Perf turf not always an even playing field

Eye on the Oscars: Actor Preview

As the award season shifts into full swing, Variety film critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge are ready to offer their insight in recognizing the actors whose work should not be ignored in 2012.

While some names are obvious, including Daniel Day-Lewis’ take as our 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” or John Hawkes as a polio patient in “The Sessions,” other performances — because those films never received box office traction or their movies were panned — may be overlooked.

So who should be in the discussion? What names deserve attention?

PETER DEBRUGE: At this point, Sean Penn already has two Oscars, so I’m inclined to believe he wasn’t necessarily thinking about statues when he agreed to play Cheyenne, the aging hair-metal icon at the center of “This Must Be the Place,” but it has to be the most weird and wonderful performance still ahead this year. With his dandelion-frizzed goth hairstyle, bright red lipstick and disarmingly soft speaking voice, he plays the role as a man-child stunted by drugs and celebrity who finds himself — I kid you not — tracking down the Nazi officer who ruined his dad’s life. The only other performance that mixed comedy and poignancy to such impressive effect was Mike Birbiglia, playing a commitment-phobic comedian in his autobiographical directorial debut, “Sleepwalk With Me.”

JUSTIN CHANG: There are quite a few under-the-radar names that deserve attention, but I’ll start with just three: Denis Lavant, Denis Lavant, Denis Lavant. I’d have to say it maybe a dozen more times to cover the number of roles he plays in “Holy Motors,” in which he goes through almost as many transformations as the entire cast of “Cloud Atlas.” This shapeshifting tour de force isn’t, to put it mildly, the type of performance the Academy likes to honor. It’s too weird, too foreign and too far outside their good-taste comfort zone, requiring Lavant to do things like bite off a lady’s fingers, sport a full-on erection and slit his own throat (fortunately, not all at once). But it’s exactly the sort of glorious, go-for-broke actor’s showcase I wish came in for recognition more often.

PD: Both “Cloud Atlas” and “Holy Motors” beg the question: How would the Academy handle such multifarious performances? Would they be forced to isolate and honor one character, or could, say, Tom Hanks be nominated for all of his “Cloud Atlas” personae? (It could be a moot point. Voters didn’t much care for his last attempt at playing a range of roles in “The Polar Express.”) If volume were the goal, I’d happily endorse Matthew McConaughey, who’s been on a hot streak since “The Lincoln Lawyer,” whether shrewdly exploiting his star persona in “Magic Mike” or finding new folds to his Southern-boy origins in “The Paperboy” and “Bernie.” Which brings us to the “didn’t know he had it in him” surprise of the year: Jack Black’s enigmatic turn as Bernie Tiede, the unlikeliest killer in Carthage, Texas.

JC: Black is terrific in a role that, among other things, allows him to show off his singing voice — something that also marked one of his other great star turns, in “School of Rock.” As for McConaughey, his resurgence across a startling range of movies has to be considered one of the year’s more heartening bigscreen developments. What unites all McConaughey’s very different characters (I’m thinking also of his excellent work in “Killer Joe” and “Mud”), apart from their red-state roots, is that they all have a steely edge to them, an undercurrent of real malice and danger that I wouldn’t have expected from the star of “Fool’s Gold.” It’s an impressive body of work, and it suggests that the actor recognizes what audiences like about him — that Southern charm, those killer looks — and yet isn’t afraid to give that good-ol’-boy persona a menacing twist.

There are several performances this year, including Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” Bill Murray in “Hyde Park on Hudson” and Anthony Hopkins in “Hitchcock,” where actors are portraying real-life personalities. Are they at a somewhat disadvantage because the audience feels like they are familiar with the actual person and have their own preconceptions? Are playing those men more difficult that portraying a fictional character?

JC: If we’re speaking bluntly about awards prospects, you’re frankly at an advantage if you play a real-life figure; five of the last eight lead-actor Oscar winners got to the podium by doing just that. Obviously, the better known the character, the higher the standard of mimicry that needs to be met. Daniel Day-Lewis has the unenviable task of channeling the most iconic of American presidents, and he meets it — wisely, I think — by underplaying at every turn. As emotionally charged and eloquent as he is at key moments, overall this is a light-fingered, soft-spoken interpretation, full of warmth, tenderness and offhand humor; it corroborates our view of Abraham Lincoln as the sort of leader who sought to control and defuse the drama around him rather than inflame it. Coming from Day-Lewis, who can be such a powerfully combustible actor, that’s fairly remarkable.

PD: True enough, but if you prefer to be frank about the work itself, I figure Daniel Craig had an even more difficult task playing true to the public’s idea of James Bond in “Skyfall” than anything Day-Lewis had to do in “Lincoln.” (And who needs Oscars anyway when Time magazine proclaims you the “greatest living actor” on its cover?) My preferred performance in that film hails from Tommy Lee Jones, who finds humor and humanity in the lesser known figure of representative Thaddeus Stevens, a role that amusingly exploits the actor’s irascibility while introducing the world to a lesser-known architect of abolition. And though I didn’t especially care for “Hyde Park on Hudson,” I rather liked the way Bill Murray interpreted FDR, reminding us how polio did nothing to diminish the president’s spirit (or libido). As another real-life polio survivor, John Hawkes brings enormous warmth to the role of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, confined to an iron lung for much of “The Sessions,” so thoroughly convincing us of his need for human contact that we look right past the uneasiness of that film’s sexually frank subject.

JC: I’d say Daniel Craig silenced any Bond naysayers pretty decisively in “Casino Royale,” but I’m glad you brought him up, not least because it points to one of the Academy’s habitual blind spots: superb performances in genre films. Every once in a while they’ll nominate an Ian McKellen in “The Lord of the Rings,” which could bode well for this year’s “Hobbit” hopefuls. On rarer occasions you’ll get a performance like Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight,” which proved too galvanizing for them to ignore. This year brought us “The Dark Knight Rises,” and while Tom Hardy makes an effective enough baddie, nearly everyone concedes that his face-masked, voice-distorted villainy simply pales next to Ledger’s Method madness.

The blockbuster performance that’s stayed with me most this year is actually one of the quieter ones. After two unsuccessful attempts to cast the Incredible Hulk at the center of his own franchise, first with Eric Bana and then with Edward Norton, it was Mark Ruffalo in “The Avengers” who figured out the tricky dramatic calculus at the core of this half-man, half-CGI behemoth, providing a soulful, scruffy counterpoint to Robert Downey Jr.’s wisecracks and Chris Hemsworth’s biceps. I’m still not convinced the Hulk could sustain his own picture, and I’m not asking for more superhero movies. But I have to admit, I’d happily watch Ruffalo give it a try.

PD: This town makes comicbook movies as a license to print money, not to win Oscar statues, and yet, even I (who have come to dread sitting through these lud
icrous men-in-tights movies) must admit that both “The Avengers” and “Dark Knight Rises” offered more humanity that most films in a CG-smothered genre so far removed from reality.

As “Skyfall’s” eerily seductive Silva, Javier Bardem makes a far more effective villain than Bane in my book, and Tom Hardy himself is so much better as a nearly invincible back-water moonshine dealer in “Lawless,” a Prohibition-era genre movie with fine performances across the board, including Christopher Nolan alums Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman.

We’ve drifted far from actors playing real-life characters, but as acting challenges go, Joseph Gordon-Levitt conquers the formidable task of personifying a young Bruce Willis in “Looper,” while “Prometheus” allowed Michael Fassbender to interpret an android devoid of certain human emotions (like empathy) and compelled by his own relatable need to create (he started the joke that set the whole world screaming). n

Eye on the Oscars: Actor Preview
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