a theatre, film & pop culture review
With the exception of a couple strange choices, the 2009 supporting acting categories are full of solid and engrossing performances – and one extraordinary powerhouse.
Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to least accomplished, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners appear in orange.
Just as there’s little point in discussing who’ll take home the prize for Best Special Effects, there’s no discussion needed here. You spend almost the entire length of the film thinking the performance is solid, but small, and not exactly earth-shattering. And then, it happens: the most heart-wrenching and horrifying monologue of the year…and it pours ferociously out of the mouth of the star of such critically-acclaimed films as Phat Girlz and Beerfest. The fact that we don’t expect it must make Mo’Nique’s scarily volatile and surprisingly vulnerable performance as the abusive mother of an obese teen in Harlem all the more fiercely compelling. Sure, the monstrously stereotyped character , and especially that final astounding monologue, are unabashedly crafted to manipulate us to feel the extremes of sympathy and disgust simultaneously, but it wouldn’t succeed without Mo’Nique’s astonishingly acute ability to complicate the cliché and reveal nuanced emotional details that most certainly don’t exist on the page. There’s absolutely no question: this is Mo’Nique’s year.
Despite Mo’Nique’s sure win, the other nominees offer subtler, but no less detailed, performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal is emotionally honest as a single mom in love with a troubled and much older man, and both Farmiga and Kendrick are stellar as strong women with startlingly vulnerable sides. It’s only Penélope Cruz that is out of place here: playing a coquettish mistress to Daniel Day Lewis’s Guido, she is boring and silly (which actually matches the silliness and tedium of the entire film), making me want to slap her around a bit – and not in a good way.
I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t care. If critic after critic (including the likes of you and me) can declare that “it’s time” to honor an actor, regardless if this is the performance s/he deserves to be rewarded for – we’ll get to you later, Jeff – I can certainly proffer my lowly vote to one of the most wonderful and underappreciated actors of our time. The fact that Christopher Plummer is 80 years old (!) and has hundreds of films under his belt (!), and this is his first nomination (?!?!), well, it’s ridiculous. TEAM PLUMMER all the way, I say. Want a critically hailed Sherlock Holmes? Don’t look to that Downey and Ritchie debacle, check out Plummer’s stellar performance in 1979’s Murder by Decree. Need a singing, anti-Nazi Austrian? Plummer. How about an iconic journalist (The Insider)? A creepily rational yet empathetic psychologist (A Beautiful Mind)? An aging man spiraling into madness? Yep, Plummer does Shakespeare too, and on the stage, to boot (one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences of my life was experiencing his Lear in Stratford, Ontario). Pointing out his past achievements is not to declare his performance in The Last Station as the famous Russian literary icon Leo Tolstoy as less than worthy; it’s entirely the opposite. As usual, Plummer fully and joyfully supports his cast and film. He does not clamor for the spotlight; instead, he graciously offers it to his brilliant on-screen partner (and fictional wife), Helen Mirren. No matter the film, no matter the character, Plummer’s work appears effortless, smooth, and totally of the moment. His decades of experience beyond those of his fellow nominees produces an expertly graceful, relaxed, and heartbreakingly pitch-perfect portrayal of an idealistic dying philosophizer.
It’s Plummer’s time.
But it’s not Woody Harrelson’s. Despite what many critics would have you believe, Harrelson’s turn as an alcoholic mentoring a younger military man in the emotional and clinical complexities of delivering news of death to soldiers’ families, Harrelson succeeds in soldierly stoicism, but never seems to crack that shield to fully reveal the man beneath the uniform (his emotional catharsis at the end of the film feels oddly empty).
As for the other nominees, Stanley Tucci never gets beyond the cliché of his molester mustache as the child-killer in Peter Jackson’s horribly misguided The Lovely Bones, and Matt Damon seems to have gotten lost, as I’m not at all sure what he’s doing here.
In the end, if the Academy refuses to acknowledge Plummer’s time (as it undoubtedly will), it’ll surely recognize Christoph Waltz’s impressive turn as a sadistic SS colonel who wins us over with his intellect and yes, his uncanny and entirely creepy charm. Portrayed by a lesser talent, Hans Landa would’ve been a horribly cartoonish and incredibly easy-to-hate villain; in Waltz’s capable hands, Landa seduces with a smile even as he entraps and kills dozens of Jews, in the most intelligent performance of the year.
Next Up: Best Foreign, Animated, + Documentary Films