Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Supporting Actor, 2000

In an unusual twist for this category, the Best Supporting Actor lineup of 2000 arguably consists of only true supporting performances, rather than co-leads that are campaigned as "supporting" roles (only Del Toro could be argued as a lead, though given the film's ensemble nature it's a tough argument to make). The roles are diverse, and at this point all of the actors involved have multiple nominations. Here are the nominees:

Jeff Bridges, The Contender

At some point in the past few years - and I don't know what publication it was in - President Obama named Bridges' President Jackson Evans as his favorite movie president, a surprising choice considering that this film isn't all that discussed today. As a genial commander-in-chief embroiled in the scandalous choosing of a new vice-president, Bridges seems like the obvious choice for the role, playing up his laid-back demeanor in a character who has what is arguably the most stressful job in the world. When Evans delivers his big speech at the end - standing up for his choice, the controversial Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), and by proxy all women in politics - Bridges nails the rah-rah uplift of the moment. The problem with this performance is that it never seems like Bridges is really playing a character, but rather "Jeff Bridges is President of the United States." It's not terrible, but it's not exactly nomination-worthy either.

Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator

Today, it's easy to take for granted the intense talent of Joaquin Phoenix, especially now that he's gone from seemingly retiring in 2010 to appearing in acclaimed films almost on a yearly basis. In 2000, though, he was essentially introducing himself as an actor, not just "the late River Phoenix's brother," through roles in Quills, The Yards, and Gladiator, the latter of which earning him his first Oscar nomination. And what an introduction his performance as Commodus, the sniveling emperor of Rome, is. Phoenix fully embraces the noxious - and obnoxious - moral corruption that power has instilled in Commodus, and he truly shines as the emperor gleefully watches enslaved men fight each other to the death. Most importantly, he carries himself the way the most important man in the empire would: in every scene he's in, Phoenix completely commands the screen, making it near-impossible to notice anyone else. It's a scene-stealing, impressive performance, and it cemented him as a major actor and paved the way for the exciting career that continues today.

Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire

All told, Shadow of the Vampire is not a good movie. In fact, it's pretty bad, a much-lesser entry in the odd genre of "movies about the making of old horror classics, only the monsters are real!" that was briefly popular at the turn of the millennium (see also: Gods and Monsters). Even John Malkovich as famed German director F.W. Murnau, as he works on his silent horror masterpiece Nosferatu, is more hammy than anything else. But then Willem Dafoe, as star Max Schreck, steps out of the shadows and single-handedly makes the film worthwhile. Dafoe's performance is a masterwork of transformative acting, playing Schreck as a creepy outcast with claw-like fingernails and speaks in a harsh whisper, and may actually be a vampire himself. Dafoe totally commits to the role, and as a result every scene he's in lights up with possibilities and energy. It's not enough to rescue the film, but it's great that the Academy took notice and recognized this singular performance. 

*Benicio Del Toro, Traffic

The ensemble in Traffic is stacked with terrific actors doing good-to-great work, so it would take a truly phenomenal performance to distinguish an actor from the rest. Not only does Del Toro turn in superior work, he's also blessed with one of the few characters in the film who aren't essentially talking points incarnated. His Javier Rodriguez is a mostly-decent cop in Mexico who, when he discovers his new boss may not actually be as interested in fighting drug cartels as he seems, finds himself caught in a sticky situation in which lives are at stake, including his own. Del Toro's performance is the beating heart of the film, because unlike the other narrative threads, his storyline feels the most down-to-earth and captures the human cost of the War on Drugs, in which just doing the right thing can get you killed. It helps that Del Toro brings soulful humanity and imperfection to the role, investing in Rodriguez's interior conflict that few other characters in the film are afforded. It's a moving performance in a film that too often ignores the humanity of its characters.

Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich

Looking back on the film today, it's easy to remember Erin Brockovich as a one-woman show for Julia Roberts. Of course, that's not completely true, but it is a testament to Finney's performance in a true supporting role as Ed Masry, the lawyer who reluctantly agrees to assist Brockovich in her efforts to force Pacific Gas & Electric acknowledge the environmental damage they had done to a small California town. Though his performance is probably best remembered for being on the receiving end of the now-famous line, "they're called boobs, Ed," Finney does much more than protest cleavage and look exasperated. He finds genuine warmth in Ed, and presents him as a man who's grown so jaded by his practice that he needs to be reminded of the crusading spirit that brought him here in the first place. It may not be the year's greatest performance, but it's great that the Academy recognized his low-key work.

My ballot:

1. Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator
2. Benicio Del Toro, Traffic
3. Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire
4. Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich
5. Jeff Bridges, The Contender

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