By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 24, 2012 at 12:02PM
Below, we've done the same with the thesps: five actors and five actresses who we wish got more traction than they did. Any of your own favorites left out here?
Given how unsparingly unlikable protagonist Mavis Gary seemed on the page, we weren't surprised when Charlize Theron failed to get much awards attention for her turn in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's "Young Adult." But that doesn't take away from the quality of the performance, one that stands with, and arguably even surpasses, her Oscar-winning turn in "Monster." Theron embraces the unsympathetic quality of the character, but crucially, manages to make her a figure of pity, and even empathy, rather than, well, a monster. Furthermore, she also got to be funny, something that (her guest spot on "Arrested Development" aside) she's rarely been allowed to do on screen (unless you count "Aeon Flux" as a comedy). Even though she was left without an Oscar nod this year, we can only hope that she'll end up with more opportunities to display her funny bone in the near future.
Quite rightly, Christopher Plummer has won most of the praise for his performance in "Beginners," and looks to finally pick up an Oscar on Sunday night; it's one of the few wins that everyone will agree on. But it's a little sad that Plummer's turn has overshadowed his cast members. Melanie Laurent was something of a revelation, proving she's much more than just Shosanna from "Inglourious Basterds," but the true surprise here was Ewan McGregor. The actor has been stuck in substandard fare like "Cassandra's Dream," "Deception" and "Angels and Demons" for too long now, but he got a real showcase as Oliver, the surrogate for director Mike Mills. Dry and soulful as the self-sabotaging romantic, he gives the film an earthiness where some would have let it drift off into quirksville, and his chemistry with both Plummer and Laurent was excellent. He might have been overlooked, but with "The Corrections" and "The Impossible" on the way, things are certainly looking up.
The trend apparently was short lived. Last year, Jennifer Lawrence’s arresting turn in the 2011 Sundance hit “Winter’s Bone” launched her and the film out of the indie ghetto and onto the Oscar stage, earning a somewhat rare nomination for an indie. It was a real coup as everyone knew the performance was great, but figured the small film with tiny distribution (Roadside Attractions), couldn’t earn a nomination. Fast forward a year to (once again) the Sundance Film Festival when a much bigger medium-sized studio, Fox Searchlight, buys the oblique and haunting “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” featuring a breakthrough, star-making turn by Elizabeth Olsen. Her performance wins her raves, but Oscar talk around Olsen pretty much zipped shut right around the beginning of the season. Why? Well, it was an incredibly crowded field, and any year Meryl Streep yawns onscreen, she pretty much scores a nomination. But even a lock of a nod doesn't diminish Olsen's turn. Essentially playing two characters, the before and after of a person victimized by a cult -- one naive and open, the other frighten and scarred -- Olsen put in an unforgettable performance this year that deserved to be honored.
Ordinarily, when you're playing an iconic writer, you get a whole biopic tailored around you. But the supporting cast of "Midnight in Paris" had no such luck, being given only a handful of scenes to make an impression as the parts. And as well as Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody do as the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali, it's the relatively unknown Corey Stoll who walks away with the film, as the hard-living Ernest Hemingway. Other actors have come unstuck as Hemingway before (*cough* Chris O'Donnell...) but Stoll, previously best known for theater work and starring on "Law & Order: LA," takes it on with both fists flying, a stubborn, arrogant, quick-tempered firecracker who livens up the entire film, so much so that he's sorely missed after he heads off to warmer climes. Stoll never really got any momentum in the awards season -- he was even neglected by the SAG's Ensemble Award nomination, due to being billed too low down the cast list -- but he certainly ensured that Clive Owen has a tough act to follow when he stars in HBO's "Hemingway and Gelhorn" in a few months.
With SAG and even Globes nods, it seemed like a Best Actress nomination for Tilda Swinton was in the bag this year -- remarkably, it would have been her first in the category, although she won in Supporting for "Michael Clayton." Alas, the film proved too difficult for Academy members, but she still gives a performance for the ages in the film. It's a turn that centers on that trickiest thing for an actor to pull off successfully: ambivalence. Ambivalence to her suburban surroundings, to her lifestyle, to the path that she's ended up on, to motherhood and, most crucially, to her devil-spawn son. Swinton is able to show both the way in which Eva is baffled by how her child has turned out, and the genes that she shares with him, and having her at the center is Lynne Ramsay's greatest advantage in the film. So often cast as asexual, almost otherworldly beings, it's a great reminder that Swinton is capable of playing down-to-earth just as convincingly.
There appeared to be a certain amount of revisionism after Albert Brooks was snubbed by the Academy (having also missed out at the SAGs): people cropping up saying that the performance was overrated, and he didn't deserve a nomination. The hell he didn't: Brooks was terrific in the film. You always get bonus points if you're a comic actor playing against type, but even if Brooks had spent a lifetime playing heavies, it'd still be a remarkable turn. When you first meet Bernie Rose, he's genial and wisecracking, almost like a favorite uncle, but you always sense that something's wrong with him on a very fundamental level. And it becomes increasingly clear that as reasonable as he is, and as much as he seems to want to avoid violence, once it comes, a monster is unleashed; the way Brooks meticulously replaces the knife he's used to kill Bryan Cranston in a terrifying-looking collection is positively chilling. He's a darker mirror of Ryan Gosling's central character, and one of the most memorable villains to come along in a long time. Hopefully Brooks will find another showcase for his dramatic chops soon.
