Great Oscar debate: Why was Franco nominated?

Was his "127 Hours" performance overhyped? Can anyone beat Colin Firth? Salon's critics discuss the best actor race

Published February 24, 2011 9:20PM (EST)

James Franco (127 Hours),  Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

Matt Zoller Seitz: Is Colin Firth a lock to win for "The King's Speech"? And if so, should he be?

Andrew O'Hehir: Absolute yes to the first -- a billion or so viewers are going to be absolutely shocked if Firth doesn't win.

Now, as to the second: I guess so. It's certainly a rich and enjoyable performance by an actor of unmatched skill and technique. But isn't playing a stuttering king a slam dunk? It's a slam dunk for Oscar consideration, definitely. It's also a slam dunk for any upper-level British actor. Firth was terrific in the role. But if you cast, I don't know, Ralph Fiennes or Kenneth Branagh or about a dozen other guys, is the movie really worse off? 

MZS: Here's the frustrating thing, though: As you point out, this sort of role is indeed a gimme for any skilled British actor. It's a performance in what I call the "Hooray for the good old missionary position" school of entertainment: Solid, likable performance in a solid, likable movie that's mostly devoid of sharp edges, so that a viewer who finds it all somewhat lacking can be accused of being a killjoy or a snooty, pretentious person who equates art with darkness and pain. It's an uplifting movie, to be sure, and Firth is superb in it; I especially love how he shows you the king keeping his own panic under wraps because a member of the royal family is supposed to seem in control, serenely confident. He projects that, but only through silence, and Firth never oversells it.

But ... if Firth wins for this, it'll be the Al Pacino "Scent of a Woman" award for career achievement. "Here you go. We love you, we always have loved you, we're sorry you didn't get one of these sooner." Yes, Firth was good in this; he's almost always good. But he showed us more unexpected shadings, and was flat-out livelier and more memorable, in so many other theatrical films, most of which weren't nominated for squat, starting back 20 years ago in "Apartment Zero" and "Valmont" and continuing on up through "Girl With the Pearl Earring" and "A Single Man."

AOH: I think "The King's Speech" deserves a more detailed consideration, which we'll get to when we talk about the best picture nominees. I will say that I'm a sucker for 20th-century history, and for movies about it, and that another thing Firth captures really well is that sense of George VI as a man caught between two worlds. At that point in history the British Empire was on the way out but not completely defunct, and the monarchy had become nominal, powerless and almost entirely symbolic, even though the cultural memory of a different heritage -- at one moment in the film he actually invokes the divine right of kings! -- was still alive. Without ever talking about any of that specifically, Firth enacts the way all that historical stress works itself out in one human being's body and mind. 

MZS: What about Jeff Bridges? Does he even belong in this category? I don't think he does, if you measure the correctness of categories by answering the question, "Who does this movie happen to?" In the case of "True Grit," the answer is Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, who as I said in our earlier conversation, needed to be in the best actress category rather than supporting. The Coen brothers keep Bridges offscreen for a long time and bring him in periodically for bursts of weirdness and violence, which is the right approach. They use him the way Toho studios used Godzilla. But as much as I enjoyed his performance, I'm annoyed that it's in this category, just as I was annoyed that Anthony Hopkins' performance as Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" -- which occupied barely 40 minutes of screen time in a two-hour movie -- got nominated in the best actor category ... and won!

I'm also baffled as to why Bridges' extremely mannered, at times baroque performance -- which I liked; I feel I need to stress that -- was praised, where similarly over-the-top performances in Coen brothers movies were blasted as overdone. Tom Hanks' very funny, totally overripe, Foghorn Leghorn-from-Hell routine in "The Ladykillers" is on about the same wavelength as Bridges' Cogburn in "True Grit," yet that performance is generally considered "too much," while Bridges -- who in this movie seems to be doing a frontier variation on what he did in that horrible Kiefer Sutherland remake of "The Vanishing" -- gets an Oscar nomination. Yes, it's a better movie, but still ...

AOH: You're right that Jeff Bridges is kind of like a gargoyle in this movie, a gargoyle eventually revealed to have human and noble dimensions, and I think people are praising the role because the movie around it is so much easier to like and (apparently) to understand than some of the Coens' pictures.

And it is absolutely odious that Bridges is being considered for best actor while Hailee Steinfeld -- who is beyond the remotest shadow of a doubt the center of the film, in visual and emotional terms and any other terms you like -- is consigned to the supporting category. This looks to me like a very strong year for actresses and not half as strong a year for actors. Does that have anything to do with it?

MZS: Yes, very much so. And viewers should savor that because it doesn't happen very often. There have been many years where you look at the five Best Actress nominees, and two or three of them are really glorified supporting turns -- stand-by-your-man type performances that aren't really central to the story and that should probably have been in supporting, but got bumped up because the actresses had a certain profile.

AOH: It sounds as if we both expect Firth to walk away with it, and also think Bridges -- as fine as he is -- shouldn't be nominated in this category at all. What about the other guys, who look almost like afterthoughts at this point? I had mixed emotions about Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network," but it's definitely an intriguing performance. What did you make of him as the nerd-Gatsby of our time, Mark Zuckerberg? Or rather, "Mark Zuckerberg."

MZS: I thought Eisenberg was fearsomely great. He showed us a new type of screen character: the nerd as unstoppable genius-bastard. I loved the pleasure he took in putting the screws to his presumed intellectual inferiors. It's rare to see that level of ferocity in a character who isn't involved in violence -- an action film bad guy, for example, or a gangster. What were your mixed feelings? I mean, really, what's not to like?

