Two killers, a lawyer, a retiree and a spy. Or one Spaniard and four Yanks. Or an Oscar-winner, two prior nominees, and two first-timers with a 50-year age difference.
No matter how you slice this year’s best supporting actor category, it’s an interesting stewpot of distinguished actors giving unique and powerful performances. It’s one of the few categories this year to show some love to “Into the Wild,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” three movies that were considered at some point along the way to be big-time Oscar bait. It also includes the only acting nomination for the “No Country for Old Men” ensemble, despite an abundance of terrific work by that film’s cast.
It’s also one of the few Academy Awards that most prognosticators think has a sure-thing winner. But that’s the kind of thinking that’s been disproven time and again in Oscars past.
Predicted winner: Javier Bardem
Whether it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins’ turn as an urbane psychopath in “The Silence of the Lambs” or Forest Whitaker’s recreation of the genocidal Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” the Academy has shown time and again that it loves a charismatic killer. And while Bardem’s Anton Chigurh — the terrifying, floppy-haired murder machine of “No Country for Old Men” — isn’t particularly chatty or seductive, the intensity of his performance has made him the favorite.
Like most Spanish actors who make a splash on these shores, Bardem, 38, first came to the attention of American audiences by starring in a Pedro Almodóvar film (in his case, “Live Flesh”), although anyone who saw him fill a pair of briefs as an underwear model in Bigas Luna’s outrageous “Jamón Jamón” already pegged him as a performer to watch. His Oscar-nominated turn in “Before Night Falls” and his riveting work in “The Sea Inside” cemented his cred among art-house audiences, even if they failed to turn out for “Love in the Time of Cholera” or “Goya’s Ghosts.”
In some ways, Chigurh is one of Bardem’s less interesting characters — there aren’t a lot of notes for the actor to play, and in many ways this ruthless killer with no backstory and no strong motivation comes off like “Halloween” boogeyman Michael Myers with a little bit more dialogue. But as the standout player in an impressive film, this year’s SAG and BAFTA winner looks likely to bring “el Oscar” back home with him.
Affleck’s nomination not only spotlights a great film that didn’t get the respect it deserved from its studio or from audiences, but it also caps an extraordinary year for the young performer. 2007 also saw him star in “Gone Baby Gone,” the directorial debut of his brother Ben, and what might have seemed to be a disastrous experiment in nepotism wound up revealing hitherto unseen sides to both Afflecks’ talent. If there’s any justice, Casey, 32, will continue to snag great roles while Ben will continue his journey on both sides of the camera. Even if Casey goes home empty-handed on Oscar night, he’s on a winning streak.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Not that Hoffman, 40, isn’t just great in (and, in fact, the best thing about) “War,” but it’s certainly the least interesting of the three movies in which he appeared last year. Of course, it’s also the one with a major studio behind it, so go figure. Were there any justice to the Oscars (and there never is), Hoffman and not Cate Blanchett would have been a multiple nominee this year. That said, Hoffman’s performance as CIA spook Gust Avrakotos is a curmudgeonly delight. Bringing wit and brio to a role that many actors would have reduced to pure grump, Hoffman always finds the laugh without pounding it to death, and in doing so, steals the movie outright from his higher-profile (and no doubt higher-paid) co-stars.
Since Hoffman’s already got a freshly-minted Oscar from “Capote,” it’s unlikely that the Academy will be swayed his way again so soon. But it’s good to know that this august body is paying attention to one of the most exciting artists gracing the screen today.
And this isn’t just one of those sentimental, “oops, we never get around to nominating you” nominations, either — Holbrook displays sides we’ve never seen before as Ron Franz, a lonely retiree who crosses paths with drifter Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) and provides him with one last possibility of real human contact before Chris disappears from society entirely. Past regrets, new friendship, and the idea of redemption are subtly enscripted on Holbrook’s work here, and it’s a revelation that we might never have expected from such a familiar performer.
Were he to surprise the oddsmakers and win, Hal Holbrook would certainly give one of the evening’s great acceptance speeches. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll no doubt turn around, get back on the road, and continue to bring “Mark Twain Tonight!” to new audiences around the country.
Earning a second Oscar nomination this year (following his best actor nod for “In the Bedroom”), Wilkinson, 59, brings a palpable intensity to the role of Arthur Edens, a brilliant corporate attorney whose mental instability actually liberates him to become a more moral human being, one who wants to redeem himself for years of corporate malfeasance. Playing a man who finds his conscience when he goes off his bipolar meds, Wilkinson avoids the pitfalls of showboating that would have no doubt tripped up a lesser actor, balancing fervor and mania with pain and sadness.
But Wilkinson has certainly shown himself capable of working both sides of the fence, deftly juggling comedy and drama in his prolific screen career. His stinging performance in Woody Allen’s otherwise negligible “Cassandra’s Dream” takes its place alongside the nutty Dr. Howard Mierzwiak in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” We’re never quite sure what we’re going to get from Wilkinson, but audiences always know it’s worth going along for the ride. Even if his work in “Michael Clayton” doesn’t clinch him an Oscar, it’s a notable addition to Wilkinson’s ever-growing gallery of terrific performances.
Should have been nominated: Michael Cera
His exemplary work on TV’s “Arrested Development” and in “Juno” would be sterling additions to any young actor’s résumé, but it’s “Superbad” that confirms the 19-year-old Cera as a bright young thing destined for both comedic and dramatic greatness.
Alonso Duralde is the author of “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men”; find him at www.alonsoduralde.com
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