Why Ben Kingsley deserves another Oscar

As the terrifying villain at the center of "Sexy Beast" the English actor obliterated himself -- and invented an entirely new character.


Jean Tang
March 22, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

There is a moment near the beginning of last summer's "Sexy Beast" where you witness the miraculous brightening of an unhappy man. As bad guy Don Logan, a terrifying Ben Kingsley is getting ready to talk retired associate Gal Dove into returning to London for one final, "risk-free" heist. With a bottle of beer in his hand, Logan takes a seat on one of the lawn chairs on the patio of Gal's Spanish villa. The sun is shining, the sky's a vivid blue and his face registers a look of perfect contentment as he puts his beer on the table. For a career gangster who takes his job as seriously as Logan does, there may be no greater heaven on earth than the Spanish sun, a cold beer, an old friend and some decent work.

The look quickly disappears; his happiness is fleeting. We'll only see him content once more in the movie. For like Greek myth, "Sexy Beast" can be summed up in one sentence, one that Kingsley utters on the DVD of the film: "Once upon a time lived the happiest man in the world, and the gods send to him the unhappiest man in the world." Naturally, Kingsley's character is the unhappy man, and Gal, Ray Winstone's lazy sloth of a retired gangster, the happy one. Gal once served nine years in prison, and he's got every reason now -- a beautiful wife and a lovely life -- to stay out of the slammer. Don won't accept a no.

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The plot might sound clichéd, but the film turns out to be not a gangster story as much as a character piece that demands dimension and depth of both Gal and Don. Kingsley gives the kind of needling, terrifying performance that could make an actor's career, if his weren't already legendary. Logan's a flesh and blood Rumpelstiltskin, a limitless repository of childish rage. Twenty years ago, Kingsley, now 59, won an Oscar for his moving portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi. This year, he deserves another Oscar, for best supporting actor. His Logan is the polar opposite of Gandhi. Or, to repeat a phrase that got passed around a lot last summer, he's the "anti-Gandhi."

Yet Kingsley's chances for winning are slim. Obviously, any artistic contest is by nature subjective, and demands the kind of apples to oranges comparisons that get jurists -- and critics -- in trouble. Of the five best supporting actor nominations, Kingsley's strongest contenders are fellow Englishmen Jim Broadbent ("Iris") and Ian McKellen ("Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring"). Although multiple Oscar holders (Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster, Kevin Spacey) show that the Academy is willing to reward an actor more than once, other considerations are at play. For one thing, neither McKellen nor Broadbent have gotten the little statue. Also, with older actors, the Academy has a habit of awarding a cumulative Oscar for lifetime achievement, rather than a given role (remember Judi Dench's Oscar for a few lines of queenly dialogue in "Shakespeare in Love"). That could easily come into play here: This is the first nomination for 53-year-old Broadbent, and in 1998, Roberto Benigni ("Life Is Beautiful") beat 63-year-old McKellen for the latter's chilling performance as director James Whale in Bill Condon's "Gods and Monsters."

To make Kingsley's odds even more dismal, "Sexy Beast" was released in the United States ages ago -- early last June -- long before the Oscar-bent, Christmas releases of either McKellen's or Broadbent's studio pictures. The British production had largely disappeared from domestic theaters by the end of summer, and 20th Century Fox didn't release the DVD until March 12, just a week before Academy voting closed. Despite critical acclaim for smashing genre conventions, Jonathan Glazer's first feature film has not received any other Oscar nods. And with other key nominations for "Lord of the Rings" and "Iris," New Line and Miramax are -- predictably -- saturating the trades.

But leave politics aside, and Kingsley deserves the prize. As Don Logan, he delivers a solid, nuanced and integrated performance. Of course the same can be said of McKellen's Gandalf, or Broadbent's endearingly befuddled, doting husband. Yet only Kingsley has eliminated himself so entirely from his role. There is no compassion in his mournful, Gandhi eyes; when Logan narrows his gaze, he's only sizing up how much aggression to apply. It's a physical talent: Kingsley makes himself bigger than anyone else in the film, even though he's smaller than the people he terrorizes. And there's even something more in the role, and it's what pushes Kingsley's performance into Academy territory. You could argue that with Logan, Kingsley has invented an entirely new character type.

