MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

17 Weeks To Oscar: It’s Raining Men

The Best Actor category is always loaded. This happens to be a strong year for Best Actress as well. But with the ladies, there are a good number of completely worthy performances. In the Actor this season, there are more than five Undeniables. Yet, some of them will be denied.

Javier Bardem is an Undeniable. There is no tougher movie in our American mainstream cinema this year than Biutiful. Compared to a film like Hereafter, it is the suicide bomb vs. the 100 virgins you party with after you are freed from your mortal coil. It’s the story of a man who is connected to The Dead finds out he is going to die himself and struggles mightily to tie up loose ends for his children and others whose lives he has touched, for better or worse. But Bardem… my God… he is not only 100% present in every moment we experience with him on screen, but he oozes empathy through all the harshness, never for a second falling into the sentimental, commanding the audience to stay with him… this is about you… this is about your soul… life is a scary ride, but here we go.

Robert Duvall is an Undeniable. One of our greatest actors and has been for decades. Get Low gives him room to perform to most of his strengths as an actor… all those colors, power seething under restraint. And then, he gives us one of the great one-person speeches, near the end of the film, and pulls it off brilliantly when it could have gone so wrong. This is the role that aging actors dream of finding… and Duvall wears it like a handmade glove.

Jesse Eisenberg is an Undeniable. His “Mark Zuckerberg” is not only the single most unforgettable character of the year so far, his reading of Aaron Sorkin’s unique verbal music is definitive in The Social Network. Lots of great actors have made wonderful moments of Sorkin’s words, but Eisenberg seemed born to it, a perfect blending of an actor’s unique being and a writer’s precision.

Colin Firth is an Undeniable. Last year, he broke through the awards ice with an unexpected, tortured, desperate man whose façade had all the charm of, well, Colin Firth. This year, his is still under siege, but his own mind is responsible in The King’s Speech. It’s closer to roles that we have known Firth in over the years, but a great balance between his ascendant prince, an uncommon Australian, and a wife who has a clear vision of the entire chess board makes audiences want to scoop up all three actors and thank them for being.

James Franco is an Undeniable. He holds the audience in his palm from the third minute of 127 Hours (when we first really see him) until the very last moment, when he hands it all back to the real Aron Ralston for a closing bow. It is a tribute to Franco and Boyle and the whole team that something as tightly defined as being stuck in a narrow passage of rock for more than 5 days feels like so much more. But first, it is on Franco. As an audience, we cannot disconnect from him for a single moment or the illusion is over. And we don’t.

That’s five. And that doesn’t start to take into account the performances that are on the way from reigning Oscar champ Jeff Bridges, Hollywood favorite Mark Wahlberg, and nice-to-see-you-back Jack Nicholson, at least two of which look like Undeniables in the making.

That’s seven, folks.

So whom do you leave out?

Some say Eisenberg is vulnerable. Really? How could that be? In a big hit drama with a role that sits in your head for days and weeks?

Duvall? Really? You’re going to leave that masterful turn in a movie that took almost a decade to get made and that Duvall was part of crafting for five of those years?

Will The Academy screw Bardem again? He should have won for The Sea Inside and wasn’t even nominated. Now “Friendo” has an Oscar and could be the Streep of his generation of actors, in terms of finding that role every other year and making it indelible. And because Biutiful is a tough film from a small distributor, he gets kicked to the curb?

It’s impossible.

And then, we get into the next group of great performances that will draw (and deserve) intense interest from voters, but has an even greater uphill battle.

Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton are not likely to break through for Stone… but they should be seriously considered. The film, widely misunderstood by critics as a thriller, is a challenging personal drama, featuring a stripped down DeNiro of the kind we haven’t seen in a while. Norton has been upbraided for his extreme hairstyle, but as the movie moves along, the subtleties of the performance become increasingly apparent.

Leonardo DiCaprio is in both Shutter Island and Inception, both of which could end up being Best Picture nominated. He is an Oscar veteran. But with the emotional component of Inception not working as well as hoped, the film feels like a director’s piece. And while Shutter Island is clearly Martin Scorsese having a ball, DiCaprio gives a very complex, compelling, and emotional performance. It’s just hard to imagine Academy members separating that work from the operatic thrills of the film.

Stephen Dorff is the lead in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, playing a movie star who is living it down in the Chateau Marmont. The film is an elegantly made, imitate slice of a unique life. But does the role have enough umph to push Dorff, who wears it very well, through the crowd of contenders?

