Monday, April 25, 2011

Yearly Perspective – 2002 – Supporting Actor Edition

In case you missed my explanation of Yearly Perspectives or my 2002 Best Director analysis, please check them out.  

Pound for pound, throughout the history of the Oscars—and film in general—supporting men are always the strongest.  At least for me.  In a male-dominated film industry, men are typically allowed to be more “out there” and can inhabit less typecast roles.  Grieving wives and hookers fill a good portion of historic supporting female performances, but supporting males and their types are all over the board.  It’s just the strongest race and usually the most interesting array of nominees.

Except for 2002.  There’s no question the eventual, shockingly-inspired winner Chris Cooper was a great choice and totally deserved the win.  I’d rank his no-holds-barred performance among some of the best work done in the 00s.  But his competition in 2002 was relatively weak.  The platoon of Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can, Ed Harris in The Hours, John C. Reilly in Chicago, and Paul Newman in Road to Perdition we nipping at the champ’s heels.  His closest competition was likely SAG and BAFTA champ Christopher Walken for his wacky and tender turn in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.  A likely cause for his SAG win was that the young awards organization hadn’t yet rewarded the acting vet, unlike the Academy did in 1978.  That’s not to say his performance wasn’t very good.  In fact it was fine; just fine.  One of those performances that aren’t championship caliber, but are good enough to make the top five.  A filler nominee.  He was subtle in his Walken sort of way, but wasn’t even the best supporting turn in the film if you ask me.

It’s hard to believe Ed Harris’s last nomination was nine years ago.  For an actor who so quickly raked up four nominations (only took him eight years), the latter portion of the 00s have not been friendly to this actor’s actor.  A mass of buzz met distribution woes last year in Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and a series of baity flops have kept Harris dry this decade.  But his last nominated performance as a haunted AIDS-ridden poet in Stephen Daldry’s lyrical The Hours was probably his best.  Though his screen time in The Hours is quite small, his impact in unspeakable.  As Virginia Woolf’s tragic poet, Harris brought a sense of frailty to the role that I don’t think most actors would have found.

With Chicago’s John C. Reilly, you have somewhat of the surprise nominee in the category on Oscar morning (what with Alfred Molina’s libido-ridden painter in Frida, and the duel attack of Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert from Far From Heaven snatching a strong majority of the precursor nominations).  Reilly made quiet acting seem powerful, and made effective use of his single song and subtle role.  As Amos, he was charged with a difficult task, one that, should he falter, the film would ultimately fail.  He was the moral compass, we must not only want to root for him, but feel compelled to in a sea of tricksters, lies, and erroneous lawyers.  One of those performances where an actor does their job, and in doing so, turns in a good performance.  (On a related side note, I constantly go back and forth between Richard Gere’s category placement in the same film, and momentarily, I’m considering him Lead).  It's a shame that he's yet to return to this level of performance after sinking into the slapstick depths of Will Ferrell comedies.

Then there’s Paul Newman—in his last live action role—as a mob boss with a heart of gold in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition.  I won’t whine too much about his nomination, as I’m more indifferent to it than anything.  If you ask me, Jude Law was handedly better in the same film, but then again it would have been hard as a voter to deny a screen legend a nomination for doing such quality work at his age and in his sixth decade of acting.  It’s a stalwart performance in a gem of a film (added bonus from Perdition: pre-James Bond Daniel Craig).  He’s strong, reserved, and commands the screen whenever graces them with his blue eyes.  Looking back, it’s really hard to understand how more voters weren’t swayed by the Legend status, but I for one am glad they weren’t.  His final scene is beyond beautiful, specifically in how he demonstrates leagues of emotion with merely an accepting glance.

Then we’ve the oh-so deserving victor: Chris Cooper.  A character actor’s character actor.  Unfortunately, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation was a hit and miss during the 2002 awards season, taking both supporting Golden Globes, then a SAG loss by Cage and Cooper (and a Streep snub there to boot), and finally a trio of BAFTA losses coupled with an inspired screenplay win.  So the fact that this film eked out a performance win is a relief.  And I’m very glad it was Cooper.  As spoken numerous times within Adaptation, “[John] Laroche is such a great character,” and in reality it’s nothing short of the truth.  Toothless and philosophical aren’t exactly conductors for critical praise or an Oscar, but Cooper manages it with ease.  He plays an eccentric, which as a character type shows up time and time again in the Best Supporting Actor race, and they can either be histrionic misfires or divine homeruns.  Paired against the near-perfect performances of previous Oscar-champs Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, he steals the show.  I simply can’t say enough about his performance.  How can you deny a character the convincingly says in complete earnest, “I’m probably the smartest person I know”?  If you haven’t seen it—or Adaptation—I highly suggest checking adding it to the top of your queue.

But to me, only three of these men deserved a nomination, and surprisingly neither of the two legends made my cut.  So, we keep Reilly, Harris, and Cooper.  But what of the other two?  As I said earlier, I was indifferent to both Walken and Newman—I don’t hate their performance, but rather, I just don’t merit either as awards quality.  However, there is a performance in Catch Me If You Can that I would find worthy of such praise, and it’s Tom Hanks.  Aptly handling a brilliant screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, Hanks is the glue which holds the film together.  He never attempts to make the role cliché or sappy, but rather he plays the role straight as a human being rather than a man on a mission.  Too easy the cat of the cat-and-mouse role is left devoid of personality or soul, but Hanks delivers a man with both infused.  His frankness with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale Jr. is his strength; treating the cunning con man as a kid instead of a mastermind, and thereby always having the upper hand in their latter conversations.  Also too, he makes it a fun performance, capturing the buffoonish nature of so smoothly being had by a teenager.  The final scene in the airport is his strongest: imbuing the feeling of being both enthralled by and sorry for a kid who’s lost in the world.  Sure his accent is a little questionable at times, but thankfully that doesn’t impede his performance.

My final nominee is someone who likely would have gotten a nomination had him getting a nomination been legal under Academy by-laws.  Don’t quote me on this, but I’m fairly certain voice-performances, even those done in motion-capture, are not eligible for a nomination at the Academy Awards.  So, even though what Andy Serkis did as Gollum in the second installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is nothing short of master class acting, he wasn’t even allowed on voting ballots.  He would repeat this perfect puppetry three years later in Jackson’s King Kong as the title ape, and with equal character study on scale with that of Sean Penn in Milk or Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.  As Gollum, Serkis crawled, gouged, and hopped his way to a character that is unquestionably the most famous of the franchise, and with good reason.  Every scratch in his voice, every movement and eye glance is 100% Serkis’s.  No amount of CGI can airbrush desperation and devotion like the human actor can.  Simply for discovering such a perfect character within Tolkein’s work is enough for a nomination, and pulling it off is nearly worth a win.

So there you have it.  My Yearly Perspective on the 2002 Best Supporting Actor race with comments on the real nominees and my personal selections.  Expect Best Actress later this week.

***Chris Cooper, Adaptation.***
Andy Serkis, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Ed Harris, The Hours
John C. Reily, Chicago
Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can


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