This was originally published on Capital New York.
Nick Nolte: Paddy Conlon in Warrior
Nick Nolte has cornered the market in tortured characters, playing them with searing authenticity and power. Nolte has been nominated for Oscars three times, as Best Actor in 1991 for Prince of Tides, Best Actor for 1997’s Affliction, and now Best Supporting for his role in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, the story of a family shattered by violence and alcoholism. Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, a one-time boxer with two sons long-estranged from him, played by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. Both sons were wrestling champs. One (Hardy) is a troubled silent outcast, the other (Edgerton) is a science teacher with a wife and kids. Both have cut ties with their father. When the film opens, Paddy Conlon is off the sauce. He has no contact with his sons. Nolte is both pathetic and heroic in the role, sometimes in the same moment, a feat not to be attempted by amateurs. Paddy Conlon knows he cannot undo the past and he knows his sons have good reason to hate him. But he just keeps right on loving them. Even when they reject him, Nolte takes it with a little quick nod, a silent heartbroken acknowledgement: “Yup. I deserve that.” Nolte is so big, so intimidating, that seeing him crack, seeing his vulnerability is always a startling and painful experience. Nobody is more vulnerable than Nick Nolte. There are big gestures in Warrior, and a heartwrenching scene when he falls off the wagon. But when I think of the performance, I think of his quick little nods to himself in the face of constant rejection: “Yup, yup, it’s okay, it’s okay, I deserve that. But I can still love them. I can still love them.”
Kenneth Branagh as “Lawrence Olivier” in My Week with Marilyn
When Kenneth Branagh first burst onto the international scene with Henry V in 1989, he was often compared to Lawrence Olivier. They were both actors as well as directors, and both had brought Henry V to the screen in unforgettable and distinct performances. Branagh was nominated for both Best Actor as well as Best Director for Henry V. There is, then, a symmetry in Branagh playing Sir Lawrence himself in this year’s My Week with Marilyn. My Week with Marilyn is the story of the tempestuous 1956 shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Olivier (who also directed) and a troubled Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams, another Oscar-nominated performance). Branagh plays Olivier as a man comfortable in his status, an excellent collaborator, and yet also yearning for the kind of movie-magic Monroe was able to bring. Branagh is polite and gracious with the nervous star, but his patience soon wears thin when she begins to arrive hours late or refuses to show up at all. While My Week with Marilyn is clearly tipped in sympathy towards Monroe, it is impossible not to feel for Olivier, reduced to screaming spluttering rages every time Monroe flubs a line (as she often did), and outrage at her selfish behavior. But there is one moment, the real “take away”, which shows the most important thing you need to know about Marilyn Monroe, beyond the tabloid chatter around her name: Olivier watches Monroe play a delightful scene in The Prince and the Showgirl where she dances around by herself in an empty room, and he watches what Monroe is able to do, and his awe and emotion is clear on his face. He can do many things, he knows that, he is confident in his talent. But he cannot do what she does. He will never in a million years be able to do what she does. Perhaps he hoped that some of the magic would rub off. But it won’t, and he knows it. That magic was Marilyn’s own.
Max von Sydow as “The Renter” in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Max von Sydow, veteran of over 50 years of films, doesn’t say one word in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (or is it Extremely Annoying & Incredibly Manipulative?). He communicates only by written notes and holding up his hands to show the words “Yes” and “No” written on the palms. He plays “The Renter”, a mysterious man who rents a room in young Oskar Schell’s grandmother’s New York apartment. (The grandmother is played by the great Zoe Caldwell.) The Renter is rarely seen at first, but eventually Oskar (Thomas Horn) ropes him in to his scheme to find the person who might know something about the key left behind in his father’s belongings, his father killed in the World Trade Center on September 11. The Renter is a frail old man who, seemingly because he has nothing better to do, follows Oskar on his jaunts through the Manhattan boroughs. Let’s just get it out of the way: Max von Sydow would be riveting in a vacuum cleaner commercial. His craggy face is expressive, sometimes stern, sometimes splitting apart with emotion. The role could have been played for its maudlin and cuddly aspects, and there are times when the film aches for him to go in that direction, but von Sydow plays The Renter as stern and damaged. Von Sydow saves the performance from its traps and nearly saves the film. Nearly. The Seventh Seal (1957) catapulted Ingmar Bergman’s reputation into the stratosphere and launched Max von Sydow’s career. He has never been far from view. His face tells a million stories. But I truly dislike this film.
