My Thoughts: And now we have come to the acting categories-that top six categories that aren't just "really, XX film won another one?" or "do you want to make more popcorn?" during the ceremony while you're watching at home, but the pins-and-needles, "I wonder if they'll say something political or funny?" types of moments when you're watching the actual Oscars. Here we have five men, four of whom are arguably most famous for parts in superhero movies, and the fifth of which is an acting legend who with this nod got a staggering seventh nomination over forty years after his first. I really don't want to start with him as I love him as a performer and hated this movie, but it's time to eat our vegetables (or in this case, Velveeta and battery acid).
The Judge was the worst film of 2014. I remember watching the movie just a couple of days before the Oscars as I wanted to be a completist but had avoided it like the plague, but knew it would make it for something with a cast and crew like this. Duvall was the sole citation for the film, and it's easy to see why the Academy went for it-he's a wonderful actor being given a series of big speeches to bluster through, selling the hell out of each of them with enough bombast to make Brian Dennehy say "whoa, pull back a little." The performance, though, is not good and runs counter to the quieter moments of The Godfather that made Duvall a great actor in the first place. The picture is dreadful, but Duvall is unable to sell the moments where he throws away his career and reputation trying to teach his son a lesson. It doesn't help that the script genuinely doesn't make any sense, but Duvall should have at least brought more dignity to the role. The nomination seems to have been an acknowledgement from the Academy for an actor they admire (who clearly wanted this nomination something fierce-he campaigned hard for it) in a relatively weak year for this category, but that's not forgivable and it's not like Duvall hadn't already been amply (and justly) rewarded before.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to Duvall is JK Simmons, the only person in this field who was on his very first nomination. Simmons has long been a character actor that you recognize as being reliable, a nice guy, and virtually everywhere (he was weirdly even in a dream I had Saturday night). Giving him this moment-in-the-sun, especially with such a loud character as Terence Fletcher, was bound to give him the long attention that he deserved, but while I like the sentiment here (especially in supporting categories it's great to see a longtime character actor finally get some love), the performance is mostly underplayed. Simmons delivers each yell and scream with a fierceness that has to be admired, and his character occasionally is duplicitous in an interesting way, but it's hard to see the nuance here-his Terence is all surface, rarely anything more. I've said this before, but while I like the idea of little backstory into this man (villains without a reason for their villainy are always more terrifying), it doesn't seem possible that Andrew is the first student that got the best of his ego considering how easily he does it. Simmons isn't helped by a script that doesn't quite know what to do with Fletcher until the end of the picture, but I feel like he should have found a soul somewhere in that body, even if it was damaged and hollow. Plus, there's no denying this is clearly a leading role, which has to lose some points from the get-go (category fraud is still category fraud even if you're not a headliner).
Speaking of headliners, let's move onto former major movie star Ethan Hawke, who seems to now spend his forties alternating between random horror movies and Richard Linklater pictures. Hawke's work in Boyhood in many ways borrows from his real-life persona, and in a couple of ways from his most iconic role as Jesse in the Before trilogy. I love the way that his hapless loser never really finds his moment-in the-sun, but as the years go by he still finds happiness in what was initially given to him. This is one of many wonderful observations made by Richard Linklater (the way this movie mirrors life is truly special), but Hawke's Mason is someone that probably never really realized that his dreams didn't come true in the way he hoped, and only reflects on it late in the night, with a beer in hand. It's a wonderfully fresh look at the parental figure, perhaps because we get to see his evolution in a way we never really could in any other film. The naturalism that Hawke brings is something to behold, and it's odd that Patricia Arquette got the lion's share of the plaudits even when they're both doing phenomenal work.
Mark Ruffalo may be the most weirdly inconsistent actor that I genuinely love to watch at the movies. For every iconic performance that I can't get enough of (You Can Count on Me, Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right), I also find him leveling into scenery-chewing or overusing his mumbly gifts onscreen (In the Cut, Spotlight). Foxcatcher is a weird place in-between the two, where he somehow finds himself in a bad movie giving a relatively excellent performance. It would have been so easy for Ruffalo to turn his Dave into a watchful worrier, someone that is the moral compass to his brother's misguided lug, but he doesn't do that (except in that ridiculously over-the-top final scene in the snow, but that's all on the writers), and instead he is forced to show what it's like to succeed, even when you have to do so at the hands of someone he can't stand. Think of how superb Ruffalo is in that video documentary he's making, where he's being forced to read lines that he doesn't agree with and that are justifying the vile abuse of his brother. It's one of many scenes in the film that show that he understands not only this character, but what this character, a man past his prime but who knew he was once a star (and knows that others want to shine in that glory), would give to the world. It's a great, understated performance.
The final piece here is with an actor who has never really understood the meaning of the word "understated," but at least here he finds a film where that rings true. Edward Norton's work in Birdman is a funny look at his own self (Keaton isn't the only one playing a parody), an actor of intense gifts who attempted, but was never successful in, translating into the same type of movie-stardom enjoyed by Keaton's Riggan in the picture. Norton's character is hilarious, perhaps the funniest part of a movie that is droll but has a nasty and delicious sense of humor. I do feel, especially in the first table-read scene but also in a smattering of moments later in the picture, that Norton uses his character's excesses to indulge his own, and the acting could have used more focus, but overall I think this is one of the better works from this actor, of whom I'll admit that I'm not much of a fan despite his critical following.
Other Precursor Contenders: Even by awards season standards, the precursors for this field were boring, as almost everyone went with the same lineup. The Globes and the SAG Awards went with the exact same nominees and winner as the Oscars, while the BAFTA Awards only substitution was category fraud with Steve Carell going in place of Robert Duvall. This makes Best Supporting Actor one of the hardest categories of 2014 to go with a sixth place (we genuinely got no indication of whom it might have been). My gut says Tom Wilkinson (Selma) or Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice), both former nominees in big films, but I think they were far away-this lineup was clearly the one all awards' voters preferred.
Performances I Would Have Nominated: I am not one of those voters, however. I definitely would have made room for Ben Schnetzer's wonderful activist in Pride, Adam Driver's sexy-but-troubled brother in This is Where I Leave You, and though I'd have to see it again (it was probably category fraud, but it's been a while since I caught the movie), perhaps Logan Lerman in Fury. I know he's intensely pretty, but it'd be nice if an ingenue made it in the male categories on occasion instead of just the female.
Oscar’s Choice: I don't even know who was in second place, as JK Simmons won the Oscar in a landslide.
My Choice: Hawke over Ruffalo-aided by both a better movie and more a natural progression, this is a pretty easy decision even though both are quite good. Following them would be Norton, Simmons, and poor Bobby Duvall way in the back (you've got six more OVP battles left-don't cry too hard for Tom Hagen).
Those are my thoughts-what are yours? Do I have company in preferring Ethan Hawke, or is everyone on the Just Keep Simmons train? Am I the only person who generally finds Edward Norton off-putting? And who was the sixth place finisher that clearly should have been taken over Duvall (every name I'm throwing out is better than him)? Share your thoughts in the comments!