Aaron Eckhart is one of those actors who should be nominated often. He gives an excellent performance in Rabbit Hole, but is a bit overshadowed by Nicole Kidman, to whom the story leans heavily, even though it is the story of the couple.

Colin Ferrell is in the Peter Weir film, The Way Back… which is just starting to screen in LA after getting raves in Telluride. (I’m seeing it tonight, just the 3nd screening of the film in L.A.) Tough road. Another fresh-faced, if familiar-named distributor.

Ryan Gosling has gotten intense rave reviews for his work in Blue Valentine. (I am finally seeing this film next week.) Gosling has never been bad in anything but Hollywood crap. He is one of our best young actors and will, I still feel, be as big a star as he chooses to be. But will he sell himself hard enough to break through?

Aaron Johnson delivers big time in a movie that not many of you probably have seen and most Academy members are unlikely to see. In Nowhere Boy, Johnson turns the incredibly difficult trick of embodying John Lennon enough for us to recognize him while disconnecting enough so we can see the everyteen he once must have been. It’s a great, underrecognized performance.

Kevin Spacey lights it up as Casino Jack, a good movie that weighs heavily on the side of performance. (Amazingly, Jon Lovitz is quite good in a role tailored to his specific skill set.) Spacey gives us the full charm and bullshit fireworks that audiences love watching. But he has a new distribution company backing the film and while he has made himself as available for media as possible, he is based in London and won’t be here to shake hands and kiss babies… or to shake babies and kiss hands

So there you have it. Surely there are some additional performances that will have champions. Some really fine work will not come close to making it.

But what still sits with me is that I don’t remember a group at the top of this list being so unique and obviously worthy. I guess it will be easier if Bridges or Wahlberg stinks up the theater… but I don’t see it going there… quite the opposite. At least one actor whose performance this year might have won the Oscar in a different year will not even be going to The Kodak… perhaps two or three.

Rarely will the phrase, “It’s an honor just to be nominated” be as true as it will be in this group this year.

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25 Responses to “17 Weeks To Oscar: It’s Raining Men”

  1. Christian says:

    Is William Hurt eligible for “The Yellow Handkerchief”? He was masterful in that film, but my understanding is that the film sat on the shelf for a while and may not be eligible for Oscar consideration. Is it?

  2. Michael says:

    As to Eisenberg…mmmm…no. Same stuff he always does. And Bardem…I like him a lot of the time…but I think this isn’t a nuanced, layered performance. I think he’s at the same level for almost every frame of the film. Firth and Franco…now those performances ARE undeniable. Quick aside about Colin Farrell…he’s great in The Way Back (Ed Harris, who is getting most of the attention, is really fine as well) and should be a Best Supporting Nominee.

  3. Keil Shults says:

    While I’m still not sure I’d classify Eisenberg’s performance as either “great” or “undeniable,” I don’t feel it’s deserving of the comments that suggest it’s his usual schtick. While I do agree that Sorkin finally happened upon the ideal actor to deliver his rapid-fire dialogue, there is just as much being conveyed in what is not being said by the Mark Zuckerberg character. The eyes have it, but it’s also exuded by every other facet of his body language. A wonderful, albeit subtle performance.

  4. chris says:

    Edgar Ramirez would be an undeniable for the six-hour “Carlos,” if people saw it. But that was made for TV and I assume it’s ineligible, too?

  5. David Poland says:

    I believe appearing on TV before the theatrical DQs it, Chris.

  6. I think you’ll find Farrell more of a supporting character, Sturgess a sturdy if non-showy lead.

  7. cadavra says:

    Haven’t seen it yet, but based on the trailer and the set-up, Nicholson certainly seems Supporting.

  8. Michael says:

    I actually think Eisenberg could be denied, especially when you figure that Firth and Franco will probably be the 2 picking up most of the critic awards. If The Fighter and True Grit are any good, Wahlberg and Bridges will be fresher in the minds of the Academy. And Duvall will probably get the old-person slot.

  9. LexG says:

    Does anyone still remember GET LOW? Did anyone see it in the first place?

  10. movielocke says:

    no new charts?

  11. Hopscotch says:

    Out of those five I’d bet Duvall, then Bardem get the toss first. Depends on how well the screeners play. however, I’m in complete agreement with DP: The Sea Inside is a flawed movie, but Bardem is flawless in it. But if True Grit is more “commercial” or if Leo counter punches himself out, yeah they might make it.

