Pushing the envelope

It's time to second-guess the Academy and toast the great overlooked performances of 2005, from Scarlett Johansson to ... Sharon Stone.

Published February 28, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Every February, even people who pay only marginal attention to movies can't help having a peek at the Oscar nominees, particularly for the acting awards. Directors and writers may be most directly responsible for shaping a movie, but actors are our most immediate contact point with a picture's heart and soul. And when we're stuck watching a bad movie, a good performance can often salvage the experience.

Maybe that's why many of us feel a vague ripple of excitement when the acting nominees are announced: There's that moment when we compare the Academy's choices with our own personal template of favorites, perhaps expressing dismay at a particularly dull choice (Judi Dench? For that performance?), or taking pleasure in the fact that someone we expected to be overlooked had actually made it onto the Academy voters' radar (Rachel Weisz's subtly dazzling turn in "The Constant Gardener" is just the sort of thing that usually escapes their notice).

But that initial minor thrill doesn't last very long. Within minutes, most of us have started compiling a righteous list of actors that the Academy might have noticed and didn't; then we move on to our own list of personal favorites, performances that we know didn't have a chance in hell of being recognized but of which we nonetheless feel fiercely protective. The nerve of those voters, failing to acknowledge the smoldering brilliance of Tony Leung in "2046"! Did half of them even bother to pick it out of their fat pile of screeners and pop it into the DVD player, even for just a few minutes? And did most of them vote for Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in "Capote" (admittedly, a superb one) just because all their friends were doing it? And what about Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams in "Red Eye"? (Or Cillian Murphy in "Breakfast on Pluto"?) Both Murphy and McAdams are terrific in Wes Craven's creepy-funny thriller, which is far more intelligently made than some of the big, dumb prestige pictures the studios trot out at the end of the year. But "Red Eye" is far too "B" to merit the Academy's consideration. Wouldn't it be nice if they were just a little creative for a change?

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences -- not really a group of human beings but an amorphous organism whose tastes are often (though not always) rather predictable -- is immune to our demands. They'll do as they please. So why not, just for kicks, say, "To hell with 'em"? Part of the fun of the Oscars is the way they free our own sense of indignation. Compiling a fantasy list of favorite performances is a small way of honoring actors who continue to challenge and delight us. What follows is a list of my own personal favorites, including some performances that might have been recognized but weren't, and quite a few others that would never have a snowball's chance in Hollywood.

Best Supporting Actor
I was pleased to see that Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in "Brokeback Mountain" wasn't overlooked -- I found his emotional voraciousness in that role far more convincing than Heath Ledger's faux-Gary Cooper opacity. (I have enough problems with the real Gary Cooper, at least in his later work; he's a physically beautiful actor with an unfortunate tendency toward lifelessness.) Even so, Gyllenhaal's performance comfortably fits the mold of what the Academy voters usually look for, and it doesn't hurt that it's part of a tasteful, artistically unembarrassing picture.

But would they ever give a nomination to a performance in a ridiculously enjoyable light comedy or, even less likely, a sick, twisted mind fuck? Oliver Platt's turn as the shy but salacious roly-poly 18th century Venetian "lard king" in Lasse Halström's "Casanova" is a great comic performance that sneaks up on you: He's at first presented as a stiff buffoon, but by the end, we have no trouble understanding why Venetian MILF Lena Olin has fallen in love (and into bed) with him. And what about Mickey Rourke in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's brash, sleazy and wonderful "Sin City"? As the hulking, sad-eyed Marv, he wears heavy prosthetics -- his face has the quality of tenderized meat. But there's something going on behind the latex: Rourke is expressive and touching, somehow almost without moving the muscles in his face. It's a performance that comes from a dark, interior place and radiates outward.

And then there's the great movie of last year that, almost surprisingly, nearly no one saw: Roman Polanski's allegorically semiautobiographical "Oliver Twist." The picture was badly marketed and, by and large, stupidly reviewed, a shame for many reasons, most notably that Ben Kingsley's performance as Fagin slipped by unnoticed.