In general, movie psychos are pretty savory creatures. They're usually more memorable than heroes. Jack Nicholson's Joker stole the show from Batman. Robert De Niro's Capone upstaged all the Untouchables. Their lines are almost always funnier -- who can forget "The Silence of the Lambs" for Hannibal Lecter, his fava beans and his admiration of Senator Martin's suit? And actors playing meanies get spectacular freedom to act -- think Dennis Hopper hyperventilating into a gas mask in "Blue Velvet."

You could say all these things about Don Logan. Yet even in the overstretched territory of gangster flicks, Logan is a standout. Glenn Kenny of Premiere called him "a giant phallus." Logan is less violent than he is menacing; he's at his most threatening when he's talking. He lives on the surface of his consciousness. He's almost childlike. With no filter in his brain, he's a living, pulsing Id, full of quotable insults and puerile word choices. "Bigmouth Don," he taunts himself in the mirror. Gal's allegations are "insinuendos." To Gal's wife, whom he hates, he says, "You've got nice eyes, Deedee, I never noticed them before. Are they real?"

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But as far as movie villains go, Logan defies categorization. He doesn't love mayhem for its own sake, like Robert Carlyle's Begbie, who in "Trainspotting" tosses his pint glass over the balcony just to start a pub fight. He's not impulsive and incompetent, like Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito in "Goodfellas." He's mean and corrupt, but not pure evil, like Gary Oldman as the mesmerizing scar-faced pimp in "True Romance." And he's not a calculating revenge killer like Max Cady in either the original "Cape Fear" or its De Niro update, or Michael Caine in the original "Get Carter."

Unlike all these men, Logan is first and foremost an attaché. Basically, he wants to do his job, and doing it means winning. In fact, Logan isn't really even a killer -- he only wreaks necessary havoc. At one point, clearly provoked and getting ready to lose it, Logan lights a cigarette on an airplane. He refuses to put it out for either the flight attendant or the passenger sitting behind him. As an audience, we expect him to go after the passenger, maybe with a weapon, a blow to the head or at least over-the-seat grappling.

Instead, Logan's violence is verbal. He offers to use the man's hands, then his eyeball, as an ashtray. And he says it with enough menace that you know he'll follow through. Then, at the moment you think he's going to bring his point home with a well-placed fist, he does nothing. He simply turns away.

In reality, Logan is more a victim than an instigator, more a reactor than proactive. Consider his first significant scene, when Logan sits in Gal's living room with Gal and his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), and their friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). Logan doesn't say a word, and the others, too scared of him to open their mouths, don't say anything either. For 20 seconds, the five sit in silence.

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On a superficial level, this is the first of Logan's intimidation tactics. But look deeper, and small talk actually seems to elude him the way it eludes well-meaning people who just don't have the social skills. Later, Logan is left in the same room alone with Jackie, an old flame he's still in love with. Ever so subtly, Kingsley allows a look to pass across his face -- his second moment of happiness. He's trying to come up with something to say, and it's painful to watch him. He fails and Jackie silently slips away.

In Logan's world, a predominantly "professional" one, pleasantry is irrelevant. When Logan dies, no one will mourn him, not even those who valued his work. Yet he still knows the vocabulary of civility. "Why are you swearing?" he asks Gal. "I'm not swearing." He's all work and no play. Professional associates are friends for life. He chides Gal for not keeping in closer touch: "It makes me wonder -- have I done something to upset you?" For Logan, happiness and love are elusive concepts. He uses the language of both with all the fluency of a native, but he's an impostor. When Gal explains to him that Jackie's husband, Aitch, is with her because he loves her, Logan looks at him with the same blank expression that was on his face when he asked Gal earlier whether he was happy in Spain.

Logan is not psychotic, but he teeters on the edge of psychosis; he's caught between worlds. He's inhuman enough to be scary, but human enough to be sympathetic. He's adult enough to make you hate him, but childlike enough to be clueless about improving his lot in life. You wouldn't want to be in a room alone with him, but if you were you would try to get him talking. Logan's not a psycho, so there is potential for redemption. It's enough to endear him to your inner optimist. He's always there to pull you back. When Logan says, "I love you, Gal," he means it, but it wouldn't stop him from obliterating his friend in a split second. He's got his priorities straight.

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Jean Tang

Jean Tang is a New York writer.

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