Thursday, February 23, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actor

Casey Affleck is nominated for Best Actor for his role in Manchester by the Sea.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Actor

The nominees are:

Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling for La La Land
Viggo Mortenson for Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington for Fences

In the past three years, 12 of the 15 Best Actor nominees have been for characters based on real people. Each of the last four winners has played an historical figure. Some assumptions about the Academy’s tastes are demonstrably false and used only as a satirical baton to swing at the organization. However, in this realm, the cliché has absolutely been true. This year, however, expect the Academy to break free from the mold.

In some ways, voters already have by nominating four performances that portray fictional characters. The frontrunners sprang entirely from the minds of two of America’s preeminent playwrights. Real or imagined, though, every one of these characters is brought to vibrant life by the five nominated actors. They are war heroes and everyday heroes, artists and philosophers, fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. For everything else they are, fictional or not, they are deeply moving portraits of the human experience.

Denzel Washington for Fences – I am already well on the record as calling Fences one of the best films of the year, the play one of the best things ever written, and Washington’s performance the single best of 2016. Mick LaSalle, film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called it one of the best self-directed performances of all time, and I would certainly put it up there with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, and Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.

While I would not quite place Washington on the same level as those directors, it is time, if we have not already, to start calling him one of the greatest actors of all time. If this sounds to you like hyperbole, consider the facts, which are titled: A Soldier’s Story, Glory, Cry Freedom, Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, Training Day, American Gangster, Flight, and Fences. Put those 10 performances up against 10 performances on any other actor’s résumé in this era or any other. You will not find many comparable.

Troy Maxson is a perfect character for Washington, and the actor never missteps in bringing one of August Wilson’s greatest creations to life. He is a bitter, broken down old drunk who holds a grudge for the failings of a racist nation, but he is also a hard-working man who deserved a better hand in life than the one he was dealt. About that much he is correct, but the way he allows his resentment to curdle is what makes him the man he becomes. In a career of great roles, Washington has never had one like the retired baseball player turned garbage man Troy. It is a perfect performance that belongs in the history books of cinema.

Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea – By my estimation, Affleck should already be an Oscar winner for his nominated work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That was the first time I really remember seeing him deliver the kind of insightful, contemplative work that has come to define his career. Since then, I have followed everything he has done, and he has never been anything less than stupendous in movies such as The Killer Inside Me, Gone Baby Gone, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Out of the Furnace. Manchester by the Sea is not Affleck’s greatest performance, but it is of a piece with the great work he turns in consistently.

He portrays Lee Chandler as a tower of grief just waiting to implode. Lee has done his best to hide himself away from the pain and anguish of his past only to have it brought into full view by the death of his brother. As much as he wants to be a stronger person, more resilient, more capable of confronting the deep sorrow he has experienced, the despair is often too much for him to take. The beauty of Affleck’s performance is in the way he portrays grief, not as an expressive burst of roiling emotions but as a chilling numbness. It is too much to feel, so he feels nothing.

Two days ago, we spoke in depth about the trespasses of Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson, and it would be disingenuous not now to mention the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Affleck by the female crew members of films he has worked on. If the allegations are true – and I think we owe it to the potential victims of harassment to believe them first – then Affleck’s actions are despicable and indefensible. If true, it means Affleck has been an amazing performer in his career, but he has not been even a passable citizen. I do not believe these allegations will have any bearing on the Oscars, but hopefully, a conversation can begin in the industry to address these very important, very real concerns.

Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge – For my money, Garfield is nominated here for the wrong performance this year, not because he is not excellent in Hacksaw Ridge but because his work in Martin Scorsese’s Silence is the more nuanced, all-encompassing performance. The role of Desmond Doss has only one mode through most of Hacksaw Ridge, quiet heroism, and Garfield plays it for everything it is worth. In Silence, Garfield is able to portray a much wider range of experiences and emotions, but Scorsese’s film was underappreciated by the Academy, while Hacksaw Ridge caught on. Such is the way it goes sometimes.

