In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, a multiple-Oscar winning actor (Robert Downey Junior) advises a fellow actor on how to play eccentric to get the Academy’s attention:
“Everybody knows you never go full retard… Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ looked retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, “Being There.” Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, “I Am Sam.” Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…”
The Academy sure has a great sense of humour. Despite his tongue in cheek observation, Downey Jr. is one of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor for playing another of those eccentric characters that get Academy’s attention – an actor with an identity crisis who takes refuge in the characters he’s playing.
But, as Anthony Dod Mantle, cinematographer of Slumdog Millionaire observes, “He cannot beat a dead man.” Heath Ledger has won every other Best Actor in a Supporting role award this year for his portrayal of Joker in The Dark Knight.
Here’s a quick look at the nominees, nonetheless.
Josh Brolin (Milk): Plays the Dan White who’s been driven over the edge by Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) – the first openly gay man to hold public office – the man who has taken his place. His role requires him to get irritable and increasingly angry to the point of taking the law in his own hands and Brolin acquits it credibly with the intensity it deserves. Applause? Yes. Award? No.
Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder): Plays three-time Oscar Winner Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who has undergone pigment alteration surgery to play an African American War Veteran Lincoln Osiris. He’s required to play an actor who’s always consumed by the characters he plays and Iron Man shows us his funny side and has us laugh till the tummy hurts.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt): Plays a priest suspected of molesting an African-American student. The seasoned actor has no problems at all in keeping it grey. He convinces you he’s innocent one moment and the next, he has you wondering if he’s a slimeball behind the robes. Great acting, no doubt.
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight): Lives on as one of the most deliciously wicked villains of all time. He almost had the audience cheer for Joker instead of Batman. It wouldn’t be too wrong to say that the role consumed him. May his soul rest in peace. Heath every bit deserves this Oscar.
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road): Plays a role that would make Kirk Lazarus chuckle. As a young man released from a mental institution, he represents the insanity of dreams and ambition and acts as the conscience of the lead pair who are torn between their desire to go live in Paris to find out what they really like doing and their regular rut of monotony.
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While we can safely say there would be no surprises in that category, the Best Actor in a Leading Role is a tough guess. Here’s a look at the men in the race.
Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button): As Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse, charming Pitt relies heavily on make up and visual effects. The acting though quite subtle and understated, is not his best work this year. Now, Burn After Reading was something else. Too bad he didn’t get a Supporting Actor nomination for that one.
Frank Langhella (Frost/Nixon): Plays Richard Nixon, the tainted President post-Watergate, who soon after his resignation strikes a deal with TV host David Frost for a series of interviews to clear his name and highlight his legacy. It’s a delight to watch Mr. Langhella play the tough-talking ex-Prez who turns out to be a hard nut to crack. Well, almost. And that ‘almost’ is the bit that makes him deserve the prize but he’ll really have to wrestle for it.
Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler): As Randy The Ram, a professional wrestler whose life changes after a heart attack and a bypass surgery, Mickey Rourke chokes us to tears when he tries hard to win his daughter back. “I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone, I just don’t want you to hate me.” As a more disturbing and darker version of ‘Rocky Balboa,’ Rourke looks every bit and even literally breathes like a man that age and size would. I would put my money on The Ram.
Richard Jenkins (The Visitor): We’ve seen bitter old men with their quirks walk away with the prize before but this year, Jenkins has tough competition. He plays a boring old professor who likes to be alone, trying to get over his wife’s death until he meets an illegal immigrant who introduces a new rhythm into his life and falls in love again. But for one moment when he bursts into anger and yells his guts out at the heartlessness of the system, there’s nothing else in the film that demands histrionics.
Sean Penn (Milk): Penn has to be smooth-talking, charming, effeminate and aggressive at the same time, playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office. The role demands him to deliver serious speeches, kiss men passionately and showcase a sensitivity, tenderness and vulnerability seldom associated with leading men. Penn plays all of this naturally and if not for the veterans like Langhella and Rourke, he would have stood a good chance. But then, given the political content of the film, he still does. (Update: He did win)