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Clooney vs. Dujardin: Can Subtlety Ever Win The Best Actor Oscar?

by Caryn James
February 2, 2012 1:04 PM
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Dujardin at SAGs

The Oscar for best Actor doesn't usually reward subtlety. Look at the past two years: Colin Firth won last time around for his stuttery role in The King’s Speech, while the year before his infinitely more nuanced and better performance in A Single Man lost to Jeff Bridges’ roaring drunk country singer in Crazy Heart. You get the picture: the Academy voters’ motto is We Love Big Gestures.

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.


Clooney at Globes

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

As the spy-hunting spy George Smiley, Oldman barely blinks, let alone smiles. But he demonstrates how much a blink can convey: sadness, disillusionment, determination.

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.


Damian Bichir

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
Like Clooney, Pitt is a big Hollywood star who knows how to underplay, and his naturalistic performance as the baseball manager in Moneyball is one of his best.

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.   


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.

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  • Collin | May 12, 2012 9:55 PMReply

    Dujardin's plenty subtle in relating to Peppy's screen performance as yet another audience in the dark, a reluctantly gallant admirer when running into her as his decline continues, the way he carries off the slice of life scenes while being kind to his manservant/chauffeur, while keeping his stubborn pride. The auction scene is understated with enough depth (again of haughty pride handling his business pragmatically) for such a banal plot point.
    His reaction to dog's pleading (in fact ALL of them - it's the actor's glance/body language who makes animal actor part of an integrated relationship, not vice versa), the lack of primadonna confrontation with his old producer after being ousted, when Dujardin actually plays a slightly shriveled ego starting to be cut down to size, realistically...there are lots of moments where the acting has a small "a".
    I guess it's easy to ignore all these, and slam him for the showboating parts just because the character is a vaudeville type of showman.
    As for the French cliche, aside from the PR campaign ordered by St. Harvey, there's just nothing much he can do with being who he is. As I understand, among the notable comic names who haven't exhausted their boxoffice appeal in France, Dujardin is almost the last man standing in terms of ethnically French comic actor, in a sea now hugely populated by more multicultural, multiethnic talents from Morroco, Algeria, Africa etc. In other words, yes Dujardin is so white bread in France, just as many Hollywood A-listers are whitebread. And the cliches never stopped Americans from embracing triteness of "exotic foreign beauties" when their gender is female - so Dujardin wasn't naive when he said male actors are far less marketable without that niche of romanticized, exotic token of fetish. Unless you're a genre badass like Cassel, of course (which explains again why Dujardin was off American radar before unlike Cassel: other than being a self-trained comic, his work so far has been about lampooning the endurance of French colonialist mindset, hubris in the spy spoofs, desperation of Eurotrash bourgeois in 99 Francs, and little-seen arthouse by Bertrand Blier, Nicole Garcia. He just doesn't fit the mold of what's "exportable" - which is more about international distribution, niche marketing of foreign films vis-a-vis Hollywood mainstream fare again.)

  • Paul | February 3, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    How insulting are the comments in this article regarding Dujardin and his excellent performance in "The Artist." how many actors could do what he did in this film while only speaking 2 words? Pitt could have played Cloonet's role and Clooney could have played Pitt's role and they both would still be nominated. But neither could have played Dujardin's role. As to subtlety, the writer of this article obviously missed the wealth of this quality Dujardin displayed with his deeply expressive eyes and again without a words. His public appearsances are all his own. Of imitations of Chevallier and he always appears humble and charming. He will take the Oscar this year and most deservedly so. Bravo, mon ami!

  • lilbklyn | February 7, 2012 12:38 AM

    Thank you Paul!!! Obviously, the writer of this article does not appreciate a great performance and I guess prefers performances of less effort. It's the Oscars!!! If anything, Michael Fassbender should have been nominated instead of Clooney's nod. Okay, hollywood loves Clooney and he can do no wrong. Just how many women has he gone through yet there making a big deal of the posters for Les Infideles possibly ruining Dujardin's Oscar chances...really? I pray that the voters remember how they felt once they finished viewing The Artist and asking themselves, "Who is this man?" I sure did!

  • Gaspar Marino | February 2, 2012 7:02 PMReply

    On film, what the actor or actress registers on their face and in their eyes says more than anything too big or stage worthy. Acting for film and TV, where cameras pick up nuances highlights the performaers talents in more understated performances than on the stage.
    That's why actors usually nominate more understated performances, and is why I was surprised Tilda Swinton did not receive a nomination for We Need to Talk About Keven over Roony Mara in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

  • J. H. | February 2, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    George Clooney is one of the most overrated actors of all time, and I don't get all the buzz building around his performance in the Descendants or the entire movie for that matter. Dujardin's performance is the best of the five, hands down. It's innovative, exciting, and brilliant.

    Besides, he deserves the recognition more. Clooney isn't going anywhere.

  • Edward Copeland | February 2, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    I haven't been able to see The Artist or The Descendants yet, but the other three performances are pretty subtle, which is unusual for Oscar. I forget who said it but I always loved the line that the Oscar isn't for who acts the best but who acts the most. In recent memory, Adrien Brody won for a subtle performance, but he also was the only non-winner in a category where the other 4 nominees had won 7 Oscars between them.

  • | February 2, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    I wish someone would champion Brad Pitt. Moneyball is a far better film than The Descendants. Clooney was fine in the role, Pitt was better.

  • T.J. | February 2, 2012 1:17 PMReply

    Colin Firth lost to Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart" not "True Grit."

  • Caryn | February 2, 2012 1:21 PM

    Of course, you're right, it was Crazy Heart -- thanks.

  • Zach | February 2, 2012 1:07 PMReply

    In what universe are George 'I Play Myself' Clooney and Jean 'King of HAM' Dujardin signs of subtlety?

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