Mantra for Oscar characters: Know thyself

Characters battle identity crisis in Oscar-nommed pics

Awards serve as a time capsule, shining a light on films that reflect the values and concerns of the moment.

The contenders for the 84th Academy Awards contain a recurring lament among the characters: “I don’t know who I am any more.”

That’s not a new question, but it seemed more pervasive than ever in 2011 — which is understandable, since the economy and technology are rewriting old rules every day.

Many obituaries of Steve Jobs in 2011 quoted his 2005 Stanford commencement address when he said, “Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” That concept seems to have been on the mind of many filmmakers. In “Albert Nobbs,” Janet McTeer tells Glenn Close, “Albert, you don’t have to be anything but who you are.” But poor old Albert doesn’t know exactly who he-she is in the first place. And while Albert is living in a self-made prison, thoroughbred Joey in “War Horse” has his own horsey identity crisis as he submits to humans’ expectations of him: plow horse, battle stallion, jumper or war horse.

The protagonists in “Bridesmaids” and “Midnight in Paris” are trying in vain to fulfill others’ expectations. In “Rango,” a chameleon survives by inventing a new persona. The Earl of Oxford and William Shakespeare both pretend to be someone they’re not in “Anonymous.”

In past Oscar films, Scarlett O’Hara, Don Corleone, Forrest Gump and Anton Chigurh faced challenges, but never seemed paralyzed by self-doubts. But in 2011, people had nothing but uncertainty. Terrorism and natural disasters reminded everyone that a kind heart and good planning are no match for cruel fate. The recession proved that longevity at a company is no guarantee of job security, and that bank loans offer no assurance that you will own your home.

And when the world isn’t what you were led to believe, it’s natural to wonder whether you really are the person you’d imagined.

Even Margaret Thatcher in “Iron Lady,” the personification of a stick-to-your-guns confidence, watches footage of herself on TV and muses, “I don’t recognize myself.”

A distraught George Clooney in “The Descendants” tells his comatose wife, “I’m ready to change.” In “Young Adult,” Charlize Theron admits, “I need to change, Sandra.” He does, she doesn’t. His film got nominated, hers didn’t.

In a variation of the theme, many characters worked hard to make sure nobody got too close to them or discovered their real selves: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Ben Kingsley in “Hugo,” most of the MI6 operatives in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Ewan McGregor in “Beginners,” Ryan Gosling in “Drive,” and at least two generations of folks in “The Tree of Life.”

They all seemed to be embodying the “Contagion” tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone,” though the no-touch rules were as emotional as they were physical. (That’s also true of the leads in two notable 2011 films that were Oscar no-shows this week: “J. Edgar” and “Shame.”)

Of all the year’s characters, Christopher Plummer in “Beginners” seems most at ease with the major turnabout in his life, telling his son, “I loved your mother but now I want to explore this side.”