Contenders ready to battle

Established actors eyeing the short list

ADRIEN BRODY

Adrien Brody has been acting professionally for more than half his life, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he enjoyed his two breakout roles. Brody’s perf as Richie Rude in Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam” had Hollywood chin-waggers in overdrive last summer.

Then, in Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” as Van Kurtzman, Brody’s work could get him an Oscar nod for supporting actor.

“Brody emerges from the promise he has long displayed with a very ingratiating turn,” said Daily Variety’s Todd McCarthy in his review of the film. “The next Robert De Niro,” predicted New York magazine.

Heady stuff, indeed. But on the record, at least, the 27-year-old Brody’s trying not to let it shake him. “I’m not a clear, safe bet for the studios,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve been working consistently, professionally, since I was 13. They think I’m a newcomer … but I’ve been doing this forever.”

Which isn’t really an exaggeration. Brody’s photographer mother, Sylvia Plachy, started snapping portraits of the actor when he was an infant. By age 12, he was taking Saturday morning acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

Brody says he learned early on: “You don’t have to ham it up (in front of a camera). It comes naturally. … You can learn techniques that improve your talent, but there has to be some innate ability.”

Since his first starring role in the PBS film “Home at Last” (1988), Brody has appeared in, among others, “King of the Hill” (1993), “The Last Time I Committed Suicide” (1997) and “Oxygen” with “News Radio” alumna Maura Tierney.

— Christopher Grove

CHRIS COOPER

Playing a rigid and obsessive former Marine in “American Beauty” presented a new challenge for Chris Cooper, who admits that for most of his career he’s played salt of the earth, all-American, working-class male roles.

Except for the nasty character he portrayed in “Money Train” (1995), Cooper has projected a laconic presence that has aided such films as John Sayles’ “Matewan” (1987) and “Lone Star” (1996), and more recently Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer” (1998) “Great Expectations” (1998) and last year’s “October Sky.”

Cooper says he has two approaches to acting: “As an actor you have two things to draw from — your life and experience and, if you can’t apply that, your imagination.”

For “October Sky” he drew on memories of his own father. For “American Beauty,” however, the actor says he “didn’t have much to draw on. There’s where a lot of imagination and research came in.”

Cooper created a history for the character by talking to Vietnam war veterans and steeping himself in reading about the experience. But he also drew on a specific side of his late father, whom he describes as “a John Wayne type of man’s man” and what he sees as a certain naivete about the workings of the outside world.

Also, Cooper delved into the scripts for clues about his character, as well as getting together with co-stars Allison Janey (who plays his wife) and Wes Bentley (who plays his son — see separate story) to create a history of the family preceding their move to suburbia.

His next film is another departure for Cooper. At present he is in South Carolina starring in Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot,” in a role loosely based on the Revolutionary War character Henry (Lighthorse Harry) Lee. He’s also playing a cop on the take in Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s “Me, Myself and Irene,” starring Jim Carrey.

— Richard Natale

RUSSELL CROWE

Russell Crowe’s impact as a film actor was rather immediate. He was nominated for an Australian Film Critics Award (Down Under’s equivalent of the Oscar) for his first lead, in “The Crossing” (1990).

The following two years he won Australian Film Institute honors for his supporting role as a well-meaning restaurant worker who insinuates his way into the lives of a blind photographer and his housekeeper in “Proof” (1991) and his lead part as a neo-Nazi skinhead in “Romper Stomper” (1992), showing a range not necessarily associated with the kind of movie star presence Crowe exudes onscreen.

The fierceness and intensity of his perf in “Romper Stomper” foreshadowed his breakthrough role as the brutal yet vulnerable cop in Curtis Hanson’s 1997 “L.A. Confidential.”

For Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” the 35-year-old Crowe gained 35 pounds and donned a gray wig to play the tightly wound Jeffrey Wigand, who sacrifices his career and marriage when he cooperates with “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman to blow the whistle on the tobacco companies. The role has earned Crowe best actor laurels from the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.

As Wigand, Crowe inspired the L.A. Times to describe him as “a powerhouse actor who joins an old-fashioned masculine presence with an unnerving ability to completely disappear into a role.”

–Steve Chagollan

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

If there were an award for the year’s hardest working actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman would have the edge in 1999.

In addition to turning in a lead performance as a female impersonator in Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless,” Hoffman had two supporting key roles in pics last year. He was reunited with director Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom he has done two other films, for a role as an empathetic male nurse in the ensemble drama “Magnolia,” then switched gears yet again in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” in which he portrays a spoiled rich boy wandering around Rome.

Hoffman has become adept at standing out in ensemble pieces. He first worked with Anderson in “Hard Eight” (1997) and that same year in “Boogie Nights” as a pathetic porno film crew member. His 1998 perf in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” brought an IFP/West Spirit Award nomination as supporting actor. He also appeared that year in mainstream films such as “Patch Adams.” .”

