In the first of three spirited Oscar debates, Variety's critics tussle over Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto and this year's other supporting actor/actress nominees.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
JUSTIN CHANG: Bonjour, Peter. I know you’re still settling into your new Parisian digs as we speak (I’m picturing you at your laptop in an “I Louvre Paris” T-shirt with a cafe au lait at the ready), so I appreciate your taking the time to discuss this year’s Oscar nominees for supporting actor and actress — specifically, the ones we’d love to see win, the ones we’d rather see lose, and the grievous omissions in each category.
To start with the latter: I was saddened, if not exactly shocked, that the Academy didn’t give James Gandolfini a supporting-actor nomination for his wonderful performance as a divorced dad navigating the perils of midlife romance in “Enough Said.” Some suggested early on that the actor’s death, just three months before Nicole Holofcener’s film made its world premiere at Toronto, would surely earn him enough sympathy votes to grab a posthumous nomination, a cynical argument that sells the performance way too short. I’ll always treasure the fact that one of Gandolfini’s final bigscreen appearances was also one of his very best, in which he bared his soul (and his gut) with such tenderness and good humor — reminding us, in the process, that there was a lot more to the guy than Tony Soprano. “You broke my heart,” Gandolfini says late in the film, breaking ours twice over.
None of this year’s actual nominees for best supporting actor rose to that level of effortless, lived-in humanity for me, although none of them strike me as less than worthy, either. I’ll let you weigh in on your fave (and just about everyone else’s), Jared Leto, who’s finally getting his due after flying under the radar for several years, though anyone impressed by his transgender turn in “Dallas Buyers Club” should check out his even more staggering transformation(s) in “Mr. Nobody.” I know you’re a vocal detractor of “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but (a) I forgive you, and (b) I’d say both Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill solidly earned their nominations here, the former with his pink curlers, the latter with his prosthetic schlong. And I think we can agree that in “Captain Phillips,” the Somali-American newcomer Barkhad Abdi was a revelation: In a film so dominated by Tom Hanks’ natural screen magnetism in a heroic role, Abdi was crucial in balancing our perspective with a complex and sympathetic glimpse into one man’s desperate, monstrous humanity.
But speaking of desperate, monstrous humanity, the supporting actor who’d get my vote is Michael Fassbender, who delivers such a viciously charismatic piece of screen villainy in “12 Years a Slave” that it almost threatens, at times, to unbalance Steve McQueen’s otherwise coolly calibrated film. In the role of a particular malevolent slave owner, Fassbender must bear the symbolic weight of the institution, in all its evil and banality, that oppressed Solomon Northup and countless others. Yet he doesn’t reduce Edwin Epps to an easy symbol or a one-dimensional scary dude; he’s a morally blinkered, Scripture-quoting, slave-raping lunatic, a creature so depraved — and deluded about his depravity — that you can just about see his soul rotting away from within. Fassbender has become such an indispensable actor over the past few years that it’s a bit of a shock to realize this is only his first Academy Award nomination; it surely won’t be his last.
PETER DEBRUGE: I think the fact that his performance cracked their top five speaks to the overall strength of “12 Years a Slave” in the race. Unlike “American Hustle,” in which we’re never permitted to forget how much Acting is going on at any given moment, “Slave” is more self-conscious at the directing level, relying on performances so raw, we can scarcely bear to watch at times. That goes not only for the characters who endure physical abuse, but also for Master Epps, who suffers too in his own way. Here is a man who feels something he mistakes for love toward his slave, Patsey, and he can’t reconcile that with a system that dehumanizes the woman who stirs up such emotions in him, creating such cognitive dissonance that he’s reduced to a seething monster.
So, yes, Jared Leto may be my fave, but Fassbender has delivered the most complex and difficult performance of an already stunning career. This won’t be his last nomination; I predict a lead-actor Oscar in his future. Leto, meanwhile, is a curious kind of performer, a polymath capable of stepping away from acting for five years when the situation requires. That allowed him to blindside our expectations in “Dallas Buyers Club,” since so many of us still think of him as either the kid from “My So Called Life” or a rock star who merely dabbles in acting (though as any aspiring thesp can tell you, this second job allows him the luxury of being selective).
