Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Actor / Best Supporting Actor

This year saw an eclectic mix of actors earn nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. In the former category, only Bradley Cooper has been previously nominated, and for a long time this awards season it seemed as if the category could very realistically be loaded with nothing but first-time nominees. On the other hand, four of the five nominees in Best Supporting Actor have been previously nominated, though only Robert Duvall has ever won an Oscar among that group. Actually,  Duvall is the only previous winner among both categories. But who has the best shot at joining him in the winners' circle this year?

Here are the nominees:


Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Norton is famous for his reputation as a difficult-to-work-with actor, noted for his on-set tantrums and insistence on having enormous creative input in the films he signs up for. So Norton makes perfect sense to play Mike Shiner, an actor who's notoriously difficult to work with and exerts creative control over Riggan's (Michael Keaton) play. Norton expertly taps into Mike's facade of being a crusader for artistic truth, playing it serious while also letting the audience know that he's full of shit. It's a high-wire comedic performance of the highest order, and Norton pulls it off with aplomb. 

Robert Duvall, The Judge

The Judge didn't deserve someone of Duvall's calibar; or, rather, Duvall didn't deserve reheated dreck like The Judge. Either way, the film earned him his first nomination in 17 years for his portrayal of Judge Joseph Palmer, a long-time small-town judge who is charged with murder, and must rely on his estranged son (Robert Downey Jr.) to help defend him. As the film drudges through legal cliche after small-town-feel-good-family-drama cliche, Duvall dedicates to the role, giving Judge Palmer a prickliness that belies the sense of nobility that drives him. That being said, this is the sort of role that Duvall could play in his sleep, and at time it seems like that's exactly what he's doing. He's an Oscar-caliber actor, make no mistake, but this is not an Oscar-worthy performance.

More after the jump.

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

The best thing that can perhaps be said about Ruffalo's role of Dave Schultz is that it's definitely a Mark Ruffalo role. He's easy-going but still quietly competitive, believing fully in the goodness of people, with a charming shagginess that only adds to his appeal. This is to say that the role doesn't require Ruffalo to stretch much, as he gives a perfectly fine performance that's certainly great within the context of the film. But it doesn't exactly stand out as one of the best of his career, either. It's hard to say this is really one of the five best supporting performances of the year.

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

You could, perhaps not incorrectly, make the argument that Simmons' Terrence Fletcher is really a co-lead, the Tom to Andrew's (Miles Teller) Jerry. But arguments over semantics would only distract from how great his performance truly is. On the surface, it looks like showboating rage, profane zingers tossed around with intensity that is sure to attract "best" attention. But look closer, and you'll see how Simmons has crafted a fascinating character, a man who has incredible charisma and a genuine eye for recognizing fresh talent, only to destroy his disciples through his antics and intensity. Fletcher is a man who has truly deluded himself into thinking he's helping, which makes his tet-a-tets with Andrew all the more thrilling. Simmons has long been a terrific working character actor; it's about time he's finally gotten recognition from the Academy, and a role where he can really strut his stuff.

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Hawke, honestly, should have more than two measly acting nominations (he also has two writing nominations). The thing is that, in just about all of his performances, he makes it look so easy: he has a natural, subdued aesthetic, crafting characters who are so believable that it's easy to forget that they're being played by an actor. Such is the case in his performance as Dad, the itinerant father of Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Over the course of the film, we see him transition from a wild, muscle-car-driving escape from home life to a settled, steadily-employed family man, a transformation that's as moving as Mason's childhood. He embodies all of the bittersweet truths of growing up and getting to know your parents as human beings and not just people you have to live with. It's a remarkably understated performance that's classic Hawke, yet different enough to stand out in a career full of remarkably understated performances.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, God." Simmons has been dominating the season, winning just about every prize imaginable, including the Golden Globe and the SAG for this category. Unless the Academy goes all-in for Birdman or Boyhood, it's his to lose.


Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Despite his reputation for being a comedic actor, Carell is no stranger to dramatic roles. However, his role as mentally-unstable, murderous millionaire John du Pont is something completely different, one in which Carell undergoes a physical transformation that leaves him barely recognizable. The problem is that, even though Carell is doing fine work, du Pont never really feels like a fully-realized person. Carell plays him more as a collection of tics and neuroses, with some shallow pop-psychology explaining his actions. Carell is capable of fantastic dramatic performances - Dan in Real Life (2007) being my personal favorite - but his performance here just doesn't live up to what he's truly capable of. It's good work, but perhaps not Oscar-worthy.

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Has anyone wondered how much longer before we get an opportunity to see Cumberbatch really stretch himself as an actor? This isn't to say that his performance as Alan Turing is bad in any sense; on the contrary, it's a self-assured work that Cumberbatch finds interesting layers in, playing up Turing's sense of alienation and stubborn insistence on being right. But that's just the thing: his performance as Turing doesn't end up being that much different from his best-known performance as Sherlock Holmes on BBC's Sherlock. Even as the film downplays Turing's sexuality until well into the third act, Cumberbatch lets that inform his performance here, allowing him to play a few shades he isn't normally asked to work. He's worthy of the nomination, but here's hoping that his accolades this year will lead to opportunities to show us what he's really capable of.

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Even if the film's treatment of Chris Kyle is often problematic, this much must be said: Cooper has finally emerged as one of the most exciting American actors working today. His quiet, shifty performance as Kyle proves that he can do more than play the tightly-wound nutcases of David O. Russell's films (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) and the self-satisfied douchebags of The Hangover trilogy. Even as the film ultimately does a disservice to Kyle as a character, Cooper always delivers the inner turmoil, each kill taking more and more from him until he's transformed, essentially, into a shell of the man he formerly was. It's an outstanding performance, worthy of the nomination, and welcome evidence that Cooper is the real deal as an actor.

Michael Keaton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Once upon a time, the idea of Keaton being an Oscar nominee would have seemed pretty ridiculous. The actor, best known for playing Batman and Beetlejuice, wasn't anyone's idea of a serious actor. But lo and behold, he delivers not only one of the best performances of the year, but one of the best of his career as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero who seeks both a creative comeback and artistic credibility by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Keaton commits fully to Riggan's insanity, capitalizing on his considerable talent as a comic actor and showing previously-untold depths of emotion and despair, crafting a beautifully tragic figure in his performance. It's stunning work, and Keaton deserves every accolade for it.

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

They say that the best way to win an Oscar is to play a role that requires capital-A Acting: outsize performances, often with histrionics, grandiose speeches, and/or physical disabilities. In taking on the role of brilliant astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Redmayne is tasked with the lattermost of those, portraying Hawking's struggle with ALS that completely robbed him of motor functions. Redmayne is unquestionably dedicated to the physical aspects of the performance, contorting his body in horrifying ways as the disease takes and takes from Hawking. But Redmayne also succeeds at making Hawking into a compelling figure, his intellect rivaled by his deterioration, the sweetness that is at times at odds with his prickliness. It's a fine performance, though it perhaps sacrifices some introspective depth in favor of physical work.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." This time last month, I would have said that this was Redmayne's to lose: he was steamrolling through every accolade, and seemed like an unstoppable force. But now that Birdman has gained considerable steam, it may not be all that surprising to say that Keaton has a strong case to win as well. And it would be foolish to count out Cooper: the film is a massive hit, and with his Broadway role in The Elephant Man earning raves for a very different type of performance, this show of his range may prove irresistible to voters. I'd still favor Redmayne to win, but only slightly; don't be surprised if Keaton or Cooper take it instead.

My ballots:


1. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
4. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
5. Robert Duvall, The Judge


1. Michael Keaton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
3. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
4. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
5. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

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