Let's not be revisionist: Dickens wrote the character of Fagin with a clearly anti-Semitic slant. Yet Dickens did feel some compassion for this difficult, twisted man, and Kingsley teases that out in this portrayal. This Fagin is an intriguing combination of schemer and nurturer. He uses the innocent orphan Oliver ruthlessly. But for a time, at least, he also provides a home for him, and a sense of belonging, which is more than the authorities who have been commissioned to look after him have done. Kingsley invites us to gaze directly upon Fagin's grotesquerie. But just when we think we've got Fagin figured out, Kingsley throws a challenge our way: Sometimes it's nothing more than a glimpse of suppressed pain in his eyes. But that's enough. Kingsley never allows us to feel superior to Fagin -- which is perhaps the key to playing any great villain well.

Best Supporting Actress
You have to give the Academy credit for one thing: For the most part, they weren't snowed by the dull stinkeroo "Memoirs of a Geisha," which had Oscar bait written all over it. It's a drag, though, that the Chinese actress Gong Li, who had a cartoonish supporting role in "Geisha," hasn't really gotten the recognition she deserves for her work in two 2005 Wong Kar Wai pictures, "2046" and "The Hand," the latter of which is the second part of the anthology film "Eros." Gong's work in both of these pictures is hypnotic and heartbreaking. In "2046" she plays a mysterious professional gambler; in "The Hand," she's a woman -- possibly a courtesan -- who is dying a slow, painful death. Both characters are cloaked in their secrets, but Gong doesn't play them as recessive or elusive. There's a marvelous openness in both of these performances, even though, in the end, we realize that we'll never fully know what makes either of these characters tick. These are performances that leave us feeling both enriched and bereft; Gong is the most human ghost imaginable.

Two more performances that were barely recognized last year, even in the awards given by various critics' groups: Sharon Stone's tough-tootsie mom in Jim Jarmusch's otherwise forgettable "Broken Flowers," and Scarlett Johansson's astonishing turn as a wronged mistress in Woody Allen's "Match Point." Stone's performance is a marvel, partly for the way the actress doesn't seem to give a fig for her own vanity. (Compare that with Jessica Lange's performance in the same movie, a turn that not-so-subtly telegraphs an actress's desperation at the prospect of aging.) And Johansson is so remarkable that she can't be sunk even by Allen's dumb, misogynist script. She's an unusual and deeply affecting actress, and in "Match Point," she has the unembarrassed vulnerability of an orchid. The movie around her is nothing more than cardboard, and she deserves much, much better.

I wasn't crazy about David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence." Although the picture is reasonably well-made, its sheen of phony seriousness drove me crazy: It would have been far more effective if it were merely pulp. But Maria Bello's performance, as the wife of a man with a secret past (played by Viggo Mortensen, who's also terrific), is one of my favorites of last year. Bello has been wonderful in interesting movies ("The Cooler") and lousy ones ("Coyote Ugly"). But in "A History of Violence," she pushes further than ever before. Bello has the softest-looking eyes of almost any contemporary actress I can think of, and yet she's also capable of an unnerving flintiness. Her character here is a blend of seeming contradictions that I found fascinating and compelling. Even though I was glad when the movie was over, I could have watched her forever.

Best Actor
Asian actors, and even most European actors, don't stand much of a chance when it comes to Oscar nominations. I wouldn't have expected the Academy to blink an eyelash at performances like Birol Ünel's wrenching turn as a down-and-out rock 'n' roll guy in the fine German-Turkish romantic drama "Head On." (His costar, Sybele Kikelli, may be even better.) And Leung's performance in "2046" will win an Oscar only in my dreams. But an actor's nationality isn't the only thing that can count against him (or her): Jet Li has a reputation as an action star, which means that he may never be taken seriously as an actor. Li was terrific in 2004's "Hero," and in 2005's "Unleashed," a patently ridiculous melodrama, he gives a performance that draws from the tradition of great silent-movie acting. "Unleashed" left me wanting to see more of what Li is capable of. He's an actor of great physical agility, but his face holds the camera too.

The Academy might have recognized Mathieu Amalric's extraordinary supporting performance as Louis, the shady Parisian "businessman" in Steven Spielberg's "Munich." But Amalric also gave my favorite leading-actor performance of last year, in Arnaud Desplechin's devastating "Kings & Queen." Amalric is an odd actor, a pixieish fellow with anxiously darting eyes. The first time I saw him, in Desplechin's 1996 "My Sex Life," I found him annoying as hell and kept wishing he'd go away. But his magic has gone to work on me over the years, and in "Kings & Queen" -- particularly in his final scene, in which he imparts a lifetime's worth of advice to a boy who desperately wants a father -- I was drawn once and for all into his web. Amalric plays a musician who's too sensitive for his own good. But his troubled self-absorption doesn't fully separate him from other people -- in fact, it eventually reveals itself as a particularly rare and precious kind of generosity. This is an extraordinary performance, one that I yearn to watch again, even though I'm not sure I can bear to.