Like Olsen, young British ingenue Felicity Jones came out of Sundance a freshly-minted star, with an award under her arm thanks to her performance in Drake Doremus' heartbreaking romance "Like Crazy." But with the film underperforming, Jones never got the traction, which is a shame, because no matter what you might think of the film, she gives a hell of a performance, one that arguably deserves to be in the final five more than some other nominees. Her luminous star quality is instantly recognizable -- she's just inherently watchable, and it's easy to understand why Anton Yelchin's Jacob would cross continents to be with her. But there's a reason that veterans like Warren Beatty and Ralph Fiennes are lining up to work with her next -- she makes a part that could so easily have been a pixie dream girl archetype into a complex, fully-rounded human being. Starting off as a fiercely intelligent young woman who's also more than capable of being entirely immature and silly, she grows and changes in front of our eyes, even as she's never quite able to let Jacob go. That she, along with the rest of the cast, improvised much of the dialogue only makes it more impressive.
It's become something of a tradition for the best performance of the year to get overlooked by the Academy, and that's exactly how we thought of Michael Fassbender as Brandon in "Shame." As good as the work put in by Steve McQueen, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie and everyone else involved is, the film is nothing without Fassbender, so much so that it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else anchoring the picture. It might have been impossible to empathize with a sex addict, but Fassbender effortlessly shows his burning, desparate desire to reach a satisfaction that never comes, and his inability to form a normal human relationship is positively heartbreaking. Considering that Brandon's a man of relatively few words, it's all the more impressive. The actor put in several excellent performances in the last year (he easily could have managed a nomination for "Jane Eyre" too), but this is the one that will be remembered as putting him into the big leagues.
Sam Levinson, the son of the great Barry Levinson (“Diner,” “Good, Morning Vietnam,” “Rain Man”) made a terrific debut film in 2011. It was called “Another Happy Day,” and centered on a deeply dysfunctional family and the troubled matriarch who desperately tries to keep it together. Sadly, despite rave reviews, no one noticed and it didn't seem to break out at the arthouse the way it deserved. Starring an excellent supporting cast of Ellen Burstyn, Ezra Miller, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church and Kate Bosworth (the latter three being surprisingly good in the film after many strings of mediocre roles), the woman who anchors it all is Ellen Barkin in what is easily the best performance of her career. In a year that didn’t include a rather average Meryl Streep performance, or perhaps with a better distributor, Barkin would most certainly be spending time basking in the Oscar-nomination glow (she’s never been nominated and, sadly, the way women’s roles go with age, who knows if she’ll ever be afforded such a wonderful opportunity again). As Lynn, the abused and discarded ex-wife of Paul (Church), Barkin is essentially a doormat to everyone around her including her wicked, insolent and drug-addicted son (Miller), the ultra-bitch that is Paul’s new wife (Moore) and her overbearing mother (Burstyn). Lynn tries to tip-toe around and manage her oppressive extended family while trying to coddle her fragile daughter (Bosworth), recovering from a suicide attempt from their callous and ill-tempered relatives. She’s belittled, ill-treated and attacked, but all the while takes on a quiet dignity that makes her situation utterly heartbreaking to witness. If you’ve ever wanted to see how a mother can be neglected and taken for granted, this is the picture, and Barkin imbues this character with a searing humanity and empathy that is just breathtaking to watch.
If Michael Fassbender’s sex-addicted Brandon Sullivan character in “Shame” is a 8.5 on the functional addict scale, Woody Harrelson’s veteran police officer Dave “Date Rape” Brown is a 3. Sure, it’s hard to compare oranges and apples of addictions. Dave’s are myriad -- sex, women, drugs, pills, and a seemingly wanton desire for self-destruction -- but a tightly-wound Harrelson conveys the alarming toxicity levels of the soul nonetheless. Fassbender not receiving a nomination simply based on the quality scale is an utter travesty, and only a hair behind is Harrelson, if only just because “Rampart” seemed to become even more ignored than the NC-17 film was. And pardon the pun, but that’s a gigantic shame. Harrelson is an armpit and a sewer of a man, a police officer who abuses every notion of upholding the law. Barely functioning at all, he’s been caught on tape beating a man in Los Angeles for a traffic violation and it’s only the beginning of the end for this excruciating portrait of a man experiencing slow-motion disintegration. Harrelson’s been outstanding under the guidance of Oren Moverman (he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for their last collaboration, “The Messenger”), but here in “Rampart,” he is simply something else -- a crumbling officer that we barely recognize as the congenial Harrelson you may have seen on screen over the years. This is something much more chiseled, vile and deplorable, and Harrelson simply embodies that character down every step of the line.
-- Oliver Lyttelton & RP