Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress

In Oscar’s first year, Emil Jannings’ cruel czarist general defeated Richard Barthelmess’ noble ex-pug, while Janet Gaynor’s loyal wife in “Sunrise” bested Gloria Swanson’s wicked “Sadie Thompson.”

In short, the battle of saints vs. sinners has been a part of the awards hunt as long as Hollywood has been hunting.

The rosters boast numerous examples of humanity at its best and worst. For every monster (Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin) you’ll find a corresponding great soul (Sean Penn in “Milk”), alongside a host of individuals drawn in shades of gray.

Still, “there’s always something interesting about bad behavior,” says Oren Moverman, who brought us one of the year’s worst behavers, Woody Harrelson’s crooked cop in “Rampart.” So do specters of iniquity have any kind of edge, kudowise, over the forces of virtue?

Michael Barker, co-founder and co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics, thinks it’s more a matter of fullness.

“I don’t see it as the evil characters get the awards and the nice characters don’t. First of all the performance has to be great, but then the richer the character is written, the greater the chance of its being acknowledged.”

Yet some filmmakers get a special buzz from exploring evil.

“It’s human nature to be drawn to the darker side,” Moverman says, “and through movies we get to do it in a very safe way.”

Longtime awards consultant Tony Angellotti thinks that may affect the memory of those marking ballots. “Often the ones we can’t forget are the ones who irk us or make us uncomfortable, not the ones who coddle us and make us happy.”

Helmer-scribe Sean Durkin created the hypnotic cult leader played by John Hawkes in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with eyes wide open.

“I start with the fear it strikes in me,” Durkin says. “Part of my process is confronting that fear … as a way of trying to understand why that person does what he does.”

He and Hawkes “agreed we wanted a slow, subtle reveal, not your typical over-the-top cult leader. He would be more manipulative, quiet and cunning, and show his power without making him ever enforce his power. I don’t think he ever raises his voice.”

A similar sinister force, of course, underlies any number of memorable award winners — Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, on screen briefly but dominant throughout.

Where does that leave the good guy? Says Angellotti: “Too many times the sympathetic role can be treacly or forgettable. It takes a certain kind of actor to overcome a blandly written role, whereas the villainous roles are often written with fangs out.”

Voters may also resist work in which a B.O. name might be seen as riding effortlessly on his or her own personality.

The trick, evidently, is to find an alternative to blandness by giving the movie star enough substance to sink his or her teeth into — as Sandra Bullock did for her Oscar-winning role in “The Blind Side.”

Bennett Miller, helmer of Brad Pitt starrer “Moneyball,” concedes Billy Beane is “not as ‘charactery’ as other roles Brad’s played, so I suppose it’s possible to confuse the lack of a ‘flaky’ character with who he is.” Yet, “the character is wholly different from Brad, a total difference of mood, temperature, attitude, physical manner.”

And his quest to win baseball games and redeem his squandered past becomes something for which audiences can cheer. “We took an approach that would deepen our understanding of the undercurrents of his life. I trusted people would be able to relate,” Miller says.

Relate they do, and Pitt — along with George Clooney, Viola Davis, Jean Dujardin and others who shone this year in roles of essential decency — is very much in 2011’s awards hunt.

Miller cautions against underestimating the kind of acting that doesn’t rely on tics, explosions or intimations of evil. He cites the retort of Truman Capote to a reporter who wondered whether his latter-day crisp, simpler style was somehow less “sophisticated.”

“He told her, the more colorful style belongs to a younger, less matured writer. The harder feat is, with simple prose, to communicate with all the potency of that full arsenal. Ultimately, it’s harder, and more powerful.”

Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress
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