Garfield is a magnificent young performer who burst onto the scene in David Fincher’s The Social Network but quickly thereafter became mired in superhero land, playing Spider-man in a pair of not highly regarded films. One hates to say it, but the failure of the Spider-man reboot was probably the best thing that could have happened to Garfield. Since his last time portraying the web-slinging crime fighter, Garfield has appeared in three remarkable films (99 Homes, Hacksaw Ridge, and Silence) and delivered three remarkable performances of great depth and understanding.

He portrays Desmond as quiet, solemn, and devoted. He wishes to serve his country’s military during World War II because he believes he has a moral obligation to do so, but he refuses to kill or even carry a weapon, also in keeping with his moral obligations. When the film hits the battlefield, Garfield’s performance turns wondrously physical as we watch Desmond endure the bodily torment and emotional exhaustion of the war. Regardless of what film Garfield should have been nominated for, his status as an Oscar nominee is unimpeachable, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Ryan Gosling for La La Land – I think Gosling is wonderful actor, but I also think sometimes performers get swept up in the Academy love for their films and land nominations that otherwise would have seemed unlikely. Gosling’s performance in La La Land is not among the five best lead actor performances of the year, not while work by the likes of Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Michael Fassbender (The Light Between Oceans), Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann), and David Johns (I, Daniel Blake) is out there. This is not meant as a knock on Gosling but more on the Academy.

As jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder, who dreams of opening his own music club someday, Gosling nails the smugness he has in previous efforts while providing just enough softness to make the audience root for this guy. He is fantastic musician, but when we meet him, he refuses to budge even an inch on his artistry, even if to do so would allow him to pay his bills. Many of us have known people like this, and certainly members of the Academy have – or they have been people like this.

Gosling, who is a weaker singer than co-star Emma Stone, excels at playing the film’s romantic elements, deploying his weathered charm and delightful excitability to great effect. However, because the movie revolves around Stone’s character, Gosling is used more like a plot device. Of course, leading women have been playing plot devices in male-driven films for 120 years, but it still leaves Gosling with little to play and little depth to explore. Gosling, who was previously nominated in 2006 for Half-Nelson, will almost certainly return to the show again soon with a performance more indicative of his many talents.

Viggo Mortenson for Captain Fantastic – As a person who tends to see everything, or at least as much of everything as I can, I hesitate to say I studiously avoided this movie. Even in the trailers, its tone felt off, its story treading familiar territory in a manner I would find irksome. For this piece, though, I watched it, and I can say, now having seen it, I found it worse than irksome. It is condescending, mean-spirited, and self-satisfied. The plot is inert and the story structure inept. I found it offensive on every possible level – human, artistic, political, cultural, etc.

Mortenson plays Ben Cash, the leader of a cult – sorry, father of a family – that lives outside of society in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. They read books by firelight and kill deer with their bare hands. They self-righteously declaim American society while doing nothing to change what they correctly identify as systemic inequality and the corrupting influence of big business. Instead, they stand apart from it, above it, looking down on everyone else, identifying problems without offering solutions, which is the worst kind of moral superiority.

Is Mortenson good in the role? Sure, he is fine. Previously nominated for his role as a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, Mortenson brings to the role the right combination of end-times survivalist crazy and university lit professor sanctimony. Like the film in which he appears, the character is mostly insufferable, but that has nothing to do with Mortenson’s performance and everything to do with writer-director Matt Ross’ script. Ben is also dealing with the death of his wife and the possibility his children will be taken away from him. In these rare human moments, when Ben is more than just a sketch of a person, Mortenson shines.

The final analysis

I want to believe Washington will win this award, and his triumph with the Screen Actors Guild offers some hope. However, that is not the way the season has looked like it would go. Affleck was the critical darling. He beat Washington to the Golden Globe and won the BAFTA, where Washington was not nominated. Washington is also a two-time winner already, while Affleck’s consistent brilliance is of the kind the Academy likes to reward when a performance such as this comes along. I will root for Washington, but Affleck’s win will not be undeserving.

Will win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Denzel Washington for Fences
Should have been here: Colin Farrell for The Lobster

Tomorrow: Best Picture

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