Of his work in “Magnolia,” Hoffman says, “I appreciated that Paul was asking for something completely different from me — and that the film is something completely different. I liked that (the character) is not what you think a male nurse should be … This guy really takes pride in the fact that every day he’s dealing with life-and-death circumstances.”

Hoffman’s work in “Flawless” and “Ripley” allows him to display his flair for comedy, though the two characters couldn’t differ more. In “Flawless,” he portrays a man of great flamboyance and emotional directness. For “Ripley” he is a callous, condescending Lothario, an extension of his role as a snobby preppie in Martin Brest’s “Scent of a Woman” (1992), the first role to bring him to the attention of audiences and critics.

And the work continues. Hoffman has just completed a role in David Mamet’s latest film “State and Main.”

— Richard Natale

ANGELINA JOLIE

It’s hard to imagine a more schizophrenic year for an actor. From chasing sociopaths in “The Bone Collector” to portraying one in “Girl, Interrupted,” Angelina Jolie has drawn on every raw nerve in her repertoire.

Her portrayal of the dangerous and charming Lisa in “Girl, Interrupted,” opposite Winona Ryder’s tautly tormented Susanna, tapped into her acting ability and quirky persona.

The fact that exec producer Winona Ryder and co-writer-director James Mangold pegged her for the part of a charismatic insane woman doesn’t bother the actress. She understood where Lisa was coming from.

“The part of me that identifies with her is that she needs everybody to be real with her,” Jolie says. “She needs so desperately to find somebody to tell her to shut up or to yell back at her. When she’s aggressive with people, it’s not being overly critical. She’s just saying to the others, there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing bad about you. Don’t let them get you to kill yourself.”

Jolie read a lot of books to research the part. “When I went to a bookstore and asked for books on sociopaths, they said to go to the serial killer section. After doing ‘Bone Collector,’ it was a really frightening discovery that I had gone to the other side of my personality,” she says.

— Jan Lindstrom

NICOLE KIDMAN

The script of “Eyes Wide Shut” struck Nicole Kidman immediately as “hypnotic, very Kubrickian and definitely playable” — including two extraordinarily long monologues for her character, Alice Harford.

From the start, Kidman found herself learning acting lessons from Kubrick, even after a career that stretches from early work in Phillip Noyce’s “Dead Calm” (1989) to her turn in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (1995) to Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady” (1996).

“Stanley told me before reading the script,” she recalls, “to read it when I’m not rushed by time, and write down my notes immediately after the first reading. ‘They’ll be your best reaction and judgment, because you’ll never have that experience again,’ he said. I’ve done that with every script since. He’s really had this kind of impact on me.”

But because a Kubrick film takes time — with breaks, the “Eyes Wide Shut” shoot consumed over two years — there was the opportunity to develop uncommon intimacy.

“He doesn’t like actors doing research on their roles, so I never read Arthur Schnitzler’s novella (‘Dream Novel,’ on which ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is based), and I still haven’t, strange as that may seem,” she says. “But when I would whine to him that I couldn’t research, he’d get cranky back to me, and we’d drop it. It was like being in a family.

“What gave me great confidence was Stanley’s confidence in me. I started to relish it, and Stanley would elongate scenes, not trim them. The technical side of acting got such a workout, that it became second nature. It’s what made me feel I could do theater, with ‘The Blue Room.’ When you have the technical aspect in hand, the emotional, spontaneous sides comes pouring out.”

— Robert Koehler

JUDE LAW

Ever since he copped a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut in the 1995 “Indiscretions” (a role he originated in London), Jude Law has been in search of the right film role to separate him from the pack of other twentysomething hopefuls.

He found a start in 1997. His turn in the British film “Wilde” opposite Stephen Fry earned him a London Film Critics award and he managed quietly to steal all his scenes in the futuristic “Gattaca.” He also earned notices for his brief appearance in Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

As the rich, charismatic and hopelessly spoiled Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” however, he finally gets a turn in the spotlight. It’s a pivotal and showy role in the suspense drama based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel about the relationship between an expatriate dilettante and a cunning, remorseless social climber (Matt Damon in the title role) who yearns to assume his identity.

As Greenleaf, Law plays the enticing tunes to which the other characters are forced to dance.

“Dickie leads his life as he wants to live it and assumes everyone else is doing the same,” Law says. “There’s a great line in the script where he says, ‘My father builds boats, I sail them.’ The thing I like so much about him is that he has an incredible lust for life. I think that is what people find so attractive about him and why they want to cling to him.”

Though best supporting actor is a crowded category this year, being one of this year’s “finds” may stand him in good stead when the balloting is calculated.

— Richard Natale

TOBEY MAGUIRE

In the short time since he appeared in Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” both in 1997, 24-year-old Tobey Maguire has gone from being a boyish new face to one of today’s most sought-after young actors.

