With the Academy Awards quickly approaching, we're going through each of the major categories and pretending we're Academy voters. Forget who will actually win, we have a decision to make.
The Nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Denzel Washington for Flight, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
As is also true of the Best Actress category this year, lots of people think this one's all but sewn-up. Well, in the case fo that race it's between two people, where as with the guys, it's really down to just one. Having won a million awards already this season, including the Golden Globe and the SAG, Daniel Day-Lewis seems like a pretty sure thing for his rousing, wonderful, and inspiringly understated performance in Lincoln. Look, none of us actually knew Abe Lincoln, or ever heard him speak; at least I hope none of us did, it would be creepy to have some sort of undying immortal being reading this site. (Why would such a creature be reading about the Oscars, anyway?) The point is, nobody really knows how "authentic" Day-Lewis's performance was, so all we have to go on is whether he sold it to us, if he somehow lived up to or emboldened the legacy of man we only know in our minds. And I think it's a fair assessment to say that he did. His performance is nuanced, introspective, forceful without being hammy. It's a deep character study, but the character is largely Day-Lewis's invention, making it much more than mere mimicry. He's goddamned marvelous in the movie, is the point; it's the kind of performance that some movie hacks might call "iconic." So, yes, by all those measures, maybe another Oscar, a third, should be inevitably headed his way. But for some reason, I'm not that enthusiastic about checking his name on my imaginary ballot. Let's take a look at the other guys on the list to figure out why.
Well, OK, first things first. As if often the case with real Academy voters, even the most conscientious among them, I have not seen everything on this list. I must shamefully admit that Flight eluded me last year. Partly because I was out of town when the screening was held. Partly because I didn't really want to fork over $13 to watch a movie about an alcoholic when Thanksgiving and Christmas stuff, cheery and happy things, were happening all around me. And partly because I'm a bad flyer and don't really need to see some upside-down plane nightmare unfold on the big screen. So, yeah, I have no idea if Denzel Washington is good in the movie. I'm sure he is! All the reviews I've furtively read have suggested as much. But I can't vote for him. That wouldn't be right. It would be a lie, and I am a member of the Academy, damnit. Hollywood people don't lie. Sorry Denzel. Guess two Oscars will have to do.
Joaquin Phoenix is immediately out for me as well. This is all about my personal decision, and I personally have never liked Joaquin Phoenix as an actor, not since he first sneered at me in To Die For. (OK, he was fine in Parenthood.) He's too mannered, too purposefully intense. He never seems to be enjoying himself, let alone having fun, and I find that really off-putting. Never more so than in The Master, in which he curls and twists all his gristle and sinew into a gnarled, hideous tree of overacting. (Much like that gnarled, hideous sentence of overwriting!) It was just so much, and it made the whole film feel like an exercise, like a scene study class at a really fancy school in a really high-tech black box theater. I don't like when you can see that much work. This is just a personal pet peeve, of course. Many folks whose movie opinions I deeply respect quite liked Phoenix in this movie. But not me! No, sir. And this is my ballot, so he does not get checked off. Sorry, Joaquin. Hopefully he'll have some sort of breakthrough in the Spike Jonze movie he just made.
Bradley Cooper is another actor I've never quite warmed to. He did a nice job in Silver Linings Playbook, but I'm just not sure the degree of difficulty was there. Sure he had to play bipolar, whipping himself up into fits of sorrowful rage and anxiety, and he did well in those scenes. But the rest of the movie is a fairly easy switching back and forth between anarchistic family comedy and dark indie romantic comedy. It's fun to watch, but the complexity of Cooper's character, and all the characters, begins to diminish and is nearly gone by the time the extremely neat and tidy denouement is over. Let's give credit to Cooper for trying and partially succeeding in his quest to assert himself as a serious actor to be contended with, but this isn't quite enough, in my book. He didn't quite shake the air of smugness that has permeated a lot of his other movies. There's still a sense of the straight, handsome star of the college theatre about him. Again this is just my own weird assessment of the man, but that's what this vote is, my own personal weird assessment. (Of weird things.) And I assess Bradley Cooper to be lacking. A noble, valiant effort — and he might get there someday — but it doesn't win this year.
Which leaves us with Hugh Jackman. The singing, dancing jewel in Oz's crown. He doesn't do much dancing in Les Misérables, but, boy, is there a lot of singing. And howling and yowling and bellowing and making of other big, bombastic noises. This is the movie role that Hugh Jackman was created in a lab by Boublil and Schönberg to play — few actors of his generation who work outside of the theater can play turgid earnestness so effectively. Les Miz is not a perfect film, and Jackman's is not a perfect performance, but man is the guy committed, really committed, for two and a half hours. And darned if he doesn't sell it. The movie purely and simply could not have happened without Hugh Jackman. There is no other actor, or rather movie star, with his magnetic and crowded mix of charm, charisma, dedication, star power, talent, and passion. In anyone else's hands this role would have been crazy embarrassing. But in Jackman's, it works. He drags this heavy movie as far as he can and dies beautifully at the end, made an angel for his efforts. Sure, Anne Hathaway belts emotively and Eddie Redmayne mourns beautifully, but Jackman is the mortar and sawdust holding the whole thing together. It's a remarkable feat, and exhausting to think about doing. I'd vote for him, I gotta say. I'm pretend voting for Hugh Jackman in Les Miz. Daniel Day-Lewis just won a few years ago. And he's already got two hiding under tall hats at home. This is probably Jackman's only chance at an Oscar. So let's give it to him. He's earned it.