Actor / how we got here

Comedy makes strong showing with Depp, Murray

With “Lost in Translation” opening in the fall, Bill Murray’s performance knocked out critics and managed to stay fresh through some tough competition.

“Who doesn’t love Bill Murray? Who wouldn’t want to hug Bill Murray?” says director Sofia Coppola. She’s probably too young to remember that it wasn’t always that way. At least one industry insider who remembers the early ’80s, when Murray toplined comedies like “Stripes,” recalls that the “SNL” vet made enemies in those days.

If Coppola is to be believed, though, that wild Murray is long gone. During “Lost in Translation’s” Tokyo shoot, she says, Murray impressed her with his unselfishness and commitment.

Many of Murray’s scenes with Scarlett Johansson seem improvised, but in fact they were tightly scripted. “Because he’s a good actor, it seems improvised,” says Coppola. When she did call on him to improvise, though, he was so funny that they lost takes because the crew’s laughter spoiled the sound.

Remember when . . . 1975
A group of rising stars who eventually became some of Oscar’s favorite sons played some of their most famous roles this year, and the actor noms followed suit: Al Pacino for “The Godfather Part II,” Dustin Hoffman for “Lenny,” Albert Finney for “Murder on the Orient Express” and Jack Nicholson for “Chinatown.”

The Acad chose Art Carney over all of them for his role in “Harry & Tonto,” Paul Mazursky’s film about a widower who leaves his lifelong New York neighborhood with his cat to travel the country and say goodbye to his friends and children.

The other films may be more fondly remembered today, but the sentiment was on Carney’s side and he won the Oscar on his sole nomination.

Sean Penn’s performance in “Mystic River” also has managed to maintain momentum after its initial sensation at Cannes and its fall release.

Last Oscar-nommed for 2001’s “I Am Sam,” Penn drew plenty of buzz for both “Mystic” and a similarly gritty performance in “21 Grams.” While the acting in “Mystic” drew plenty of positive notice, Penn’s nuanced take on the film’s central tough guy has been particularly well received.

“Mystic” and “Grams” bookended the New York Film Festival, where Penn expressed satisfaction with being a part of two distinct approaches to filmmaking.

“As an actor in American movies, it’s such an encouraging thing for me to work with two great directors who have such different DNA,” he said.

Comedy made a stronger showing than usual, with Murray and Johnny Depp of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” both drawing noms.

Jack Sparrow had been written as a “swashbuckling, obvious proper hero,” in co-star Orlando Bloom’s words, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer courted Depp from the outset.

“I wanted to make sure the audience knew this was not a normal Disney movie, that it was something special, and Johnny’s body of work will tell you that. (He) gives it a little spin, and that’s what I wanted.”

Depp, Penn and Murray all could capitalize on the sympathy factor: Acad voters rewarding favorite actors who have great careers but no Oscar on the shelf.

Personal feelings also can cut both ways. Actors who’ve misbehaved or who disdain awards don’t get much sympathy for not having won. “This is not a group that’s inclined to give it to you if you don’t want it,” says one veteran insider. That would hurt Murray and Depp, who don’t like to campaign. On the other hand, longtime bad boy Penn has been accessible this year, and that may put him back in the Acad’s good graces.

Former winner Ben Kingsley has his supporters for a very powerful turn in the tragic “House of Sand and Fog,” while “Cold Mountain’s” absence from other key races probably dims second-time nominee Jude Law’s chances.

Kingsley, a U.K. native who just turned 60, is adept at playing characters of different nationalities. He’s gone Indian, of course, and won his actor Oscar in “Gandhi,” and was nominated for his turn as an American in “Bugsy.” (His third nomination came three years ago for “Sexy Beast.”)

“My portrait is of a Persian warrior for whom loss of face and honor is intolerably painful,” he says. “After losing so much, it’s very devastating for him to deal with.”

Law beat out bids for the nomination from such heavyweights as Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Russell Crowe and well-noticed newcomers Paul Giamatti and Peter Dinklage.

“Cold Mountain,” Law says, “has to me been a kind of watershed in terms of carrying a film, but also acknowledging the responsibility that is to do with taking the film into the public arena.”

Oscar pedigree

Johnny Depp’s wild man perf and lack of previous Academy Award experience makes sizing up his Oscar chances difficult.

His perfs in films “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Donnie Brasco” showed the range of his talent, but his over-the-top turn in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” is not the usual thing the Academy rewards.

Yet, the daring, unusual performance in the sort of summer blockbuster that rarely gets acting noms could work in his favor.

Ben Kingsley is well-known to the Academy, having won in this category for “Gandhi” and been nommed twice in the supporting field. Kingsley’s quietly intense performance follows up his nominated turn as a profane and violent thug in “Sexy Beast” (2001).

But as dark as “Sand and Fog” is, Sean Penn ventures into the darkest territory of the noms in “Mystic River.” The thesp has three previous noms and is well known to the Acad. But while he is greatly admired, he has been hurt in the past by his unwillingness to campaign for the trophy. That aside, the buzz surrounding “Mystic River” may finally be too loud for the Acad to ignore.

Comedy roles have never done well at winning the trophy, but given that Bill Murray is a first-time nom for “Lost in Translation” may prompt the Acad to feel this could be its only chance to recognize him.

Jude Law gets his first actor nom after one for supporting (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”). Both are for films he did with director Anthony Minghella. His character is one of the most well-rounded of the bunch, but that normalcy could hurt him, as the Acad often honors showier roles.

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