Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars 2012: The Acting Categories

Normally, I would have written out each category in an independent post, as I have in previous years. This year, though, I'm a little crunched for time (the Oscars are tonight, after all!), so I'm compiling everything into three separate posts. Director/screenplays and Picture will be up later this afternoon, but now, here's the acting categories.


Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

At this point, it seems pretty certain that Hathaway has this one locked up. Though it's inaccurate to say it's the only moment in the film for the character (she does have an impressively concise, yet still very moving, arc), "I Dreamed a Dream" is the scene that's going to clinch this for her. And deservingly so - she absolutely nails it without sacrificing the wilting spirit within Fantine, making for the most heartbreaking three minutes in film this year.

Amy Adams, The Master

It's hard to believe that Adams has earned four nominations - all in this category - in less than 10 years. In The Master, we see that her Peggy Dodd is pulling the strings along with her husband, Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman; see Supporting Actor), and that maybe she, in fact, is the eponymous figure of the film. It's a deft performance, and she holds her own with Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (see Best Actor), but it's not one of her strongest nominated roles.

Sally Field, Lincoln

It took some serious pressure and advocacy on Field's part to convince director Steven Spielberg that she could play Mary Todd Lincoln, despite being technically too old for the part. But how lucky we as an audience were that she convinced him. Field is terrific here, playing the famous First Lady as a woman struggling with the loss of her child but refusing to let anyone think of her as weak or unimportant. She knocks it out of the park. With two wins in her prior two nominations, she has a history with Oscar, but unless Lincoln dominates the night, it's unlikely she'll pick up a third trophy.

Helen Hunt, The Sessions

There is a potential for category fraud here: Hunt's role as Cheryl, the sex surrogate who helps the disabled Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) experience sex for the first time, delicately toes the line between lead and supporting role, and you could make the argument for either. However, this is a deserving nomination. Much has been made about Hunt's willingness to be nude in the film (the age-old use of the word "brave" to describe nudity is bandied about), but Hunt delivers a phenomenal performance that goes much deeper than that. Plus, it's great to see the Academy recognize a sex-positive role, as rare as those are in American films. However, given Hathaway's dominance, she'll likely have to take the nomination as her reward.

Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

When Weaver's name was announced on nomination morning, many people - myself included - were shocked to see her here. A previous nominee (and should-have-been winner) for 2010's Animal Kingdom, Weaver had been missing from much of the awards season, with the focus on the rest of SLP's main cast. Looking back on it, though, it is great that the Academy recognized this kind of subtle performance. Weaver's Dolores is trying to keep her mentally-unstable family together through gentle kindness, love, and "crabby snacks and home-mades." It's an interesting performance, but not the kind that's going to win her the Oscar this year.

My ballot:
1. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2. Sally Field, Lincoln
3. Helen Hunt, The Sessions
4. Amy Adams, The Master
5. Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Hathaway
Spoilers: Field or Hunt


Alan Arkin, Argo

Argo had several great performances, but none stood out quite like Arkin's Lester Siegel, the studio executive who agrees to bankroll the fake movie being used to rescue hostages in Iran. Arkin injects the film with much-needed humor, giving audiences a break from the tension and introducing the now-famous refrain, "Argo fuck yourself." It's a fine performance from a terrific actor, but regardless of the film's Best Picture heat, this isn't the kind of role that's going to win him a second Oscar (to say nothing of the fact that he only just won this category in 2006). 

Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

CATEGORY FRAUD ALERT. The title character, Jamie Foxx's slave-turned-bounty-hunter, is ostensibly the lead. But this was clearly Waltz's film, with his Dr. King Schultz having arguably more screentime (and without a doubt more narrative agency) than Foxx. Director Quentin Tarantino seems to bring the best out of Waltz, giving him meaty dialogue that he chews over with relish, showing himself to be an actor in love with language. However, it's also several rungs below Col. Hans Landa, the Inglourious Basterds role that won him his first Oscar three years ago and launched him to international stardom. It's very possible that the size of the role could help him win a second Oscar, but at this point anything is possible.