Best Actress
In a particularly strong year for actresses, I didn't envy the Academy having to choose just five nominees. My list of favorite performances by women is already too long, and even so, I'm sure I'll wake up tonight realizing that I've neglected two or three essential ones. It troubled me that virtually no one saw Jane Anderson's "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" starring Julianne Moore, a picture that I wasn't even sure I liked as I was leaving the theater, but which stuck with me strangely -- and affected me more deeply -- as the days went by.

The picture got uniformly dumb reviews, even from some very smart critics: Many people read it as a sticky-sweet, idealized love letter to motherhood. But there's something dark and troubling roiling beneath its surface, and Anderson and Moore know it. "Prize Winner" is based on a daughter's loving memoir of her mother, who kept her family together with the money and prizes she won by entering jingle contests in the '50s. But the movie also draws heavily (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) on some of the ideas behind Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," particularly in the way it recognizes that the bargain struck by so many husbands and wives in postwar America -- you stay at home with the kids, I'll go to work, and we'll all live happily ever after -- was often no bargain at all. Moore's performance here is chillingly precise: Beneath her chirpy-cheery exterior lurks an early-feminist sense of self-determination, something far tougher and braver than the statement-making acts of bra-burning (and the like) that would follow in the '60s. Maybe Moore's performance will find new life on DVD; it deserves to.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" was supposed to be Zhang Ziyi's big Hollywood breakthrough, but her performance felt constrained and timid. Wong Kar Wai's "2046" is a much better indication of her gifts as an actress, and of her promise. And in the category of favorite performances overlooked by almost everyone, I put Charlotte Gainsbourg's wronged wife in Ivan Attal's "Happily Ever After." When I praised the movie, last spring, I received a great deal of hate mail: For some reason, people despise this picture. But I found Gainsbourg so likable, and so touching, that I can't understand how anyone could fail to respond to her. I feel the same way about Naomi Watts in "King Kong." When Jack Black's sleazeball impresario describes Watts' character, Ann Darrow, as the saddest girl he's ever met, he has to be telling the truth: Her face is a visual metaphor for hope in the mire of Depression-era desperation. And while many moviegoers -- at least some of those who wrote to me -- thought that the way she looked at that giant monkey was too far over the top, I loved the compassion, and the delight, I saw in her eyes.

Let's end with one performance that relatively few people caught in theaters; this is one that will have to be savored on DVD. Judi Dench is a marvelous actress, and in the performance she gives in "Mrs. Henderson Presents" she is, at least, serviceably enjoyable. But in a more perfect world, the actress the voting members of the Academy would have noticed is Joan Plowright, in a small, sweet picture called "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont." (It was directed by Dan Ireland who -- full disclosure -- is a friend of mine.) Plowright plays an aging widow of modest means who moves into a humbly appointed London hotel, where she finds a small community of new friends who are around her own age. But she also happens to meet a much younger man, a somewhat aimless aspiring writer (played by the impossibly charming newcomer Rupert Friend, who also played Wickham in "Pride & Prejudice"), with whom she finds a kinship that renders their age difference inconsequential.

Plowright isn't particularly well known to American movie audiences except as an "older" actress; her long and varied career in the English theater is a life apart from the Plowright most of us know. But Plowright intuitively understands the difference between playing a character and playing an age. How many of us have heard older friends and relatives lament that even though they feel 20 inside, their bodies are giving out around them, betraying the people they really are, and really want to be? Plowright opens that world of feeling to us in this compact, resolutely unsentimental performance. We may not know much about what the young actress Plowright was like onstage, and yet somehow, she's right here before us, in Mrs. Palfrey, particularly in the look of mischievous willfulness that flashes across her face now and then. Even her tentative, careful steps betray traces of youthful vitality.

I suppose we should be grateful that the Academy is willing, at least in the nomination process, to pay some attention to actresses over 65. It's just too bad that this time it couldn't be Plowright. She's had a longer career than most American moviegoers are aware of. Maybe it takes that many years to know how to play, to any convincing degree, the feeling of being 20.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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