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Wednesday, February 25, 2004  

Movie Week

Supporting Actors

Of all the elements of film, acting seems the hardest to pin down. Everyone loves a great scenery-chewing performance like De Niro used to give in the 70s. On the outer edges of this kind of performance is overacting, where histrionics replace human emotion. With performances like these, drawing that line is a tricky business. This year Charlize Theron gave such a performance--some critics loved it but others felt it was over the line (more on that performance later today).

The other kind of performance is the subtle, understated variety, which isn't often rewarded. Bill Murray, who has been giving these performances for more than a decade, was finally rewarded by his first Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation (lesson: if you switch genres, expect the Academy to be slow to notice).

My favorite performances this year included a little bit of everything. I'll discuss them in the usual Academy format, but with Jeffy nominees.

Best Supporting Actor
So in the male category, there were some key perfomances I didn't see: Benicio del Toro in 21 Grams, Albert Finney in Big Fish, and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass. A couple other performances were singled out by critics for performances I didn't particularly like: Tim Robbins in Mystic River (I felt he was misdirected; like everyone else in the movie, he gave an emotional performance that was at odds with the two-dimensional, remote character Eastwood tried to sketch); Alec Baldwin in The Cooler (good acting, bad character). So, the official Jeffy list:

Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Zlatko Buric in Dirty Pretty Things
John Robinson in Elephant
Andy Serkis The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Khleo Thomas in Holes

Neither Khleo Thomas, who played the wonderful character "Zero" Zaroni in Holes nor Zlatko Buric, as the morally neutral Ivan in Dirty Pretty Things has gotten any attention. They should: they give perfect supporting performances, adding depth and realism to a movie that doesn't seem possible without their vivid roles. Selecting anyone from Elephant is risky, because it's an ensemble piece. To the extent that John (who played the blond kid also named John in the movie) is our window into the movie, he could be called the central figure. Yet as the observer, he does play a supporting role in the narrative. Again, I can't imagine the movie without him.

Finally, the two performances from Lord of the Rings. For a movie who has such an embarrassment of riches, it's hard to argue that it gets slighted critically, and yet it does. The acting is perhaps--perhaps--the trilogy's greatest strength. These characters are far from cookie-cutter placeholders for the action. Jackson also did an interesting thing in the three movies by selecting one character who was a metaphor for the action. In the first film, it was Boromir, who demonstrated the power of the ring. In the second, Aragorn, who placed the narrative in dramatic and historic context. And in the final film, it was Sam Gamgee, loyal servant of the film's nominal hero, Frodo. If the entire trilogy is a meditation on the importance of humble contribution, it's Sam, not Frodo, who is the true hero. I felt that in the books, and I felt it again in the movies. Sean Astin held the movie together with his heroic humility. Andy Serkis chewed the scenery, but Astin carried the dramatic arc.

And the Jeffy goes to: Sean Astin.

Best Supporting Actress
In this category, the performances garnering the most attention were in the kind of film I avoided this year--studio-produced Oscar bait. Shohreh Aghdashloo in House Of Sand And Fog, Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, Holly Hunter in Thirteen Sad to say, but this was a very lean year for great supporting roles for women. I missed a few key performances as well: Patricia Clarkson Pieces of April and Miranda Richardson in Spider. The official Jeffy list:

Miranda Otto in Return of the King
Archie Panjabi in Bend it Like Beckham
Christina Ricci in Monster

I'm well aware of the lameness of this list. I might have tried to pad it a bit, just so I wouldn't look lame. But the truth is, this is really represents the performances I thought were worthy of mention (Maria Bello, who gave a great performance in The Cooler, was sometimes nominated in this category. I don't see how--she was clearly in the lead.)

Archie Panjabi plays the mother of Jess Bharma in Bend it Like Beckham. She had a small role, but really knocked it out of the park (if you're in the mood for a feel-good pick-me-up, this is a good movie). Christina Ricci gave an understated performance in Monster, one that has been derided and praised. I side with those who praise--this is the story of Aileen Wuornos; Ricci's character is there to help explain Wuornos's mindset. Ricci did a great job with the role. Finally, in another small performance, Miranda Otto played Eowyn, the daughter of Theoden. She'll always be remembered for her retort to the Nasgul who taunts her during battle: "You fool. No man can kill me." In reply, she pulled off her helmet, and declared "I am no man" before killing him. But actually, I liked her subtle performance off the battlefield, where she had to juggle showing longing for Aragorn and also pride and strength as a warrior and leader.

And the Jeffy goes to: Miranda Otto.

posted by Jeff | 9:20 AM |
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