Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2013: Best Actor

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

BEST ACTOR

lincoln-daniel-day-lewis

1. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS
Lincoln

2. JOAQUIN PHOENIX
The Master

3. BRADLEY COOPER
Silver Linings Playbook

4. HUGH JACKMAN
Les Misérables

5. DENZEL WASHINGTON
Flight

Missing: Richard Gere, Arbitrage; John Hawkes, The Sessions; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour 

First, I would like to point out that this category is at once pointless — Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win, no question — and a travesty. Richard Gere, John Hawkes, and Jean-Louis Trintignant all gave much more remarkable performances than Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman, and Denzel Washington (Joaquin can keep that fifth slot). The Academy always manages to severely muck up one of the categories, and this year it just happens to be this one.

But for form’s sake, I suppose I should say a few words about the competition. Flight is a spectacle of a star vehicle: Denzel Washington‘s Whip Whitaker (seriously, that’s his name) is a booze-soaked airline pilot who improbably saves a plane from crashing. Washington exerts a stunning focus and control in the film’s opening crash sequence, but then, perhaps inevitably, his portrayal quickly devolves into one of those “bravura” performances of his we’ve become accustomed to in the past decade. Alternating between a swaggering confidence and an ugly, unrepentant drunk, the sober Whip isn’t far off from Washington’s cocky portrayal in Unstoppable and his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day. A talented actor (and one who knows it), Washington hasn’t done any interesting work in years. He’s not going to earn another Oscar until he leaves the ego at the door.

Everyone’s favorite triple threat — and sometimes Broadway star — Hugh Jackman admirably gives his all to the rather boring lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Valjean is a simple guy who stole a loaf of bread, got thrown in the brink for 19 years, became an upstanding citizen upon his release only to be stalked by an evil police inspector while rescuing a prostitute’s kid from a couple of kleptomaniac losers, and then dies, declaring “to love another person is to see the face of God!” With solid vocals, Jackman shows necessary restraint in this melodramatically saintly role, even if the highs of the cruelly falsetto “Bring Him Home” are a little shaky. Everyone loves Hugh, but no enough to hand him his first Oscar for his role in Tom Hooper’s latest mess.

In his first nomination, Bradley Cooper plays Silver Lining Playbook‘s Pat Solitano, who moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife following a stint in a mental institution. Cooper was unfortunately tasked with the challenge of overcoming the defects of a script masquerading as a serious commentary on how a man and his family deal with bipolar disorder when in fact it’s actually just a dressed-up romantic comedy. Pat is largely a caricature with his sudden outbursts and quirky comments, and Cooper’s attempt at making him a fully-rounded character is commendable if not fully successful (there’s simply too much wide-eyed yelling). There was a horrifying moment, early after the nominations were announced, that I thought Cooper may (ridiculously) claim this prize. Luckily, it appears that the Academy has (partially) regained its senses. He’s got no chance.

In The Master, three-time nominee Joaquin Phoenix plays a drifter who assists the philosophical/religious leader (aka L. Ron Hubbard) following World War II. Phoenix creates a man demented, perpetually out of sync with the group to which he belongs and who you never believe has a full grasp of reality. The vagueness of his character — why he is how he is and does what he does —  is only the more terrifying due to Phoenix’s frightening intensity and total immersion into his character’s cryptic motivation. It’s a fascinating, if impenetrable (PTA characters always are), performance, and an award-worthy one. Just not this year.

The spitting image of the gangly, country lawyer with a disheveled appearance, Daniel Day-Lewis eerily embodies one of the most familiar of American leaders in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Creating a Lincoln deliberate in both movement and speech, Day-Lewis employs a steady, lumbering gait and a thin, reedy drawl that neither betrays a fancy education nor detracts from the homespun yarns – his greatest pleasure – that he frequently indulges in to both the wonder and aggravation of his captive audiences. His Lincoln, thanks to masterful screenwriter Tony Kushner, is a frisky raconteur, but also a hard-nosed negotiator willing to play both ends in the interest of the greater good. He’s a tender father, a forgiving, if impatient husband, and a principled leader with an unwavering sense of the moral right. It’s a slow-burn, extraordinary performance precisely because it lacks ostentation – just as Lincoln lacked ostentation — and Day-Lewis has garnered just about every other acting accolade for his portrayal. His win is the only 100% guarantee (besides Amour‘s, of course) come Oscar Sunday.

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