AOH: Well, I guess my feelings about Eisenberg's performance -- which is very nuanced and always interesting -- are bound up with my response to the film, which we'll talk about later. In brief, I see "Social Network" as an indictment of a generation and a certain perma-boy 21st century personality type, which in some ways I found too sweeping and too general. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as such a damaged and affectless personality -- it's brilliant, but I wasn't entirely convinced that it wasn't a very subtle kind of shtick.

That said, I am a fan of Eisenberg's acting in general, and I loved him in his other 2010 role, as a drug-smuggling Hasidic Jew in "Holy Rollers." I read this great interview with him where he talked about meeting Al Pacino, who told him, "Just because they say 'Action' [on a movie set] doesn't mean you have to do anything." It's a great line, and says a lot about Pacino and Eisenberg and contemporary film acting.

MZS: We're going to have to argue about "The Social Network" tomorrow, then, because I don't see what you see in it at all. Right now I want to move on to the remaining two nominees, starting with the one I didn't like at all: James Franco in "127 Hours."

I should preface this by saying that I think under the right circumstances, Franco can be brilliant. His performance as James Dean in the 2001 TV movie about the actor's life was one of the greatest lead performances I've ever seen on television -- one that went far beyond mere impersonation, and suggested an understanding of the subject comparable to that of a passionately committed but not starstruck biographer. But what's he doing here, really? The way Danny Boyle directs the story, it's hard to tell. The camera is shaking, shifting, rolling, zooming, dollying, fragmenting his performance to the point where it's pulverized, like a mirror broken into a thousand tiny pieces and then crushed into powder. Under those circumstances I almost hesitate to give him credit or blame for anything in "127 Hours," except to say that the conception of the character, which is pretty thin to begin with, falls apart by making him seem, well, too cool, too much a movie hero rather than a real person.

I mean, didn't you feel the movie was a self-flattering fantasy vision of a horrible real life event? The hero is like Steve McQueen in an old action movie, the super-capable guy solving a problem -- a problem that happens to climax with him cutting his arm off. Maybe Franco's Oscar nomination is the film industry's version of a formal society debut -- a way of telling Franco, "It's official, kid. You're royalty now, in case you didn't already know that from the hosting gig."

AOH: James Franco is an extremely talented guy who is clearly capable of great acting. He may be more interested, at this point, in being a new kind of Info Age celebrity who is simultaneously present in all media, which is arguably not a new kind of celebrity at all. Indeed, there's something almost 19th century, almost Mark Twain, about Franco's desire to be a writer and a director and a producer and a whatever else, along with a movie star. As to "127 Hours," I agree that it's a total mess. As Michael Koresky wrote in Reverse Shot, it was hard to say where the Mountain Dew commercial ended and the movie began. Danny Boyle is the William Castle of our time. If there were a way to make us suffer severe dehydration and exposure and pee in our pants in the movie theater, he would do it.

MZS: Hah! Yes.

AOH: Franco is showboaty in the role, and I didn't love all of it. But actually, I thought he pulled off the central switchback pretty well, when Ralston realizes that he's been an arrogant douche, and that the price he will apparently pay for that is to die alone in excruciating pain, with no one knowing where he is. Now, should Franco win an Oscar for that? Absolutely not. And while it would be easy to say that still lies ahead for him, who knows? Despite Franco's obvious talent, he may be less interested in acting than in creating this meta-celebrity figure he's becoming. He's like the upscale, hipster-flavored version of Ashton Kutcher, if that isn't a self-canceling or tautological concept in some way --

MZS: Mark Twain plus Ashton Kutcher. That's terrifying.

Which leaves us with the star of "Biutiful," Javier Bardem, my favorite in this category. If the best actor award were given for degree of difficulty alone, Bardem would win immediately. There wouldn't even be a ceremony. They would just mail the statuette to his house and tell the other nominees they can show up for the free cocktails if they want, but otherwise there's no point. His performance as a cancer-stricken criminal trying to survive -- and find God, and deal with his incipient death -- might be the summation of everything he's done up till now. I used to compare him to the young Marlon Brando, because of his insinuating charm and aqualine profile and heavy-lidded eyes, and that sort of prankish, self-aware quality that the two actors share. (Young Brando en Espanol!) But this film showed me a different side of him, an old-fashioned leading man quality that -- perverse as it might sound given the twists in this movie's final half-hour -- reminded me of James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," another long tear-jerking movie that's all over the place but that coalesces around one lead performance. 

AOH: Well, there's not a lot I need or want to add to that! "Biutiful" is so, um, beautiful and also so ludicrous -- as one friend of mine observed after we saw it in Cannes, as a treatment it wouldn't make any sense at all. OK, here's a guy and he's a single dad and a criminal and he's dying of cancer and his ex-wife whom he still loves is a junkie and is screwing his brother, and he makes a horrible, unforgivable mistake he can never live down and he can see and communicate with dead people. It's like "The Sixth Sense" as remade partly by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and partly by Roberto Rossellini. All the good and bad things about Alejandro González Iñárritu's filmmaking career in one movie! But yes, if the movie holds together at all, and everyone's mileage will vary on that question, it's because of the devastating performance from Bardem.

MZS: All right, will win and should win. I say Firth will win, but it should be Bardem. Hell, it should always be Bardem.

AOH: Well, I'll go more cynical and realpolitik, then. Firth and Firth. The Oscars are an industry booster award, after all, and that's some damn fine middlebrow entertainment!

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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By Matt Zoller Seitz

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