Oscar Injustice: 4 Great Performances Ignored by The Academy

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With the Oscars finally concluded and cleared up for another year, with familiar lessons learned and perturbing trends set for the rest of the year, time comes for evaluation and discussion, thoughtful or otherwise. And one thing is clear: if there was predictability to be had in 2012, it came in the acting categories.

Although precious few will dispute the merits of the Dujardins, Streeps, Plummers and Spencers of the acting world, or even protest their victories, more talk comes about who didn’t win (Gary Oldman, and I will not pipe down about this), and those who weren’t even nominated (Hunter McCracken; Again, not letting it slide).

On various occasions throughout the years, an actor has given a truly outstanding performance in film, one that deserves all the plaudits and riches in the galaxy. And often, for varying circumstances, this same performer has had to settle with a simple, often grudging acknowledgement, a nod of recognition. But sometimes, mystifyingly, they get nothing, at least none from the guys at the top of the pile. While merit noms are sprayed left, right and centre, true class too often doesn’t catch the shrapnel.

Here are four such outstanding acting performances that were snubbed.

Sam Rockwell in Moon

No matter how mundane your name is by comparison, you can never escape being the son of a music legend, unless of course you happen to have a gift. So learned Duncan Jones, son of Bowie, when he combined a large stroke of luck with startling cinematic prowess for his debut flick, the low budget sci-fi drama Moon, in 2009.

A beautifully executed philosophical-cum-emotionally charged mind twister, it’s the story of Sam, the lone employee manning a mining station on the far side of the moon, a three year solitary shift he’s about to clock out on. Then things start getting weird, naturally, and it isn’t an evil AI he has to worry about (Gerty is actually quite cordial). This is the talent.

The luck comes in two parts; filming took place during a screenwriters strike in Hollywood, allowing Jones to hire in a crack team of top of their game special effects experts on the cheap, keeping down the modest fees in exchange for A-Feature visuals. The second came in casting, with Jones bringing in a character actor previously noted for playing manic supporting parts. The Sam playing Sam is Sam Rockwell.

What a decision. Rockwell delivers a mesmeric and unforgettable performance as the Rocket Man himself, a subtle and underplayed turn that grows layers faster than light speed as the facets of his personality are laid out on screen, thanks to the cloning plot point. Deeply sympathetic in both incarnations, Rockwell also manages to divide up his respective traits between the dual roles.

Sam 1 is downtrodden, demoralized, polite and submissive, quiet and lonely while unquestioning after such a rough period of solitary confinement. Sam 2, on the other hand, is belligerent, aggressive and surly, driven by frustration and anger at the baffling and stressful situation he finds himself in, openly resentful to his other self, who in return is simply thankful for some human company. Despite their glaring differences, they are recognizably part of the same person.

It’s not just the state of the art computer trickery which electrifies these scenes, it’s the mind boggling chemistry and natural interplay between the two Sams, interactions that play out frequently and are utterly believable and engrossing, never a gimmick, even when they brawl (perhaps one of the most surreal fights you’ll see in mainstream cinema). Two actors sharing such a dynamic would be considered superlative. For one to pull it off surely breaks time and space.

And this master class heightens further upon the big revelation, when Sam 2 becomes the bright optimist, battling to find an escape and beat the odds, while Sam 1 shrivels both physically and mentally, resorting to howling from the moon in despair, crystallizing forlorn hopelessness with the tearful words “I want to go home”, a genuine heartbreaker.

In many ways, Moon is simply a character story based around a fantastical concept and strong strand of symbolism and theme. Duncan Jones hit the jackpot in securing an actor who not only embodied and carried this piece, but elevated it, all the way to the stars.

Damian Lewis in Keane

Once again in low budget territory, to say the least, and most certainly going into the realms of a one man show, Lodge Kerrigan’s ultra-realistic Keane is the story of the titular William Keane, a divorced thirty-something New Yorker who loses his grasp on reality after his young daughter is abducted at a bus station.

Shunning the use of music or fancy editing techniques, Kerrigan instead uses documentary-style framing to follow Keane, borderline schizophrenic and painfully unpredictable, as he stalks the city’s streets, hassling passers with his pleas for help in finding the little girl that he obsesses over. His home is a series of cheap motels, his finance provided by a disability allowance, and his mission is unfocussed to put it mildly. Between delusional outbursts and paranoid convictions, culminating in staking out the scene of the original crime and attacking random members of the public, he snorts cocaine and drinks vodka straight to ease his burden of hopeless pursuit.

To say that Keane sounds almost unwatchable is reasonable, and would also be true had Kerrigan given such responsibility to anyone other that its star, the English actor Damian Lewis, best known at this point for a failing Hollywood venture on the back of success in Band of Brothers.

While a less adept performer would have played the protagonist as a madman, Lewis instead brings gravitas to a despairing human being. Throughout the film, he provides an edge of normality and reason to the character, the sense that not too deep down is his old self, a reasonably acting personality, presenting hope of recovery. Of course, this makes his crazy episodes all the more hard to watch, as we watch a sympathetic person tearing themselves down in front of strangers, seemingly oblivious to his own actions, utterly lost in self destruction and self torture.

In effect, Lewis plays the story out as a redemption tale, a drive and aggressive determination to get his child back through a warped sense of balance in the universe channeling through his every action. But each step he takes is the wrong one, and every chance to stop and give in, letting go, is passed up, making his story all the more heartbreaking where it could easily have been pathetic. Lewis transforms William Keane into a real person, one you wish to console, to talk down from the metaphorical ledge.

