Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, looks at the Academy Award nominees and this year’s best films and performances through a spiritual lens — and makes a prediction or two along the way.
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Disparate Works — The Best Actor Category
Who’s art is better, Gaga or Adele? In a competition of art vs. art, how can you compare such different work? Every year at the Oscars, handfuls of excellent but similarly disparate works are pitted against one another for the biggest prize in show business.
This year’s best actor category is a perfect example. Who gave the better performance, George Clooney or Jean Dujardin? Brad Pitt? Gary Oldman? Or Demian Bichir? When one of these men picks up the golden statuette on Feb 26th does that mean it’s irrefutable that he gave the year’s best performance?
It’s highly likely that one of two men will take home the Oscar: George Clooney or Jean Dujardin. Each has given a remarkable performance fully deserving of every accolade they have received. If either wins, they will richly deserve it. And yet, to attempt to compare these performances, let alone pick the better of the two, is absurd at best.
Clooney gives easily the finest performance of his career in The Descendants, as Matt King, the conflicted father of two attempting to keep his family together after his wife winds up comatose. Vulnerability is not the first word one associates with Clooney. A huge part of his appeal (apart from his looks) lies in his how his suave and casual demeanor sets the audience at ease, regardless of his character’s situation. In The Descendants, Clooney offers his audience no such safety net and they are forced to walk on an emotional floor of marbles right along with him. Matt King is a great role for any actor but not every actor is up to the task, and it’s nice to see that Clooney is. It will likely bring home the Oscar.
Dujardin’s turn as the fictional silent screen legend George Valentin in The Artist is remarkable. Without the benefit of words to support his performance, he must rely entirely on physicality to tell his story, no mean feat in this day and age of hyper-verbal cinema. That said, his character does not require the same internal complexity as Clooney’s — the emotional requirements are much more of the paint-by-numbers variety.
Brad Pitt, as real life baseball general manager Billy Bean in Moneyball, was being touted as an early Oscar favorite and was running neck and neck with Clooney until interest in The Artist took off at the beginning of the year. Pitt has now slipped to a distant third in the race, and rightly so, as his performance was less than inspiring and looks strangely out of place amidst the other nominees. Pitt has given excellent performances in the past, but the buzz for his performance in Moneyball seemed more a case of Hollywood trying to congratulate one of its biggest stars for stardom’s sake, rather than rewarding the work he actually put forth.
Both Oldman and Bichir give excellent performances easily of the same caliber as Clooney and Dujardin — and in a more just world they would be in the running for the main prize. But Oscar doesn’t work like that. The momentum that The Artist and The Descendants carry overall makes this a two man race, with Oldman and Bichir expected to show up on Oscar night, smile when someone else’s name is called, and just be grateful for the nomination.
And in the end, it is actually about the nomination, as nominees are selected solely by their peers (actors select actors, writers select writers, etc.), while the winners are selected by the entire Academy — a less discriminating jury, more likely to be influenced by backstage politicking.
It’s always going to wind up unfair — this Oscar night either Clooney or Dujardin will win and four men will wind up “wuzrobbed” — but the world will have been enriched and enlightened by all their performances and, ultimately, that is what art is about.