In 1999 alone, Maguire took center stage as the conflicted Southern Bushwacker Jake Roedel in the Civil War saga “Ride With the Devil,” his second collaboration with Lee; and as Homer Wells, an orphan who grows up fast in Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of the John Irving novel “The Cider House Rules.” (Irving’s screenplay has been nominated for a Golden Globe.) Both films are anchored by Maguire’s characters.

“Homer is someone who’s very reserved with his emotions, which comes from being an orphan,” says Maguire of his “Cider House” character. “He has a lot going on inside that he tries to keep to himself. I really wanted the audience to come to Homer, and to see what’s going on with him without him showing the people around him.”

This kind of interior acting is one of the toughest feats to pull off. In “Deconstructing Harry,” Maguire managed to make Allen’s young fictional alter-ego a sensible, wide-eyed innocent even while attempting to engage a hooker. And in “Ice Storm” as the oldest son of a ’70s suburban couple experimenting with casual sex and other social experiments, Maguire’s prep school protagonist is a veritable rock of stability amidst all the dysfunction. The same applies to his teenage role in “Pleasantville” (1998).

In discussing Lee’s directing approach, Maguire could just as well be talking about his own acting style: “He’s pretty practical, realistic, quiet — but communicates what he needs to.”

— Steve Chagollan

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER

“It is pure coincidence that I have portrayed real and/or historic figures at one time and another during my career, but because I have a good sense of observation, a certain talent for mimicry and a fascination with detail, they attract me,” says Christopher Plummer.

The Canadian-born actor also claims his role as the veteran CBS “60 Minutes” journalist Mike Wallace in “The Insider” was “the most vividly alive individual I’ve ever attempted. It appealed to my sense of recklessness — the stakes were higher this time.”

But he also notes, “My job is not to imitate but to suggest the man in question, and I was confident I had the required skills upon which to draw from.”

“Insider” director Michael Mann, a fan of Plummer since seeing him as Atahualpa in the 1969 pic “The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” says the vet actor creates the impression of both the “theatrical Mike Wallace and Mike Wallace the man.” The helmer says that duality was essential to what he dubs the “extreme naturalism” of the film’s acting style that “simulates, in a very tense, arrhythmic way, human behavior.”

The helmer hails Plummer as “courageous” for taking on the role of someone so well known. “He nailed it,” Mann says, pointing up two or three key things Plummer homed in on to create such a believable impression: a certain way Wallace holds his head, his hand movements and, of course, the “ambush!”

In a long and varied career, Plummer has often been cast as handsome men with an awkward edge (Captain von Trapp, the Duke of Wellington, Rudyard Kipling, Sherlock Holmes, among others). The actor is twice a Tony winner for his stage work, including his re-creation of flamboyant star John Barrymore. But, in a supporting actor field crowded with fine performances, the actor may be facing something new: Plummer has never been nominated for an Oscar.

— Bridget Byrne

NATALIE PORTMAN

Natalie Portman’s performance as struggling daughter Ann August in Wayne Wang’s “Anywhere but Here” has caused some critics virtually to swoon in their seats.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane effused, ” ‘Anywhere but Here’ is Portman’s movie, all the way; she aims to look sulky and straggle-haired, but in truth her beauty has now become so disabling that you should not attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery for 12 hours after viewing this picture. Portman disproves the (film’s) title; when she’s on screen, you want to be there and nowhere else.”

Portman’s admirers (whose ranks exploded last summer when millions saw her as Queen Amidala in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”), might be startled to learn that Portman nearly lost the role of Ann. Mona Simpson’s novel contains a scene requiring nudity, but Portman’s mother informed Wang and producer Laurence Mark that Portman was not allowed to do nude scenes before her 18th birthday.

“I was quite upset, actually,” says Wang, by phone from his San Francisco home. “From the first time I read Alvin Sargent’s script, I had seen Natalie as Ann. I was kinda stuck on her. I had thought back to her first film role in ‘The Professional,’ (1994), how her eyes were so strong and truthful, and then in ‘Beautiful Girls’ (1996), where I could see that she could really act.”

While Sargent tried to rewrite the scene to avoid explicitness, the director auditioned 20 other actresses, “but I didn’t find anyone with Natalie’s strength, intelligence and truth. Not even close. Alvin solved the scene, so what a relief when Natalie returned,” Wang says.

Wang’s perceptions about Portman’s talent were confirmed during filming. “You see, she has a rare power among young actors,” he says. “She knows how to do very little in front of the camera to be truthful and not seem to act. And she uses her instincts to have the right reaction at the right time, but can also come up with surprises.

“Of course,” adds Wang, “a performance of this caliber doesn’t come out of thin air, and Natalie had Susan Sarandon, who’s so natural and real, to play off of. I designed the movie with the two of them in mind.”

— Robert Koehler

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