Thesps appreciate understated performances

Director Tom McCarthy recalls sitting with lead actor Richard Jenkins at the first screening of “The Visitor,” attended by more than 1,000 at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

“We got up to do the Q&A,” McCarthy says. “No one (had) left. First question: ‘Mr. Jenkins, who are you taking to the Oscars?’”

If it seems preposterous that performers in lower-profile films (such as Jenkins, Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Kristin Scott Thomas in “I Loved You So Long” or Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky”) could snag Oscar kudos, consider that when it comes to the actual voting, the only audience that matters is the one most likely to appreciate understated brilliance.

The biggest voting block in the Academy, after all, is made up of actors.

“I’ve been voting for 30 years,” says Frank Langella, himself a possible candidate for his first Oscar thanks to “Frost/Nixon.” “I work very hard at it when I am a voter, I see every nominated film, and I see every performance. And I put an X next to the person who’s moved me most deeply. That’s my criteria.

“Did that actor give as honest, as deep, as strong, as open a performance? Was I emotionally moved by it, and what does it take to create that? Since I’m in the profession, I look at the actor’s task, and I vote for that performance. I don’t let myself be influenced by anything else but that.”

And not only does Dennis Hopper (a supporting actor in “Elegy,” which features Ben Kingsley in the lead) attend the Sundance Film Festival every year, he has chaired the CineVegas fest since 2004.

“I see a lot of films that probably no one sees,” Hopper says. “I just judge off what I see. I don’t follow if it’s made a lot of money or hasn’t. I’m just voting my conscience, my taste. If it’s a big star that gives an outstanding performance or if it’s somebody we haven’t heard of in years giving an outstanding performance, I’m for both of them.”

One could argue that other voters aren’t as vigilant as Hopper or Langella, whose critically beloved performance in last year’s “Starting Out in the Evening” couldn’t break into an Oscar lead actor party that featured George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Tommy Lee Jones, Viggo Mortensen and eventual winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Nevertheless, compared with the challenge of generating box office for a smaller film, the playing field for acting awards is much more level.

“An Academy member or a guild member is kind of like an arthouse-plus viewer,” says 42West entertainment marketing co-head Cynthia Swartz. “They’re not mass market. They’re people who are looking for smart, sophisticated entertainment.”

Given their peers’ insider status and professional reasons for seeing the best possible work, the biggest hurdle that low-profile contenders face in award season is not a lack of interest, but a lack of time. Often, the better actors are, the busier they are.

Asked how many films she wishes she could see, Scott Thomas replies, “Plenty.” But while starring on Broadway in “The Seagull” in between bigscreen jobs, she says she hardly has viewed any.

“It tales me a lot of time to catch up,” adds Hawkins, in play for her first Oscar nom. “If there’s a lot of hype around the film, I’ll think, ‘No, I don’t want to see it. I’ll see the little thing nobody knows about.’ … I’m quite obsessed with films.”

To meet both the dream demand and the nightmare logistics, screeners have taken on great importance in the Oscar process. Jenkins, who lives in Rhode Island, admits he doesn’t see that many movies in the theater.

On the other hand, perhaps contrary to popular belief, Academy voters do read the critics. If the reviewers praise a film or a performance that ultimately gets shunned at Oscar time, it doesn’t mean the reviews had no impact.

“A critic can hand out five stars or a brilliant review to Film X and then to Film Y and then to Film Z,” says “Happy-Go-Lucky” director Mike Leigh. “None of the three films are negatively affected by each of them gaining a positive response.”

In other words, the critics, if nothing else, provide a boost to films small and smaller. In general, word of mouth plays a significant role as the stakes get higher.

“I just know that when (“The Visitor”) played in a city and it opened on a Friday, Saturday business was almost twice as much,” Jenkins says. “So you do see word of mouth with that.”

And getting people to see the film is all you can ask for. After that, the Oscar outcome simply becomes a matter of what Acad voters — especially actor voters — are looking for. Anything is possible at that point, and subtlety can carry the day.

“I don’t want to see someone working,” Scott Thomas says. “I don’t want to see clever acting. I want to see somebody breathing. I don’t like performances that are too showy.

“I just love seeing transformation — it’s really brilliant. I just love seeing an actor in one film and then hardly recognizing him in another.”

If awards for their actors aren’t necessarily a raison d’etre — McCarthy notes that he’s had “many actors reach out to me not just to say, ‘Oh, what a performance,’ but, ‘Thank you for giving (Jenkins) this role’” — it’s not as if the thought creating an Oscar opportunity never crosses a filmmaker’s mind.

“I’ve constructed (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) unashamedly so Sally Hawkins would have that focus,” Leigh says. “And she delivers the goods.”

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