The layers of the role are best expressed in his later interactions with the daughter of a friend he makes during his travels (Amy Ryan plays the mother, Abigail Breslin the daughter). Forced to baby-sit for long stretches, Keane seems to take this chance to break away from his madness, returning to a perfectly sane, well balanced psyche and tending to her admirably, the devoted father figure. That this transition, however brief, doesn’t jar is a testament to the consistency of the thoughtful, sympathetic portrayal.

Like the film itself, Lewis’s performance has somehow managed to escape widespread attention, and this is a travesty. It is a gutsy, intelligent and haunting turn from an actor fully committed to the unfashionable role, one that acts as a single piece demo reel that would gain any actor their big break, and more. Simply put, it is a rough, raw display that lingers in the memory for some time.

Blake Lively in The Town

There’s always something exciting about the presence of a niche actor in a big film, somebody who seems totally out of their element rubbing shoulders with A-listers, whether it’s a musician or a TV star. One of the reasons for this strange sense of anticipation is the possibility that said imposter will prove to have far more in their locker than anyone ever realized. After all, they were cast by someone who seemingly knows what they’re doing. One of the best examples of this paying off is Blake Lively’s attention grabbing role in The Town, Ben Affleck’s re-imagining of Prince of Thieves.

Best known for her place in the insipid Gossip Girl, Lively leaves such cheap seat coiffures well behind, playing Krista, the drug and booze addled single mother Bostonian ex-girlfriend of anti-hero Doug MacRay. Notably reminiscent of Amy Ryan’s nominated display in Affleck’s debut, Gone Baby Gone, Lively adopts a sludgy Charleston accent and a grubby, deplorable persona as a white trash baby momma, a constant thorn in the side of the protagonist and troublemaker for all concerned.

While Krista’s skewed morality and sense of priorities hardly lays credence to her being a likeable or even sympathetic character, she is undoubtedly a notable one, a young woman of good looks but no class, capable of one night wonders but still pawing after a man who has outgrown her. Lively not only convinces in the part, but manages to flesh it out beyond interesting. Shrill and convenient (or inconvenient, depending on what way you look at it) on paper, on screen there is a downright fascinating believability and, dare I say it, vulnerability to a character that doesn’t rely on screaming fits of rage and crying to express emotional need (though both occur).

Though a large part of this kudos stems from the fact that the actress in question is hardly the most likely acting-chameleon, it would be harsh to put down any praise to the power of pleasant surprise. After all, Krista is for the most part neglected within the story, wheeled out as engine grease for the plot and with few enough scenes of substance, and yet one of the most memorable things to take away from The Town is her showing, along with the work by her on-screen brother Jeremy Renner. Charm-less perhaps, but Krista is made both authentic and somehow understandable by Lively, a full blooded method offering that transmits signals stronger than black market cable.

Being able to pull of the part, to convince, is impressive in itself, but to be able to take an occasionally loathsome, always questionable and far from indispensable blueprint of somewhat blindsided creation, and turn it into a memorable, engaging and highly effective human portrayal in the midst of conceptually bigger things, is a massive triumph.

That there was Oscar buzz around the performance is hardly surprising. That there was no nom in the post most certainly is so.

Jürgen Prochnow in Das Boot

The phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” springs to mind with this next entry, in that Das Boot is universally considered to be the finest piece of German cinema, and managed to hawk six golden pimp-daddy nominations, including Best Picture, hardly a miscarriage of justice considering the caliber of the claustrophobic, submarine set drama thriller.

Despite that, it is quite perplexing that for all the positive fanfare, the war film’s leading light was summarily shunted into the dark. Wolfgang Peterson’s film is undoubtedly superb, an exercise in well paced, non-theatrical tension and suitably prominent character focus. But it would not quite hold the same force and power, magnetism for the eyes and mind, were it not for the complex and towering performance of the boat’s Captain, played by one Jürgen Prochnow.

A conflicted yet stoic figure, Der Alte (real name Captain Lieutenant Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock) leads his men like a stern father figure, holding them together while pushing them relentlessly, keeping them safe and yet marshalling them strongly and bluntly. From every bone chilling, nerve wracking descent and each almost fatal maneuver, the judgment of the crew is reserved by the all powerful, patriarchal figure at the bridge, devotion and loyalty unwavering.

This type of leadership routine, where sheer dint of charisma and authority rings from the very bones and is never less than utterly convincing, is an achievement in of itself, where the power of the leader’s presence is emoted and expressed, not stated as unjustified fact. The real power comes from Prochnow’s multi-layered characterization, subtle in touches and asides, but duly focused on the meat of the Captain’s labor. He is the Emperor of the World created in the sub, cut off from all else in the world and blind aside from a dim periscope, forced to keep order when the cause they fight for is always questioned.

Der Alte is a fascinating part, a military leader fighting to serve a kingdom he detests, marching under the banner of what he loathes, but pressed forward by his devout loyalty and commitment to the men under his command. This near melancholy, a resigned sense of powerless destiny, emerges from his pores like sweat, the pained burden and bitter resentment choked down, strangled by the need to be unconquerable, the ultimate example to the young conscripted sons of Germany stranded below foreign seas. His moral and personal suffering is necessary, in Der Alte’s eyes, to serve his own greater good.

These facets, compelling in of themselves, are all the more poignant and powerful when displayed by subtle facial expressions, frustrated tics and saddened, tortured eyes in the dark light of the boat’s interior. For him, the environment perfectly represents his soul, trapped and unable to escape, surrounded by enemies, fighting with all his might to do right, one little slice of right, even if it aids evil by accidental design. All of this may have been superfluous talk about a ‘war guy’, were it not for Prochnow’s sublime turn, portraying Der Alte as a futile, desperate man under the veneer of a towering soldier.

Ungrateful though perhaps it is, a ‘For Your Consideration’ at least would have been merited, but like the rest, the blast blitzed elsewhere.

 

Scott Patterson





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