Jonah Hill as “Peter Brand” in Moneyball
This is the sort of nomination I find most satisfying. Dramatic actors often reveal their ambition for the gold statue in unattractive ways: the kinds of roles they choose, the sorts of films they appear in. Ambition is fine (and necessary), but you don’t want to sense an “Oscar-grab” at work. But an actor like Jonah Hill, who got his start as a member of Judd Apatow’s merry band of socially-delayed lunatics, would never assume that he would one day be an Oscar nominee. It would just not be in the cards for an actor like him. He wasn’t on that path. He appears in comedies, first of all, rarely acknowledged by “The Academy”, and while he always makes an impression (he had probably one minute of screentime in 40-Year-Old Virgin and is totally memorable), you don’t sense he is trying to be something he is not. And so there is a relaxation to Jonah Hill’s work separating him from the more openly ambitious, who wear their greed for gold on their sleeves. This worked so much in his favor in Moneyball, a film I loved. As Peter Brand, the stats-nerd who helps Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane pitch his “Moneyball” idea to the old-timers, Jonah Hill is smileless, blunt, and reliable. He trusts the numbers. All the swirling emotion around baseball is not his thing at all. Hill has a way of staring around him, trying to figure things out in the moment. His dialogue is technical and difficult, and I would never for one second think he is not that character. The Oscars often get bogged down in politics, and theoretical arguments over whose “turn” it is to win, and who “got robbed”. It’s all irrelevant. Jonah Hill did superb work in Moneyball and it’s a meaningful nomination. It feels right that his performance has been acknowledged.
Christopher Plummer, as Hal Fields in Beginners
It seems strange that Christopher Plummer, in such a long and illustrious career, has only been nominated for two Oscars, and both nominations came in the last five years. He has been working steadily since the 1950s. To those who grew up with him as Captain von Trapp in the annual showing of The Sound of Music on television, his continued presence in interesting and challenging films is a blessing. Christopher Plummer continues to “bring it”, in role after role after role. One of the most exciting moments in the entirety of The Insider, an excellent film, where Plummer plays 60 Minutes‘ Mike Wallace, is when Plummer turns on a younger associate who dares to call him “Mike” and says with an aggressive shark’s smile, “Try Mr. Wallace.” It is a beat-down more frightening than an assault with a deadly weapon. In Beginners, Plummer plays Hal Fields, an elderly dying man who comes out of the closet following the death of his wife of 40 years. Plummer’s performance is so central to the film it feels like it should be in the Best Actor category. There is nothing “supporting” about his performance. Beginners is a lovely and unique piece of work (Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent are very touching), and Plummer makes Hal Fields understandable and human. He does not condescend. He does not “comment” on the character. There is a moment when he calls his grown son at three o’clock in the morning to report back on his night out at a gay club. “They were playing such loud music … I don’t even know what it was …” Ewan McGregor, half asleep, says, “It was probably house music, Dad.” Plummer laughs in a delighted way at this new information, and reaches out to write it down on a notepad: “House music!!” It’s a perfectly realized moment, eloquent of the character’s curiosity about life, and his openness to new experiences. This all may sound rather cutesy, but cutesy the film is not. It is the story of a son needing to let the idea of his father go, and of a father needing to become the man he always wanted to be, even though he knows he has limited time left on this planet. Plummer’s performance is a miracle of emotion, humor, and physicality. His growing frailty is heartbreaking. There aren’t too many people practicing the craft of acting today who can top Christopher Plummer. Plummer keeps taking risks. He is still out on a limb.