    Its early still. I remember back in 2002 Antwone Fisher was on everyone’s list of “undeniable nominees” and it got nothing.

  12. John says:

    Eisenberg is under threat from Gosling, mark my words. Can’t see the latter being passed up ahead of Wahlberg, either.

    Can’t wait to hear what you think of BLUE VALENTINE, David. Amazed it’s taken you 10 months to see it!

  13. Samuel Deter says:


    … Eisenberg, Franco, Firth, Bridges and Bardem… and the oscar will go to… James Franco. Period.

    As for women… Bening, Portman, Kidman and who knows… still very open. A very welcome very strong year for women.

    Supporting Actress? Carter, Steinfeld and Wiest among two fillers because the winner is most likely among these three… probably Steinfeld.

    Supporting Actor? Rush, for sure… Bale, possibly … Garfield, maybe… Eckhart, if played right…

  14. Mimi says:

    I think Samuel’s picks are right – Robert Duvall was spectacular, but Jeff Bridges looks great and is going to be fresher.Judging by the trailer alone, if ‘London Boulevard’ is released in time for consideration, Colin Farrell may have a shot at being that wild card nominee.

    If Sam Rockwell doesn’t get nominated this year for his magnificent supporting role in ‘Conviction’, I’m giving up entirely. I’m still upset about his snub last year.

  15. Rick says:

    I’m surprised none of the leads from “Brooklyn’s Finest” were mentioned. Richard Gere was amazing in a character he has never really played before – a loser. Ethan Hawke was compelling throughout. And Don Cheadle displayed flawlessly the never ending battle between doing the right thing or doing what is convenient. “Brooklyn’s Finest” is a tough, raw film. Yet the perfomances of these incredible actors make it a film understood as a story of life as it exists in some of the toughest areas of the world where children are taught how to survive.

  16. anghus says:

    i don’t see how you deny Eisenberg. There are a lot of veteran actors turning in quality work, but The Social Network was the year’s iconic performance film and he was just spectacular. He might not win, but he gets nominated.

    Personally, i would love to see Dicaprio nominated for Shutter Island. Not a perfect film, but he was fantastic and the last 10 minutes of the film is just heartbreaking stuff.

  17. Keil Shults says:

    It is unfortunate that great performances in films with mixed-to-poor critical response rarely get recognized. For instance, I think we all know by now that Jeff Bridges’ ignored portrayal of “The Dude” was superior to that year’s winner (Roberto Benigni).

    I suppose it doesn’t help that studios aren’t likely to spend money promoting a performance if it’s the only thing in the picture likely to gain any traction with the various awards groups.

  18. Davey says:

    After you see Blue Valentine I don’t see how he can be left out of the top five. He certainly surpasses the work of Robert Duvall if not the other frontrunners.

  19. Samuel Deter says:

    Davey, I agree that Gosling is very good in Blue Valentine, yet it’s no Half Nelson.

    I actually think Michelle Williams has a better chance to get nominated but it’s just not going to happen.

    Their time will come. But not yet. Not for this.

  20. MichaelH says:

    I just have a feeling Jesse Eisenberg is going to loose momentum and get left behind Jeff Bridges. It stinks big time but the Academy likes to pat itself on the back more than bring in a newcomer.

  21. Christian says:

    I thought with all the Oscar knowledge on this board, *someone* would address my question about Hurt’s eligibility for “The Yellow Handkerchief.” Maybe that first post got overlooked, so I’m posting again, in hopes that someone might be able to clarify. Thanks.

  22. cadavra says:

    Got around to WILD TARGET today, and it’s as entertaining as any movie I’ve seen this year. In a sane world, Nighy would certainly be in the running for his droll turn as an uptight hit man, but as we all know, this is not a sane world.

  23. Walter says:

    Christian: Looked up Yellow Handkerchief on IMDB and it says it was released in 2008. I know that doesn’t really answer your question, but I wanted you to know that someone cared. Looks like a great film, and I will have to see it based on your recommendation.

  24. Christian says:

    Thanks, Walter. I’m not convinced it’s a great film, but it has a great performance from Hurt. The other actors are also fine, but Hurt gives a career performance, or so I thought.

    You might be interested in Dennis Cozzalio’s take:

  25. Kevin Spacey??? Really? His hammy performance in CASINO JACK is one of the worst of the year. The Academy would have to be on crack to nominate him.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon