Thursday, February 19, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actor

Eddie Redmayne is the frontrunner for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Actor

The nominees are:

Bradley Cooper for American Sniper
Michael Keaton for Birdman
Steve Carell for Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game
Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything

Best Actor is easily the most stacked category every year, with a ton of worthy contenders and too few spots to put them in. This year, for instance, you could put together a list of great performances that would make a tremendous list of nominees without including a single one of the actual nominees. As a thought experiment, here is my alternative list: Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler; Timothy Spall for Mr. Turner; Brendan Gleeson for Calvary; David Oyelowo for Selma; and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for A Most Wanted Man.

I could go on like this all day with Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, John Lithgow in Love Is Strange, Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood, Aleksey Serebryakov in Leviathan, and on and on and on. The point is that while the five nominated performances are each fantastic in their own right, the Best Actor category at the Oscars is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the best performances of the year. It is not just this year either, as similarly long lists could be made for any year. If you want to talk about Best Actress, it could fall the same way, though the contender field there is often unfairly narrow, and that is a good discussion to have another day.

What we have, then, are the five performances Academy members liked best, and all credit to them, they liked some damn good performances. Maybe most remarkable is that four of the five nominees, including the two frontrunners, are first-time nominees. None of these actors has won an Academy Award before. In fact, this is the only acting category this year not to feature a previous winner. The last time not one of the nominees was a previous winner was in 2006, so no matter who wins, it will be a history-making night for someone.

Michael Keaton for Birdman – No one in the Best Actor category this year had the same task as Keaton. While the other four nominees were all playing real people – meaning they had books, interviews, videos, etc., to base their performances on – Keaton created a whole new person from just the words on the page. Great words though they may be, they mean nothing without Keaton’s incomparable contribution. He is the heart and soul of Birdman, the burning fire at the center of the film. His performance lends poignancy, gravitas, and humanity to an otherwise caustically satirical endeavor.

Keaton is Riggan Thompson, not because of who he is in life but because of who he is as an actor. Keaton is not great as Thompson because he once played Batman and Thompson once played a Batman-like superhero called Birdman. A lot of actors have played superheroes at one time or another, and more now than ever before, but no other actor could have brought the deep wells of pain and anguish that Keaton brings to the part. This is not a case of stunt casting. It is an instance of casting the perfect actor in the role of a lifetime.

Keaton embraces all of the flaws and contradictions of a man who just wants to be seen as an artist but who has a history of selling out that goal. Every time he walks on stage, he takes with him the hurt of a failed marriage, a washed up career, and a lack of respect. Birdman does not tell the story of a man overcoming all these grievances but of a man who finally channels these grievances into the art he so desperately wishes to make. The words of the writers create this world, but it is Keaton who makes them fly off the page.

Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything – In a relatively brief career, Redmayne has been involved in a number of highly prestigious projects, including Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, My Week with Marilyn, and The Good Shepherd, but perhaps none has carried more inherent prestige than this biopic of Stephen Hawking. For The Theory of Everything, Redmayne takes on the unenviable task of portraying a famous and beloved figure who is still very much alive and very much in the public consciousness.

Redmayne handles the project by going above and beyond the call of duty and does not so much play Hawking as become him. He has the look, the walk, and the attitude of a man whose body keeps him trapped but whose mind takes him places the rest of us could not even dream about. Characters with disabilities have always been seen somewhat derisively as Oscar bait, but Redmayne does not attempt to milk Hawking’s motor neuron disease for pathos. Instead, he treats it as a fact of life to be dealt with and overcome so that he may attend to more important matters.

In the film’s best scene – and one of the best scenes of the year – Hawking becomes frustrated that he cannot keep up with the pace of a dinner with friends and excuses himself from the table. He attempts to climb the stairs but collapses. He cannot go up or down. Then, he sees his son standing at the top of the stairs behind a safety gate, but the son does not seem as locked in as Hawking in this moment. He tries to reach out to his child, but he cannot connect with him. Redmayne is able to show us this haunting and tragic moment with his body, but he makes us understand it with the longing and despair on his face.

