Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lead Actor

I've had some technical difficulties over here involving massive data loss that has precluded my watching of Blue Jasmine. As such, supporting actress will have to wait, and instead, we'll wrap up the men today. If you're wondering why I'm writing up the acting before other awards, I think it's pretty simple: while each actor is massively important, I think that they're simply not the most important category behind best picture. I'd rather see a movie written by an amazing screenplay author or a film to which a great director is attached than I would a movie starring a really good actor. Beyond that, I think that, like best picture, the animated, documentary and foreign films are all more important than single actors; so, too, are the shorts.

Or maybe I just haven't gotten to seeing everything else yet. You decide.

So who's up?

  • Christian Bale in American Hustle
  • Bruce Dern in Nebraska
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
  • Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
I'll start by saying I think Christian Bale actually did a very nice job in American Hustle. There, I said something nice about it! I really like Bale as an actor, though I won't pretend I've been watching him since Little Women. He displayed a lot of calm, neurotic patience as well as cold anger. Unlike Bradley Cooper, Bale felt genuine instead of wildly oscillating. The pregnant cinematic takes of Bale's silent face spoke volumes, and spoke far better than much of the rest of the film. Bale has had far better roles, but he's one of the few bright spots for me in a movie I expected to be full of them.

Bruce Dern. Oh, dear Bruce Dern. I've been watching you since your turn on The Outer Limits in '63. I may have watched a rerun - or maybe I just built a time machine. I'll never tell. No, Dern had flown completely under my radar as he hasn't been in anything I've seen since I really started turning my eye to film. Here, he silently ignores the masterpiece unfolding around him and just... exists. His sluggish attention and unhurried disposition created the perfect Woody Grant. The long, lingering looks are played up perfectly. I wouldn't trust many actors to express so much so quietly as Dern did here, but he does it with a resolute perfection of a man set in his ways.

There are a few films up for awards that seem to be well loved that I really disliked. I've pretty well gone over how I feel about American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club, but I've barely had a chance to gripe about The Wolf of Wall Street. Unfortunately, I don't really get a chance to do that here either. Leo was, as is common, quite good here. With fourteen films in the last thirteen years, he's a guy that doesn't overwork himself, and it shows as he put out two really nice films this year in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Gatsby. His performance as the ever-over-confident Jordan Belfort comes through convincingly regardless of how much I loathed the character. His smug charm and creepy privilege oozed out of every frame. See the film if you must; you won't be disappointed with DiCaprio's work here.

I first had the privilege of seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity nearly a decade ago now, and I knew then that he had a really special emotive ability. At no point does he let up here. His face is constantly betraying his tortured - more literal than figurative - journey as a free man sold into slavery. His intonations are spot on. His voice rises and falls and cracks beautifully. His spirit seems unbreakable until it's broken, and you can nearly feel it in your soul each time he's driven further from his humanity culminating, perhaps, in a scene between Solomon Northrup and Patsey. The cinematography here was gorgeous, and a lot of that was on account of how it played to Ejiofor's acting.

I know, I know, you expect me to rag on Dallas Buyers Club some more. Nope. McConaughey suddenly became a good actor? I don't get it either, but here we are in 2013 seeing him in both this and The Wolf of Wall Street and performing admirably. I'm not in love with his turn as Ron Woodroof here, but he does a far more than adequate job. He takes his turn as a queer homophobe looking out for no one but himself as he profits off of AIDS patients. He's a deplorable person, and McConaughey rightly never truly makes us feel empathy, but he does just enough to save his humanity. Scenes like the one where he assaults a homophobic/transphobic man in a grocery store to make him shake Rayon's hand reminds you that he's not such a terrible guy despite his dismissive statements to Rayon directly after. It's not a magical turn as an actor, but he does a really special job of taking a pretty vile character and, in turn, casually reminding us that he's human and has a voice.

I'm significantly more pleased with the lead actors than the supporting actors. Here, the ones in films I detested still put on valiant shows. No one had a bad performance, but I'm pretty sure this comes down to Dern and Ejiofor with McConaughey having a shot. Note: between the three of them, they have a total of four lifetime nominations - Dern also had one for Coming Home in 1979. Nebraska and 12 Years both let the camera linger on their stars as they carried scenes, and neither film would have been nearly the same without them. 12 Years a Slave is much clearer Oscar-bait than Nebraska is, but I can't hold that against it or Ejiofor. A few years ago I was similarly torn between James Franco carrying a film by himself and Colin Firth having a very strong cast of supporting characters. That isn't to disparage Dern's costars, but he's the shining star here. At the time I went with Franco for carrying a movie on his back. Dern clearly has more support here, and I don't think he did quite as much more than Ejiofor to make the case here. I like Ejiofor personally, but I think Dern has a strong shot to actually win it both because of his age and the relatablity of his story to older voters.

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