the script aren't great.  He frequently reacts to every scene as yet another one to moan or have a prissy rejoinder (underlining the HOMOSEXUAL aspect of the script without, you know, actually having any moments where he believably is attracted to a man, just to a computer).  Cumberbatch's big scenes, the ones where he's crying or trying to take on Joan he fails miserably-the overacting doesn't quite match the film he's in, which is trying to be a straight, serious biopic, and he's too busy feasting on the scenery.

The final nomination is a quandary for me, as it's from one of the least of these films, and yet the performance, the central performance (no side ones) has grown considerably in my estimation in the years since, to the point where I think it might be Bradley Cooper's finest work so far.  Cooper is an actor I think we all underestimated initially since he was starring in buddy comedies and looks like a male model you put on your vision board.  But his acting prowess and trio of Oscar nominations were relatively well-earned, and I love the way that he projects in American Sniper.  So much of his performance is informed by a man who wants to be at war, who sees the world in black-and-white and who is also haunted by demons he doesn't understand and frequently doesn't wish to acknowledge.  Clint Eastwood doesn't give us enough interesting things to do with Cooper, which hurts the performance slightly, but I am mesmerized by the things that Cooper is able to bring to a relatively stock character that, say, Mark Wahlberg didn't a year earlier in the (better film) Lone Survivor.  His Chris Kyle is someone very human, but believably from Middle America and with a conservative viewpoint, and not just a liberal in red clothes as so frequently happens in films depicting conservative viewpoints.

Other Precursor Contenders: We start with the Globes, which distinguish between Drama and "Comedy" (a term that gets looser and looser every year), so in the dramatic lineup, which usually is the one that gets us our nominations, we have Redmayne, Carell, and Cumberbatch alongside David Oyelowo (Selma) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), with Redmayne winning, while Michael Keaton in Comedy triumphed over Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Bill Murray (St. Vincent), Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes), and Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice).  The SAG Awards doubled-down on Oscars' winner, but excused Bradley Cooper in favor of Jake Gyllenhaal, while the BAFTA Awards also went with Redmayne as their victor but cut both Cooper and Carell (who was nominated in supporting) for Gyllenhaal and Fiennes.  For all of the comments afterwards about David Oyelowo not getting nominated, it's fairly clear that it was Jake Gyllenhaal who was most upset and the likely sixth place when Bradley Cooper came to town.
Actors I Would Have Nominated: For starters, Jake Gyllenhaal, who is giving what I'd call the performance of a lifetime in Nightcrawler, but honestly Gyllenhaal is so consistent (and even better in Brokeback Mountain) that his wait for a second nomination has gotten laughable at this point and performance of a lifetime isn't quite accurate.  I'd also throw in Fiennes, doing his best comedic bit since In Bruges, along with Oscar Isaac's introverted mobster in A Most Violent Year and the best actor in Foxcatcher who for some reason (perhaps his beauty, which scares off people in this category) never got cited by a major awards body: Channing Tatum.  Tatum's work in that film is still staggering, breathing life into a lumbering brute of a character.
Oscar’s Choice: While at times it felt like Michael Keaton would take this trophy, in the end the Academy couldn't deny newcomer Eddie Redmayne over the comeback kid.
My Choice: An easy choice for Keaton, hands-down the best of this five.  I'd honestly follow him with Cooper, Redmayne and then...ugh, maybe Cumberbatch and finally Carell.  Those last two are really digging the bottom of the barrel.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Do you side with the awards consensus of Eddie Redmayne, or do you think that the Birdman should have flown here?  Why do you think Jake Gyllenhaal couldn't seal the deal here?  And what am I missing in the Cumberbatch love-is there a performance I have to catch to get the devotion?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Actor Contests: 200820092010201120122013

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