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Spielberg scored an impressive cast for Lincoln, but one of his greatest graces was casting Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the vehemently abolitionist congressman who's so radical (for the time, at least) that he wants nothing less than full equal rights for the newly freed slaves. Jones is as crusty as ever, getting in several great digs in the debates over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and tears into his speeches with fire and zest. It's Jones' best role in years, and he without a doubt deserves the Oscar for it. For a while, he seemed the mortal lock, but the picture has become much hazier in recent weeks, so he's going to have to fight for it now.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

CATEGORY FRAUD ALERT. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is the eponymous master of the film, and he is a co-lead with Joaquin Phoenix. However, Hoffman is characteristically terrific, and here he doesn't chew the scenery as much as he does in some roles. He's a sadistic, self-important, charismatic leader who may or may not be making up "The Cause" as he goes along, but he's guarded enough to prevent anyone from doubting him. He could end up being the surprise winner this year, but it would take a lot of support for the film to get him up to the podium this year.

Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

It's a bit reductive to say this, but De Niro was basically nominated this year for not sleepwalking through another paycheck role. Indeed, it is great to see him actually put some effort into the role of Pat Solatino, Sr., the obsessive-compulsive, Philadelphia Eagles super-fan father of Bradley Cooper's Pat (see Best Actor), because when he does try he's still one of the best working actors today. He gives a terrific performance here and makes it seem effortless, and despite the film's myriad flaws he never fails to make Pat Sr. empathetic. It just may be strong enough for him to win his third Oscar (his second was for Raging Bull, all the way back in 1980).

My ballot:
1. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
3. Alan Arkin, Argo
4. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
5. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Will win: De Niro
Spoilers: Jones or Waltz


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Chastain's Maya undergoes a fascinating transformation over the course of ZDT: relentlessly focused on catching "UBL" (Osama bin Laden, that is), she becomes more and more accustomed to the unethical methods of finding information, transforming into a shell of her former self and finding herself increasingly unmoored. The film benefits her as a fascinating character study, in which she's not only portraying one woman's journey (her character is supposedly a mix of several different still-active CIA agents), but also serving as a metaphor for how the United States' moral compass was not pointing true north in it's quest for vengeance. It's a powerful performance that gave Chastain a major lead early in the season, but the film's torture controversy will probably keep her from winning her first Oscar this year.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

As the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, Riva more than earns his first Oscar nomination in Michael Haneke's powerful Amour. As Anne, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, Riva lets us watch the interior deterioration of a woman struggling with age's physical deterioration. Early in the film, she's still a vivacious spirit, but as things progressively get worse she becomes less and less of a person and more and more of a helpless being. It's a powerful, confident performance, and should enough voters take it in (she's truly unforgettable, and the film itself lingers with you long after the lights come up), she should be on her way to the front of the Kodak Theatre tonight.

Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The only thing more powerful in The Impossible that the enormous wall of water that upends the film's Thai resort setting (based on a true story from 2004's devastating tsunami) is Watt's Maria's will to survive and be reunited with her family. Severely injured and assisted only by her oldest son (Tom Holland), Watts struggles through a foreign land she is hopelessly lost in, slowly succumbing to her wounds but bravely trying to keep up hope of survival. It's an incredible performance, technically difficult physically and emotionally. If she can drum up enough support and siphon enough votes from the other nominees, she could find herself a first-time Oscar winner.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

It's safe to say that no other actress had a year quite like Lawrence: in March, she starred in The Hunger Games, which quickly became a phenomenon that grossed over $400 million. Then came SLP, which earned her her second Oscar nomination (and only at 24) and will likely be her first win. Though I was far from SLP's biggest fan (see Best Picture later this afternoon), Lawrence is terrific as Tiffany, the depressed widow who manages to win Pat's heart and eventually softens to him as well. Despite a frustrating character on paper, Lawrence manages to make Tiffany an empathetic character, and it's a great performance overall. She's the favorite to win tonight.

Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

A lot of criticism has been lobbed Wallis' way in lieu of her nomination: she was only six when she filmed Beasts, so she wasn't really "acting," just being a child. She's too young to understand the craft. She hasn't "earned" it yet (don't even get me started on the sexism here). But watch the film again, and you'll see that Wallis is doing some amazing things here. She's incredibly gifted in screen presence, and her performance as Hushpuppy is nothing short of fantastic. It's hardly likely that she'll win tonight, and sadly I doubt she'll ever be nominated again, but she certainly belongs in this talented group this year.

My ballot:
1. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
2. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
3. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
5. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Lawrence
Spoilers: Chastain, Riva, or Watts


Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Is there really any question who's going to win this one this year? Best Actor is the most stacked category this year, and it's led by Day-Lewis' towering performance as 16th President Abraham Lincoln. Not only does he nail the look and (supposed) voice of Lincoln, but also his mannerism, his commanding leadership, and his folksy propensity for storytelling. He taps into the President's calm resolve and sneaking uncertainty, a man desperately trying to hold the nation together in ways that may or may not be legal. It's a towering performance in a career full of them, and there's little doubt that Day-Lewis will win his third career Oscar tonight.

Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

For years, Jackman's secret weapon was his incredible musical talent: though serious fans were aware of his talents from The Boy from Oz, most people only knew him as Wolverine from the X-Men movies. Les Miz brought his multitude of talents together in the role of Jean Valjean - prisoner 24601 - an escaped convict trying to do right and keep his identity concealed in the face of the 1832 Paris student revolution. Jackman's strong tenor lends his songs, particularly "Suddenly" and "Bring Him Home," a powerful beauty, and his performance is remarkable for being utterly transformative. He was already a star, and he's long been worthy of Oscar's attention, and though Jackman likely won't win tonight, this should be the beginning of an exciting new chapter of his career.

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

It still hasn't really sunk in yet: "Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper." It'd be easy to dismiss this as a fluke, but here's the thing: Cooper's really good in the film. In fact, he was, in my opinion, the best part of SLP, and very deserving of his first Oscar nomination. As Pat, he's a bipolar guy trying to put his life back together after a stint in the hospital, which means coming to grips with his illness and taking control of his life. Cooper does a remarkable job at portraying this, believably losing control of his temper and struggling to function in normal social interactions. It's a terrific performance, and though he's not likely to win, it's a worthy nomination.

Denzel Washington, Flight

Washington is a consummate actor, and Oscar seems to like him best lately when he's doing bad things. Here, he's Whip Whitaker, an ace pilot who manages to save the lives of most of the plane when he engineers a daring landing. However, it comes to light that he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine at the time, which exposes him as an addict and an alcoholic. Washington is nothing short of incredible as Whitaker, keeping everything grounded and believable while avoiding any "actorly" (i.e., over-exaggerated) portrayals of addiction. It's terrific work that, as with most performances in this category, would lead him to the Kodak's podium were it not for the competition he faces.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

If there's any performance that, in my mind, comes closest to matching Day-Lewis, it's Phoenix's work as Freddy Quell in The Master. One of Phoenix's strengths as an actor is his sense of danger and unpredictability, and he employs those brilliantly in the film as a former sailor who, after WWII, has found himself lost in an America that's left him behind. Lonely and alcoholic, he finds his way into Lancaster Dodd's "The Cause," becoming a true believer, though his transformation is debatable. It's a reliably excellent performance from Phoenix, though it will take an unprecedented collapse in support for Day-Lewis (and that doesn't seem to have happened) for him to win tonight.

My ballot:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
3. Denzel Washington, Flight
4. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Day-Lewis
Spoilers: Phoenix, Washington, Jackman, or Cooper

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