Bradley Cooper for American Sniper – Cooper is the only previous Oscar nominee in this group, and he has been nominated in three consecutive years – for Best Actor in 2012 for Silver Linings Playbook, for Best Supporting Actor last year for American Hustle, and this year. It has been a kind of remarkable career transformation for Cooper, whom many of us first took notice of in The Hangover, though if you are a David Wain fan, you were enjoying Cooper’s comedy chops as far back as Wet Hot American Summer in 2001.

American Sniper was a passion project of Cooper’s, something he has wanted to bring to the screen for years. He chased it through numerous directors and production delays until he and director Clint Eastwood were finally able to bring the story of Chris Kyle to the screen. Cooper’s passion behind the scenes is clearly matched by his dedication on screen, as he transforms himself into a U.S. Navy SEAL.

Cooper has charisma to burn, but here, he channels that energy into a man who has a deep love for his country and an abiding need to defend it but for whom the horror of war gradually begins to take its toll. Cooper looks appropriately warrior-like in his action scenes, but when you watch him at home, that is where the real work appears. Cooper absolutely embodies a man who leaves a piece of his soul on the battlefield every time he goes out and who must fight to keep what he has left when there is no more war to fight.

Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game – Cumberbatch’s Best Actor case is an interesting one. On one level, he is fantastic in the film as mathematics genius and British war hero Alan Turing, but on another, taken out of the context of The Imitation Game, the performance feels like another in a string of recent performances by actors using the same set of tricks to portray a character who is clearly on the autism spectrum. Cumberbatch, himself, does a riff on the autistic genius who does not get along so well with people on his television show Sherlock. It is a trope that has become commonplace in modern storytelling, so how to judge Cumberbatch’s work here?

Objectively, it is an undeniably solid performance. Given a character who has difficulty showing emotion and who lives so much inside his own head, Cumberbatch communicates a world of feeling and soul simply with his body language and facial expressions. Really, Cumberbatch is marvelous as Turing. The problem is that Turing is not a well written character in the film. Because the character shows little depth, writer Graham Motion does not imbue him with any. Whatever depth we sense in Turing is thanks to Cumberbatch’s excellent portrayal.

Steve Carell for Foxcatcher – Let’s try not to make this about a comedic actor impressing everyone by going dramatic. In the first place, it has been done before with great success, and more than that, Carell already has a demonstrated facility with dramatic acting, even in ostensible comedies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. So, it would be great if we could all stop acting so surprised Carell was able to pull off such a magnificent portrayal of a mentally disturbed millionaire in Foxcatcher. He is a great actor, and that is what actors do.

John du Pont, as played by Carell, is a man devoid of either heart or soul. His ghostly pallor suggests a body drained of blood. What he subsists on is power, and he wields it like the only weapon he has. He is an impossibly careful man who speaks with a slow, deliberate cadence and does not so much walk as shuffle. Appearances are everything for him, and the worst fate that could befall him is to be perceived as weak or incompetent. Carell embraces the character as only a gifted actor could and pulls the nearly impossible trick of making a wealthy psychopath understandable, if not sympathetic.

The final analysis

It will be Keaton and Redmayne down to the wire, and Redmayne has a slight advantage, having won the Screen Actors Guild award and the British Academy of Film and Television award. Each won a Golden Globe – Keaton in comedy and Redmayne in drama. Early in the season, some thought Redmayne and Cumberbatch might split the British genius vote, paving the way for a Keaton win, but Cumberbatch’s campaign never materialized. Now, some are theorizing that Keaton and Redmayne may split the vote and clear a path for Cooper to win.

I never have really subscribed to the idea that a split vote could lead to a surprise winner. For that to be true, the third candidate would have to have as much support as the two leaders without losing any votes to them. The math just does not seem to work. I would love to see Keaton onstage accepting an Oscar. It would be one of the highlights of my night. However, all signs point to Redmayne winning for his transformative portrayal of Hawking, and it is hard to argue with that.

Will win: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything
Should win: Michael Keaton for Birdman
Wish he had been here: Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler

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