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And the character actors shall lead

This year’s best actor nominees usually play supporting roles. By Erik Lundegaard

As 2005 ended and the possible Oscar candidates were pored over and dissected in entertainment publications everywhere, one oddity leapt out: The usually crowded best supporting actor category felt sparse, while best actor, which is often sparse, felt crowded.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. Most of the actors considered best actor candidates (Jeff Daniels, Cillian Murphy) as well as the eventual nominees (Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix, Terrence Howard and Heath Ledger) usually play supporting roles. They’re supporting actors. They got lead roles this past year because, with the exception of “Walk the Line,” their films were made outside the studio system and were less subject to studio idiocy of this sort: “Hey, see if we can’t get Cruise to play Murrow. Is Will Smith available for ‘Hustle & Flow’? How about Will Ferrell as Capote? Yeah, we’ll make the thing a comedy!”

I know. Fish in a barrel.

All of the eventual nominees are also first-time best actor nominees. This hasn’t happened since 1970 when previous supporting actors nominees George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas and Jack Nicholson joined first-time nominees James Earl Jones and Ryan O’Neal in the lead actor category. It may be a coincidence but 1970 was also the dawn of the best decade of Hollywood movies, when movies strove for something beyond mere entertainment, and dull, handsome leading men were replaced by livelier, homelier versions: Dustin Hoffman and Elliott Gould and Gene Hackman. People like us, as David Byrne once sang.

One assumes that this year is simply a blip rather than a dawn, and talents like P.S. Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and maybe even Heath Ledger will go back to being the most interesting 10 minutes in otherwise tepid studio products. But one can hope otherwise.

Now let’s take a closer look at the nominees.

The lock How good was Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote”? This is a crowded field of talented actors in interesting roles and yet Hoffman has been picked by almost every major awards group: Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics, L.A. Film Critics, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild. Heath Ledger was picked by the New York Film Critics Circle. So six of the seven major awards in the lead-up to the Oscars went to Hoffman.

Does this mean anything? Well, in the last 10 years, only one other lead actor has been honored by six of the seven groups: Nicholas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” He went on to win the Oscar. Two actors were honored by five of the seven groups: Geoffrey Rush for “Shine” and Jamie Foxx for “Ray.” Both went on to win the Oscar. So it feels like Hoffman has history on his side.

Of course with the Academy you never know. Russell Crowe won four of the seven for playing tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider” (which, if you haven’t seen yet, you should see right now) but lost the Oscar to “American Beauty’s” Kevin Spacey. The following year, despite winning only one of the seven for “Gladiator,” Crowe got the Oscar. And they say there are no make-ups.

The Academy has a lot to make up to Hoffman since despite a decade of great supporting roles — “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — he’s never even been nominated. In each of these films, another actor, usually a good-looking lead actor, got the supporting nod: Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, Jude Law. But Hoffman has always been the guy for film fans.

I remember being stunned when his spoiled Freddie Miles steps off his convertible with all of the insouciance of his class in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and even moreso when he began sniffing after the disappearance of his friend Dickie Greenleaf with such fierce intelligence. Many of Hoffman’s characters could be clichés — the spoiled rich kid, the lovestruck hanger-on — and Hoffman often makes the daring move towards the cliché rather than away from it. Freddie Miles is more spoiled than any spoiled kid we’ve seen in the movies — and yet he’s more real. “Boogie Nights” Scotty J. is more pathetic than any pathetic hanger-on we’ve seen — and yet he’s more human.

I don’t know how Hoffman does this but it was good practice for “Capote,” where Hoffman again plays a much-caricatured character without ever getting stuck in the rut of the caricature. He flattens nothing. He brings life to everything. He gives us all levels of a man who seduces and betrays everyone for the sake of his art, and possibly undoes himself with the final act of seduction-and-betrayal: himself. I’ll resort to the kind of cliché that Hoffman avoids in his work: His performance is seamless. He’s so good he brings tears to my eyes.

The outside chance

Publicity picture of actor Ledger in a scene from 'Brokeback Mountain'
Actor Heath Ledger is pictured in a scene from 'Brokeback Mountain' in this undated publicity photograph. Ledger received a best actor nomination for his role for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards. The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006, and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Focus Features/HandoutFocus Features / X80001

In 2000 I was going out with a woman with two young daughters and one night they all forced me to watch something called “10 Things I Hate About You.” I did offer one compliment. “You know, this guy’s not bad,” I said, gesturing to one actor. “Heath?” the elder daughter asked. “Is that his name?” I asked. “The guy playing Pat? He’s good.” She was thrilled. He was her big crush and it’s nice when others like your crush, too.

Now a lot of people like her crush. Ledger has done well at maneuvering from teen idol to good supporting roles (“The Patriot”; “Monster’s Ball”) to his heartbreakingly minimalist performance as Ennis. Pat, we hardly knew ye.

If Ledger has advantages over Hoffman it’s the following: 1) The steamroller effect, if there is one, for “Brokeback”; and 2) The heart factor. We like Ennis. More of us can identify with Ennis’ problem (allowing society to cripple who you are) than we can with Capote’s dilemma (art vs. love). Ledger’s film is kinder to Ennis, too, than Hoffman’s film is to Truman.

