Herrington and Akers on the Oscars, Part 4: The Lead Actors

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Up for debate today: The talent. The beautiful people. The stars. Without further uh-doo.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart: We expect him to win because everyone says he will.
  • Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart: We expect him to win because everyone says he will.
Best Actor
Nominees: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, George Clooney in Up in the Air, Colin Firth in A Single Man, Morgan Freeman in Invictus, Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

AKERS: Will Win: No point in debating this, even interior monologue-y. This is Jeff Bridges' to lose, and he ain't gonna.

Should Win: This is only a little more intriguing a question. I'm going Jeff Bridges again. Bad Blake is a great character and a career highlight for Bridges, who doesn't treat the role as a victory lap. He pours himself in and totally inhabits the character. Clooney is excellent in Up in the Air and worthy of plaudits. I didn't see A Single Man, so I'm going to just assume Colin Firth acted all British in it. "Morgan Freeman IS Nelson Mandela" went according to plan and, though a solid bit of work and honorable and distinguished, didn't cause much of a blip in my pulse.

Renner is good, but I didn't care for his character's treatment at the hands of the script and my overall impression of him took a hit because of it. Is this a good time to bring this up? Probably should've mentioned this when we were actually talking about screenplays. Well, I just didn't like it when his character takes off his protective suit and keeps it off in the rest of the missions in the movie and does dumb, reckless stuff. That skewed the movie's efficacy for me, however slightly. Because its inaccuracies are disrespectful to the soldiers, as this WaPo story indicates is a common complaint? Nope. To be honest, when it comes to the movie, I could care less about how the soldiers are portrayed. It's a fictional movie, not a documentary, people. (And you might say the same thing to me in a minute.) Yet, I felt my intelligence insulted by the laborious paces the script puts the character through. I get it: This is a dangerous place and these people have the most dangerous job on the planet. I'm on board. I'm all in, baby. So don't go and artificially ramp up the dramatic tension as if you haven't done enough already. Trust me as a viewer to figure the danger out for myself. Especially when you're insinuating that this story is straight outta Baghdad. It's either ripped from the headline obituaries or it's a fantasy war movie. Can't be both. Sorry, Jeremy Renner, that you got some of that on you. (I cannot wait to see your response to this left-field rant, Herrington.)

Got Robbed: Man, I just can't imagine how ripped off Michael Stuhlbarg must feel. He's brilliant in A Serious Man. A very close second: Matt Damon in The Informant!. Also for your consideration: Ben Foster in The Messenger, Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are, Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo (if you consider it a lead), Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun, and Stephen McHattie in Pontypool (what a voice!).

I've got my fingers in my ears and my eyes closed. Back to you, Chris!

CHRIS HERRINGTON: One of the problems with Oscar prognosticating and conjecture now is that there's so much of it that the accumulating buzz becomes self-fulfilling. Jeff Bridges seems like the obvious winner here only because everyone says he is. I'll go against the grain in a later category, but not here. Will Win: Jeff Bridges.

Should Win: Okay, this response was going to be long even before you threw that little grenade into the conversation, so bear with me. First let's dispatch a couple of the nominees: Morgan Freeman's performance works fine in Invictus, but he's here because of the union of actor and role, not because of the impact of his performance. I found the directing style of A Single Man to be off-putting and had a hard time reading Firth's intentionally constricted performance as a result.

Now, onto the three main contenders here: I like Jeff Bridges as an actor and I think he slips into the David Allan Coe/Billy Joe Shaver/Waylon Jennings mash-up role that is "Bad Blake" with ease. It's a thoroughly enjoyable performance. But it also seems to be a role and a film written for the sole purpose of getting its lead actor an Oscar nomination, if not a win. (I felt much the same way about The Wrestler last year.) I didn't feel like I was watching a movie as much as an Oscar campaign. As for Clooney, that role and performance are the exact opposite. There's no high-concept there, no sense of it being event acting. It's just Clooney being Clooney in a particularly high-toned vehicle, much like in Michael Clayton. As a classic-Hollywood addict, I endorse star-driven performances (see: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and on and on and on) as just as valid as fussier Method-style performances, and think Clooney is among the very best and most consistent big-screen presences of this ilk. I don't buy the argument that his role here shows more depth and complexity than before. I think there's always been that element of doubt in his best work.

But my vote here is still for Jeremy Renner. Bridges' Bad Blake and Clooney's Ryan Bingham are both supposed to be lovable rogues of a sort. They are flawed characters, but we're supposed to root for them, and the respective movies make sure we do. Renner's character in The Hurt Locker is more honestly prickly. The movie isn't asking you to love him and Renner isn't either. He's not playing to the audience, he's playing the part. Also, it would be awesome to have a Best Actor winner whose most high-profile previous role is as Jeffrey Dahmer in a straight-to-cable/video thriller. As for your complaints about The Hurt Locker's verisimilitude, a few points: I think having the character take off the suit so much was part dramatic license in that being able to see faces makes things inherently more interesting and dramatic. In general terms, you have to give The Hurt Locker a little bit of leash because not only is it a fictional film rather than a documentary, but it's a relatively low-budget film made without military cooperation. An Army spokesperson said that the government didn't cooperate with the film because there were "elements that were not in line with Army values." Fair enough, but the Army did cooperate with Transformers 2, so explain "Army values" in light of that. As far as the military reaction to the film, I'd say there's a limit to how meaningful that is, and also that the piece you link seems particularly partial: Not a story about military reaction to the film as much as a story about negative military reaction to the film. The reality seems to be much more mixed. I could link lots of stories to that effect, but here's one, initially in USA Today, that cites many more military sources and gives, I think, a fuller portrait of the differing opinions on the film from a military perspective. I also think much of the criticism has a "forest for the trees" element, picking on specific factual inaccuracies rather than evaluating the truth of the film as it relates to the psychological experience of the war. (And also ignoring the quality of the filmmaking itself, which is the biggest argument I make for it.)

Got Robbed: Rather than Morgan Freeman, a nomination should have gone to either Damon in The Informant! or Michael Stuhlberg for A Serious Man. But my favorite male lead of the year was Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo.

AKERS: You make excellent points. I especially like the one about how Bridges is the obvious winner only because everyone says he is. And there's no doubt, I watched Crazy Heart knowing full well I was watching a likely Oscar winner. That can't help but skew the results. I still stand by his performance as a career highlight. No doubt, some movies are Oscar bait and you can see them coming down the pike and they're dismissable as prefabricated award winners much the same way you can don't have to put too much stock in a movie made to appeal to teenage boys who like watching stuff blow up. That said, I didn't get that feeling off Crazy Heart. It's made by a first-time director, and I could see how, if it was just a little bit less good, it would've played in a few festivals and rode off into the sunset on DVD. Plus, unlike The Wrestler, it's not "comeback" stunt casting.

As far as the Great Hurt Locker debate goes, you make good points there, too. I get that a face makes things more interesting than a Michelin man-clad protagonist. I get that bit of dramatic license. And, to clarify, I wasn't endorsing the complaints I linked to, I was just using them as a springboard to air out my own grievances. I agree, most of the barbs about inaccuracies are small-minded and missing the point of the film. Oh, I know what I was doing: I was contrasting those to my own gripes, which are big-minded and quite insightful.

Here's a quick analogy, and then we can resume our regularly scheduled Oscar debate: Lots of people really like American Gangster and laud its gritty detail and "man on the street" verité ... except for anyone who's seen The Wire and know how hollow and rote Gangster is in comparison. American Gangster does things for dramatic effect that are cheap and false, and I am thus removed from enjoying what was probably originally a pretty swell story. Likewise, The Hurt Locker was ruined for me by the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. (The same people who made The Wire, incidentally.) Though ostensibly very similar stories of American soldiers doing their job during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker seems glib and willing to sacrifice compelling realism for artificial drama. The Hurt Locker is a much better film than American Gangster, but a fake Rolex is still no substitute for the real thing.

HERRINGTON: I sense you're getting The Hurt Locker confused with The Kingdom or something. But we can surely argue about this more tomorrow. For now...

Best Actress
The Nominees: Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Helen Mirren in The Last Station, Carey Mulligan in An Education, Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, and Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia.

Will Win: Again with the buzz. I think Sandra Bullock is surprisingly good in The Blind Side. It's certainly the best performance I've seen from her and I predicted back in December, when it was in no way obvious, that she would get a nomination. But she's going to win? Really? Look, I'm under no illusion that the Academy Awards celebrate the best in cinema, but The Blind Side has mediocre-sitcom-level depth, and she doesn't rise above her surroundings that much. I can't bring myself to pick her here, even though I'm supposed to, so I'm fishing for an alternative pick. It won't be Helen Mirren, who won a couple of years ago for The Queen and isn't about to win here for a less-widely seen film. It probably should be Meryl Streep, whose Julia Child impersonation is an adrenaline shot of joy whenever she appears on screen in Julie & Julia, but when that seemingly Oscar-friendly film can't even get screenplay or editing noms, then it doesn't look good. So I'm left with the two new faces: Carey Mulligan's performance and resume suggest a brighter career, but Precious has both better box-office and more Oscar buzz, so I'm picking Gabourey Sidibe here in the upset. This is why I'm terrible at Oscar prognostications.

Should Win: Again, I think Streep is deliriously fun in Julie & Julia, but, um, Carey Mulligan Carey Mulligan Carey Mulligan! Big-screen performance of the year.

On this we agree: Carey Mulligan for Best Actress:

Got Robbed: I haven't gotten around to seeing Tilda Swinton in the barely released Julia, a performance that's probably gotten more universal critical love than any of the nominees, Mulligan possibly excepted. From what I have seen there are several that are worth notice: Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces. Amy Adams, better in Sunshine Cleaning than she is in Julie & Julia (and better than the movie). Adams' Sunshine Cleaning co-star Emily Blunt, also bettering the film she's in as The Young Victoria. Abbie Cornish in Bright Star. But I'll throw my vote here to Maya Rudolph in the much-hated-in-some-corners Away We Go. I had mixed feelings about the movie, but not about Rudolph, whose fondly sour performance is a subtle charmer that grounds the film.

AKERS: Best Actress is one of what may be three really exciting announcements all night. (The other two we'll be discussing tomorrow.) Let's separate the wheat from the chaff. Helen Mirren is chaff. (Maybe the only time she'll ever be called that.) Carey Mulligan is chaff. Gabourey Sidibe is wheat-y chaff but still chaff. Hollywood scuttlebutt has this building up as a two-woman race between Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep. Bullock and Streep both won Golden Globes for their performances. With Bullock taking down Streep in the Screen Actors Guild race in January, she's been the leading contender for the last 6 weeks. (Incidentally, the SAGs and Oscar nominations match up on 19 of 20 nominees, the lone difference being Maggie Gyllenhaal for Diane Kruger. Remarkable.)

However, I sense an upset — if you could ever call Meryl Streep over Sandra Bullock an upset. I think Bullock peaked too soon. If the Academy had voted even as recently as two or three weeks ago, I think Bullock would've gone for gold. But Oscar ballots weren't due until this week. That's a long time to stare at a piece of paper and check Bullock's name. Her movie wasn't particularly good — admittedly, it was a gigantic box office success. People in the industry supposedly like Bullock. I really do think she's on the verge of winning here. I just think Streep's going to pull it out. She hasn't won since Sophie's Choice in 1983. She's lost 11 times since that win. The Academy will cover its shame and give her the nod. Will Win — Meryl Streep.

Should Win: Like you, I thought Bullock was a bright spot in a vehicle that paled in comparison. But she's a distant fifth on my "should win" list. Fourth is Helen Mirren, who's quite good as Ms. Tolstoy but wasn't transformative. Third is Gabourey Sidibe. I actually think hers is an impressive performance and most other years she'd be my pick. Second is Streep, who is utterly fantastic as Julia Child. She nails the voice, which she had to, as iconic as it is, but her performance isn't about mimicry. Streep turns something of a masterpiece of physical acting. She just hops on in to Child's skin. Then, the other feat: She infuses the whole shebang with incredible comic timing. Julie & Julia is not a staid biopic but a comedic entertainment. Streep is the bedrock.

But Streep wasn't the best of the year. I agree with you: that would be Carey Mulligan. The movie's excellent with a few minor flaws, but Mulligan is perfect. A coming of age movie is hard enough for a young actor, but this one was particularly tricky because her character's maturity progresses so slowly and methodically throughout the film. She did a great job of aging before the camera, in imperceptible ways. The thrill in the eyes in the good times, the set of the jaw in the bad, the self-confidence blooming throughout. Bravura.

Got Robbed: I just didn't see many of the top-tier women's films: Julia, Bright Star, The Young Victoria, Broken Embraces. I'll go with Michelle Pfeiffer for Chéri. It's kind of like An Education in reverse. And the last shot of the film is still with me (credit to Pfeiffer).

HERRINGTON: Why do you hate women, Greg? And how dare you call Carey Mulligan chaff. My biggest reaction is to your revelation about the lockstep agreement between the "SAG"s and the Oscars. That's not remarkable; that's pathetic. A prime example of the awards-season groupthink that makes it all more media spectacle than something that recognizes the year's best cinema. But good to know we will be united in rooting against Sandra Bullock Sunday night. Always helps to have a rooting interest. Until tomorrow.

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