Great performances in genre movies

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race

It’s not easy for genre films to garner award-season attention, even at a time when the pejorative pseudonym for B-movies and fanboy favorites can be applied to almost anything that’s playing at the multiplex. But roles have proven golden in the past for Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive.”

This season, Liam Neeson, Christopher Walken and Mark Ruffalo have turned in great performances in genre fare, elevating the material with their nuanced performances.

Take Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey,” the seemingly routine survival thriller advertised as “Liam Neeson vs. wolves!” The Oscar-nominated star of “Schindler’s List,” lately known for action fare, embraced the role while grieving over the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson.

“I cried my eyes out for joy and also I could see the potential of a catharsis,” Neeson recalls about reading the script about a suicidal widower and wolf hunter who leads a band of plane crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness. “Our first day of rehearsals I said to everybody ‘Hey, here’s the reason I’m doing this and I love you all for being here.’ That sounds very sentimental but I meant it.”

Popular on Variety

Walken and Sam Rockwell transcended genre limitations in “Seven Psychopaths,” as did Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in “Looper” and Ruffalo as the Hulk in “The Avengers.” On the femme front, Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway earned raves for “The Hunger Games” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” but also have leading roles in more traditional Oscar fare this season — “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “Les Miserables,” respectively.

And Brad Pitt went gritty in Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” playing a hit man whose professional struggles mirror America’s 2008 economic crisis.

“I needed someone to play a prick,” the writer-director explains about casting Pitt. “It’s an opportunity for him to take a holiday from himself. Often when you ask people to play the exact opposite of who they are, they really go for it. At the same time there is a certain coldness to Brad. It’s not something I’ve seen much in his work.”

Dominik maintains that, when done properly, genre films offer unique opportunities for thematic resonance.

“The crime movie is a portrait of capitalism in its most unvarnished form,” Dominik says. “Maybe that’s the appeal. That’s the genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for your main characters to be motivated solely by the desire for money.”

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race
Thesps discover damaged good | Thesps weigh reel-life choice | Great performances in genre movies | Minors show their pluck in grownup fare | Seniors grab center stage | Roles all over the map in this ‘Atlas’ | Repeat contenders

More Scene

  • Anya Taylor Joy Emma Premiere

    Anya Taylor-Joy on Playing Jane Austen's Clever, Callous Protagonist in 'Emma'

    It was an evening of elegance at the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features’ “Emma” on Tuesday night. The red carpet was lined with pastel floral arrangements at the DGA Theater, priming visitors to be transported to the ornate pageantry of Georgian-era England, as depicted in this new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale. Anya [...]

  • Tom Holland Chris Pratt Onward Premiere

    Tom Holland and Chris Pratt Show Off Real-Life Bond at Pixar's 'Onward' Premiere

    Pixar’s new movie “Onward” marks a reunion of sorts for Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. The two actors, who both have ties to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and most recently teamed in “Avengers: Endgame” as Spider-Man and Star-Lord, play brothers in the animated fantasy adventure. Their friendship has become a highlight of “Onward’s” promotional tour [...]

  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph

    Da’Vine Joy Randolph Praises Hulu's 'High Fidelity' for Telling a Realistic New York Story

    If HBO’s “Girls” characterized a certain type of young, disaffected millennial, fumbling cluelessly around a gentrifying Brooklyn, and if “Sex and the City” used Manhattan as a tantalizing playground for a class of well-connected, glamorous and decidedly 90s-bound women, both shows had one thing in common: they were painfully, inevitably white. “We’re gonna fix that!,” [...]

  • Harrison Ford Call of the Wild

    Why Harrison Ford Wanted to Play John Thornton in ‘The Call of the Wild’

    Joining legends like Charlton Heston and Clarke Gable, who have played the role of John Thornton in “The Call of the Wild,” Harrison Ford now stands next to a CGI-enhanced version of the dog named Buck in the latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel. “I thought the film has a lot to say [...]

  • Julia Louis Dreyfus Will Ferrell

    Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell Talk Balancing Drama & Comedy in 'Downhill'

    “Downhill” feels a lot like it should be a comedy. It looks like one, for starters. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the most lauded comedic actress on American television, and Will Ferrell, the “Saturday Night Live” goofball whose caricatures of men and masculinity have carved out an inimitable place in American humor. “Downhill” reads like a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content