But — returning to that cliché — Ledger’s performance isn’t seamless. In the scene where Ennis brings his daughters into the grocery store there’s a moment where Ennis sounds less like his usual taciturn and tobacco-savoring self and a little like Skip, the surf-and-skateboard guru Ledger played in “Lords of Dogtown.” It’s just a moment, just one unraveled seam, but it’s there.

None of which takes away from the power of the film or Ledger’s performance. Any other year he’d win hands down.

The pleasant surprise
Terrence Howard was the best news on nomination day. Before the noms I’d heard idiotic talk that the Academy wasn’t going to vote for black actors this year because black actors had been “too honored” recently. Thankfully it turned out to be just that — idiotic talk.

Terrence Howard receives best actor nomination for 78th Academy Awards
Actor Terrence Howard is shown in a scene from \"Hustle and Flow\" in an undated publicity photo. Howard received a nomination for best actor for the role for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards. The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006 and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Alan Spearman/Crunk Pictures/HandoutCrunk Pictures / X80001

But you can’t satisfy everyone. MSNBC’s Darrell Bowling recently complained because the Academy honored Howard for playing DJay, a pimp, in “Hustle & Flow,” rather than for playing Cameron, a rich TV producer, in “Crash.” Bowling sees it as part of the film industry’s ongoing “glorification of negative images of black people.” Certainly one can’t argue with that historical negativity. It goes beyond 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” to the 1896 Edison kinetoscope “Watermelon Contest,” which can be viewed in the documentary “Edison: The Invention of the Movies.” “Contest” is what you think it is: two black men eating watermelon. Four years later they re-made it with four black men eating watermelon and fighting over the rinds. The early kinetoscopes were also unkind to country bumpkins and old maids.

But how does this historical negativity apply to DJay? You can just as easily find fault with Bowling’s wishes as with the Academy’s reality. Cameron is a neutered man who stands by helplessly as his wife is felt up by the cops, while DJay is a strong man who takes his last best shot to do something good with his life. Which image is more positive? Cameron is a small character in a “race” movie while DJay is the lead role in a complex character study. Which role is more prestigious? Oh, and “Hustle & Flow” is a good movie while “Crash” sucks. Which movie would you rather see?

DJay transcends the stereotype. Just as straight people can identify with Ennis in “Brokeback,” white people can identify with DJay in “Hustle & Flow.” His desperation is ours. Some critics have mocked this universality — “the mid-life crisis of a pimp,” they say — but these critics are comfortable people in comfortable jobs who can’t imagine being in their mid-30s and looking around and thinking “How did I end up here?” and rousing themselves for one last stab at something worthwhile before their time runs out.

Which is to say: I wholly identified with DJay, and rooted for him, and marveled at Howard’s quiet performance. DJay marshals his few smarts and fewer connections and what courage he has to not be a pimp. This is negative how?

The man in black

This publicity photo released by Twentieth Century Fox shows actors Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in a scene from \"Walk The Line.\" Phoenix was nominated for best actor in a movie, musical or comedy, by Golden Globe voters Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005.(AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Suzanne Tenner)Twentieth Century Fox / TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Joaquin Phoenix’s chance of winning the Oscar this year was probably blown last year when Jamie Foxx won the Oscar for playing Ray Charles in “Ray.” Two best actor awards in a row for actors playing legendary musicians? It doesn’t help that their storylines are basically the same: dirt poor, childhood trauma, slow rise, sudden wealth and fame, drug habit, kicking the drug habit, redemption. Of course this is the storyline for most music biopics — unless, of course, the musician dies in a plane crash.

The only fault with Phoenix’s performance, really, is that he didn’t quite get Johnny Cash’s singing voice down. A tall (or deep) task.

The journeyman
Don’t get me wrong. David Strathairn was great as Edward R. Murrow, but he only got to play the public Murrow; the movie didn’t really give us a glimpse into the private Murrow. In the movie, Murrow represents this one thing (journalistic integrity), and deviation from this one thing wasn’t part of the script. Which is why the script shouldn’t win for best original screenplay.

Publicity picture of actor Strathairn in a scene from 'Good Night, and Good Luck'
Actor David Strathairn is seen as television journalist Edward R. Murrow in 'Good Night, and Good Luck' in this undated publicity photograph. Strathairn was nominated for best actor for the role for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards. The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006, and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. BW ONLY NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Warner Independent Pictures/HandoutWarner Independent Pictures / X80001

But I’m happy Strathairn was nominated because, as a movie fan in general and a John Sayles fan in particular, I’ve admired his work for years: Ron Desjardins, Wesley, Man in Black, Police Chief Sid Hatfield, Eddie Ciccote, Asteroid, Ira Lowenstein, Mack Laflin, Whistler, Rennie (one of the most accurate portrayals of a Cajun in movie history), Joe St. George, Pierce Morehouse Patchett, Rev. Russell, Jumpin’ Joe Gastineau.

So you could say this was overdue.

The sum up
As I said: All great performances. All great actors.

But who do I think will win? Philip Seymour Hoffman. Who do I want to win? Philip Seymour Hoffman. Who do I think is one of the best actors of his generation? Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman’s next role, by the way, is again a supporting one. He plays a supervillain trying to destroy Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible III.” I’ll be rooting for Hoffman in that one, too.

Erik Lundegaard assumes that Truman Capote’s beautifully written “The Muses are Heard: An Account” is still out-of-print because the publishing industry is full of idiots. Tell him he’s wrong at: