a theatre, film & pop culture review
This is pretty pointless since J. K. Simmons has had this award in his back pocket since nominations were announced – he’s won the SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and just about every other award out there – but let’s go through the motions anyway. In Whiplash, Simmons plays a sadistic, barking monster of a music mentor. Fletcher is no Mr. Holland, and from the start, there’s zero chance he’s going to hug it out with his pompous protégé. Simmons digs into Fletcher’s bipolar psyche, exuding warm charisma one moment, and ferociously lashing out, seething with verbal abuse and physical intimidation, the next. It’s a terrifyingly inscrutable performance, and Simmons will be rewarded for it.
It’s hard to discuss Robert Duvall‘s performance in The Judge, because the film is pretty terrible. (Dear god, Robert Downey Jr.’s vanity! There’s a whole thesis to be written on his predilection for playing cocky womanizers.) Duvall’s title character is a cantankerous old bastard who’s spent his life presiding over a courthouse in a tiny midwestern town (that doesn’t look at all midwestern, but I digress). The character is an asshole who’s a jerk to his son and kills someone, but we are supposed to sympathize with him because he’s sort of sweet to his granddaughter…? It’s all so stupid. Duvall is fine – how much can he really do with such a shitty role? – but he deserves much better.
As the Olympic champion wrestler Dave Schultz in Foxcatcher, Mark Ruffalo is typically compelling. He brings genuine humanity and pathos to a film that is otherwise devoid of it, specifically in the scene where a film crew tries to coax him to say that crazy-pants DuPont is some kind of genius mentor to him. His puzzlement and uncertainly – Should he tell them the truth? Or just say what they want to hear? – is the only (unpredictable) moment that actually registers in this monotonously dour film.
This is Ethan Hawke‘s second acting nomination (he’s been nominated twice for writing Before Sunset and Before Midnight). As largely absentee father in Boyhood, he roars into the movie in a very un-dad-like muscle car, sporadically infiltrating his kids’ lives and dropping bits of worldly wisdom on them as they grow (the dating advice he gives to a teenage Mason is spot-on). As the creases of time begin to etch his face, he finally grows up, settling down with a sweet, conservative woman. It’s an understated performance – it’s a shame he was never nominated for his very strong work in the Sunset/Sunrise trilogy – that can’t gain traction in a category that historically favors the cooky/psychotic turns.
I always like an underdog, though I’m not sure that’s what you can call Edward Norton‘s cocky theater actor in Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance). Maybe it’s actually that I know far too many hot-dogging actors like Mike (he’s not a parody; he’s real), but Norton is all pitch-perfect haughtiness, challenging Riggan (Michael Keaton) with his oh-so-vast experience and self-important confidence in theatre-making. He’s too old for the bad-boy routine he’s affecting, and Norton carefully reveals cracks in that facade. When Sam (Emma Stone) flirts, asking which part of her he likes best, he responds with seductive sincerity that if he could have any part of her, it would be her eyes, so that he could see New York again as a 20 year-old. It’s a surprisingly touching moment, and Norton continues to beautifully balance that ego and vulnerability throughout.