But this year’s nominees represent -- or at least seemed to at first -- a triumph of great, underplayed performances, led by George Clooney’s devastatingly rich, witty, emotionally powerful role in The Descendants. Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman and Demian Bichir show how moving a layered, understated performance can be. Jean Dujardin is the exception, but outsized acting in The Artist works because it reflects the larger-than-real gestures of silent film style.
Then the SAG awards happened. Clooney’s apparent lock on the Oscar shattered when Dujardin won, and it seems that, once again, the Academy Award could go to the least subtle performance of the bunch.
The Best Actor race is now between Clooney and Dujardin, and each represents a paradox. Clooney is a giant movie star with subtlety, and Dujardin a virtual unknown displaying capital-A Acting. If Dujardin wins, it will reinforce all my skepticism about the Oscars. (Why do all those voting actors go for the most over-the-top nominees? Are they trying to make themselves look better?)
Whatever happens, it may be a long time before we get five such amazing performances in one category, without a single weak link. Here’s a rundown -- starting with the best -- of why this year’s nominees are so amazing, worth watching over and over again.
GEORGE CLOONEY IN THE DESCENDANTS
Think of The Descendants -- or any Clooney film -- with another actor in the role. They would be far different movies, proof that there is nothing generic about Clooney. Who else could balance the off-kilter humor and deep sadness of his character in The Descendants, a man who is suddenly a befuddled single father - or will be once he takes his unfaithful wife off life support? And who else balances all that Hollywood glamor with such smart artistic choices? (OK, maybe Brad Pitt; see below.)
GARY OLDMAN IN TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
He is the eloquent, still center of this deliciously tangled espionage story, and the irony is that his first Oscar nomination has come for this restrained role rather than his (equally effective) wild-man turns in films like Sid and Nancy or Dracula.
DEMIAN BICHIR IN A BETTER LIFE
I caught up with this barely-noticed film the night before the Oscar nominations were announced, thinking it would be a waste of time. But even if Bichir hadn’t come out of nowhere to claim the spot everyone assumed would go to Michael Fassbender for Shame, nothing would have been wasted. Bichir is a wonder as a Mexican gardener, an illegal immigrant who endangers himself so his son can have the security he doesn’t.
His strong performance is all the more heartbreaking because it is so unsentimental. Chris Weitz’ film is gripping, too, though at times too fraught with foreshadowing, a little film that deserves a much wider audience.
BRAD PITT IN MONEYBALL
The part isn’t as dramatic or deeply written as Clooney’s or Oldman’s, but any year the Oscars acknowledge Pitt’s real talent is a good year.
JEAN DUJARDIN IN THE ARTIST
Let’s separate Dujardin’s performance from his already-tiresome press tour: with his Maurice Chevalier accent and ultra-wide smile, he really is playing the cliche of a Frenchman. All that’s missing is a beret. But in The Artist, he dances, he glides, he looks proud and wistful and defeated – it really is a charmer of a performance, even if I still think the film is a stunt. Best performance by an actor? Maybe fifth. But the Oscar voters have never shied away from cliches, so if Jean turns up in a beret . . .watch out, George.