Leto first registered on my radar with “Requiem for a Dream,” and in the years since, I’ve been repeatedly impressed with his chameleon-like ability to physically reinvent himself for roles — some of which haven’t always deserved such commitment, such as John Lennon’s assassin in “Chapter 27” (for which he gained 60-some-odd pounds), and some of which did, such as his astonishing, leave-it-all-on-the-field work in “Mr. Nobody.” How fortunate for us that Leto went after the role of Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club” the way he did, elevating a character that could have derailed the entire film, and reinforcing through sheer commitment the strength and resolve that defines this courageous human being.
And yet, despite my enthusiasm for these two nominees, I’m still astonished that the Academy was able to overlook the work of German actor Daniel Bruhl as a hyper-obsessive Formula One driver in Ron Howard’s “Rush.” Male or female, lead or supporting, this was the performance of the year for me. In reality, Bruhl is a handsome fellow with an Ewan McGregor resemblance, but as Austrian racer Niki Lauda, he refashioned himself as hunky co-star Chris Hemsworth’s polar opposite: a fastidious, rat-faced efficiency expert for whom only winning matters — and for this, he should have won an Oscar.
CHANG: Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
DEBRUGE: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
CHANG: It’s interesting, Peter, that we have such wildly divergent takes on “American Hustle,” despite having arrived at more or less the same key observation about it: “We’re never permitted to forget how much Acting is going on at any given moment.” You say that like it’s a bad thing! No doubt, David O. Russell’s whirligig farce is an irrepressible show-off of a movie about a bunch of irrepressible show-offs, and the fact that the actors are clearly having a ball, and sometimes winking at us to signal what a ball they’re having, doesn’t work against the movie; it enriches and fulfills it.
That meta-theatrical zing goes right to the heart of what Russell’s film is all about: the joys of acting (and Acting), the pleasures of donning crazy hairpieces and polyester suits and false names and British accents — and yes, perhaps even taking on a role that’s a few years too old for you, to cite one of the chief complaints directed at Jennifer Lawrence’s irresistible firecracker of a performance. If Amy Adams’ trickier turn suggests a coy manifestation of Russell’s superego, then Lawrence is like an uncorked blast of pure id — a white-hot fusion of leonine sexuality and comic ferocity that leaves everyone in her wake feeling scorched, seduced or both. In Lawrence, Russell has found his greatest onscreen muse in years; it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest to hear that they’re planning to collaborate again, this time on a biopic about the inventor of the Miracle Mop (who else?).
All that having been said, I have to admit that, as good as Lawrence is, I don’t particularly want to see her win an Oscar this year — and not just because the backlash would be furious, coming off her lead-actress win for “Silver Linings Playbook,” her B.O. dominance in “The Hunger Games” franchise and other warning signs of too-much-too-soon overexposure. Honoring her this year would also overlook the sterling, vanity-free character work done by Julia Roberts — a star who was once the Jennifer Lawrence of her day, and who demonstrates in “August: Osage County” the sort of classical restraint and slow-roiling emotional depth that she hasn’t really embodied since another stage-to-screen adaptation, 2004’s “Closer.” Embodying a completely different specimen of strong-willed, no-bull Midwesterner, June Squibb made me fear the worst in the opening scenes of “Nebraska,” which I initially had pegged as another Alexander Payne parade of heartland grotesques; mercifully, both the film and the performance deepen beautifully, allowing Squibb to show us the resilient, fiercely protective wife and mother beneath the henpecking harpy.
DEBRUGE: Right, I don’t want to see Jennifer Lawrence win either, but not because I’m worried about whether her career can handle it. It’s definitely a bad thing in my book that “American Hustle” puts the actors’ entertainment ahead of our own. Listen, I don’t think acting should be arduous (and it’s always mystified me how Academy voters like to recognize performances in which the characters suffer the most, a la Anne Hathaway), but at the very least, acting should reveal the characters, and there’s not a single authentic moment in “American Hustle.” We meet Christian Bale with his gut hanging out, and immediately, we’re thinking about all the weight he gained for the part — that idea actually precedes the character into the scene. Same with Amy Adams, who walks in wearing a gown cut down to her navel, or Lawrence, whose crazy hairdo is the first thing about her that registers. That moment gets a double laugh: First, because this crazy, disheveled lady is trying to convince her husband that the kitchen catching on fire was no big deal, and second, because it’s a hoot to see Lawrence looking like this.
We can talk this one in circles, I realize, and it simply leaves me looking like a poor sport. I say it’s Bad Acting, and you fire back, “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” or I whine that the characterizations are inconsistent, even contradictory, throughout, and you say, “What’s wrong with sloppy? That’s the point. It’s a movie about con men and phonies, after all.” (Though Lawrence’s character is neither — she’s a projection of what Russell thinks of women, which is far more vexing.) Like Adams’ accent, the performances are all over the place, probably because no one on set had an idea of where this crazy exercise was going.
Lawrence has one legitimately strong scene in the movie — the one where she spills Bale’s secret to the junior mobster played by Jack Huston — and maybe that’ll be enough to cinch the win. But all the actress’ other scenes reflect whatever craziness Russell allowed her to do on that particular take, and while they’re certainly memorable (like that surprise kiss between Lawrence and Adams in the ladies’ room), the behavior is not that of a human being, but of an acting exercise run amok. Frankly, it stresses me out trying to watch a movie where no one involved seems to care about the characters or story; they’re too busy putting on a parade. (I can hear you now: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”)
Of course, every performance carries the baggage of whatever we’ve seen that actor do before, which is surely one of the reasons the Academy so often nominates first-timers whose later, more mature work goes unrecognized. I thought Carey Mulligan was better as the fed-up and humorless ex-girlfriend in “Inside Llewyn Davis” than she was in “An Education,” for example. This year’s ingenue is Lupita Nyong’o, an actress the makers of “12 Years a Slave” looked far and wide to find, knowing how important the role of Patsey was to that picture. Steve McQueen has likened the casting challenge to the search for Scarlett O’Hara, and the comparison seems apt, considering the heft of the project.
I have a bias when it comes to “12 Years a Slave”: This is an Important movie in my eyes — a vital subject, long overdue, impeccably executed. But I don’t mean for that to overshadow the strength of the contributions by all involved, most notably two supporting performances: those by Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye, who plays Eliza, the mother whom Solomon meets on the slave ship, and who proves inconsolable after the slave traders sell her daughter. These two actresses reveal the tragedy of slavery in such profound ways, while connecting with the audience on such a fundamental and heartbreaking human level.
CHANG: Why is it, Peter, that after reading your latest “American Hustle” takedown, I’m reminded of Bosley Crowther on “L’avventura”? Russell’s movie may not be perfect, but scene for scene, it’s an experience to be savored and surprised by, not refuted with a textbook full of aesthetic absolutes. “Not a single authentic moment” — really? Not even the one you cited, between Lawrence and Huston? How about the sweetly funny scene where Jeremy Renner buys Christian Bale a microwave, and we see a flicker of remorse as Bale realizes he’s about to screw over the first honest-to-goodness friend he’s had in ages? Or the piercingly vulnerable moment when Amy Adams bares her Albuquerque soul to the man she thinks she loves, finally dropping the facade and the British accent (which, far from being all over the place, is precisely modulated in relation to whomever she’s trying to fool at any given moment)?
In “American Hustle,” the humanity wells up when you least expect it. Authenticity — the need to be loved and understood for who we are, not the shimmering mirages we project — is exactly what Russell’s flawed, flailing characters ultimately cannot stifle, no matter how hard they try or how many wigs they put on. The surface may be nutty and mannered and garishly stylized, but the emotions coursing beneath it are vivid and raw, and thrilling in no small part because they catch you so off-guard. What you dismiss as a movie without a blueprint, I embrace as a movie without a safety net: Spare me the sort of logic that says the grimly calculated realism of “12 Years a Slave” and the predigested odd-couple melodrama of “Dallas Buyers Club” are the highest benchmarks of cinematic quality. (You wanna talk stunt acting? Jared Leto is a marvel, no question, but I see more look-at-me transformational baggage in that performance than in Bale’s gut, Adams’ neckline and Lawrence’s beehive combined. There’s no easier way to win an acting race than to turn it into a drag race.)
So we’ll have to agree to disagree on “American Hustle,” and good luck to both of us with that. Where we agree completely — hey, it happens — is that Lupita Nyong’o is exceptionally deserving. Even those who find McQueen’s film distancing and remote concede the gut-wrenching power of the actress’ performance; she’s a revelation, and revelations have a good track record in this category. Factor in that she has a Critics’ Choice Award, a Golden Globe and a SAG trophy under her belt, and I’d say Nyong’o has this race more or less sewn up, even though Lawrence’s BAFTA win last week (possibly a make-up win after the Brits overlooked her for “Silver Linings Playbook”) seems to have narrowed the gap a bit.
I don’t mind admitting that sometimes we want people to win Oscars for reasons other than a strict determination of preference and quality. Make no mistake, I’m largely rooting for Nyong’o; she gave an astonishing performance, and this is clearly her golden moment. But I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile that statement with the fact that, if I did have a real ballot, I’d have to cast it for Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine.” Simply put, there was no one I was more pleasantly surprised to see pop up on Oscar nominations morning (and not just because she was so wrongly passed over five years ago for “Happy-Go-Lucky”). In a film rightly dominated by Cate Blanchett’s galvanizing lead turn, and in a role that could have easily tilted into blue-collar caricature, Hawkins supported her co-star with consummate grace and an unshowy depth of feeling, while setting the tone for similarly tough-and-tender character work all around by Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K.
For emotional impact, I’d stack any of Blanchett’s vodka-swilling tirades against the scene in which Hawkins’ character realizes her new paramour isn’t the man she thought he was, her illusions dying away in one breathtakingly quiet instant. To concede your earlier point, just this once: There’s not a hint of Acting about it, and for that, Hawkins gets my vote.
DEBRUGE: I concur that Hawkins was exceptional in “Blue Jasmine,” and the performances in that movie work for precisely the reasons that I found lacking in “American Hustle.” Woody Allen wrote a rock-solid script and trusted his cast to interpret their characters, but always within certain reasonable boundaries. Some, like the duplicitous paramour you mention and Jasmine (aka Jeanette), are invented personae which the actors have the chance to explore. And yet there’s a literary quality to the material — one where ambiguities or contradictions are open to debate, taking us deeper into the themes of the piece itself. As a counterpoint to Jasmine’s social-climbing antics, Hawkins’ Ginger is so sincere, it hurts. She sees right through Jasmine’s act, but falls for the first phony who comes along. It’s a wonderful performance, one that makes Blanchett’s work even stronger. That’s my idea of support in a category whose name has long since lost significance. I’m no Oscar historian, but my sense is that the “actor” prize was once reserved for stars, while “supporting actor” recognized the year’s best character parts.
According to that definition, I’m not sure where you would have slotted Scarlett Johansson, though using only her voice, the star provided the kind of support without which “Her” simply wouldn’t have worked. It’s asking a lot of the Academy to award such a performance, I realize, when they have yet to acknowledge Andy Serkis’ motion-capture contributions or any of the great animated performances made to date. That’s just one more way in which “Her” strikes me as being ahead of its time, anticipating the way in which the very definition of acting appears to be changing.
So, while I think there were some oversights in the Academy’s selections this year, I’d cast my votes for Leto and Nyong’o. As Rayon, Leto managed to erase all pre-existing ideas of himself, and as Patsey, Nyong’o arrived unencumbered by past expectations and created a role I’ll never forget.
CHANG: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
DEBRUGE: Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”