Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't Vote for the Dead Guy

If you are a movie fan, December is probably the best time of the year, bringing in rash of really good films that are trying to make the deadline for major awards consideration. Over the next couple of weeks, you can look forward to seeing no fewer than 7 movies in the theaters that will have Oscar aspirations--The Wrestler, Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Synecdoch, New York. That's quite a lineup.

December also brings Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations and with those come the fanning of Oscar talk for the late Heath Ledger.

Ledger, in case you've been under a rock somewhere, died tragically of an accidental drug overdose just before the release of his last film, Batman--The Dark Knight in which he plays the mercurial role of The Joker. There was Oscar buzz for his performance before his death, and popular sentiment runs high for him to win the award posthumously.

Well, I hate to rain on the parade, but frankly, it's not an Oscar-worthy performance.

Don't get me wrong--I'm part of the crowd that thinks Ledger was a very talented, intense actor. And he chews up every scene that he's in as the Joker. He took on an iconic role played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson--one of the all-time greats--and he made it his own. He's more the star of the movie than the title character, and certainly more memorable. Symbolically, his is the character who embodies the theme of the film. It's an outstanding performance.

But not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.

Why, you might ask?

Well, as an actor, I would say that Ledger fails to bring the one vital element to EVERY character--the one element that is the raison d'etre of the profession, in my opinion.

Humanity. And along with it, a certain degree of likability.

Ledger, as the Joker, is mercurial. Flamboyant. Outrageous. Memorable. Evil. Intelligent and an excellent foible for the Batman. The one thing he is not, likable. As a human. As an audience member, I felt absolutely no sympathy or empathy for the character, and thus, he was not likeable. I can appreciate how diabolical the character is, but he never won me over to see the world from his point of view, never brough me deeply enough inside where I could take a look at the horrible acts and find a justification for them

I couldn't identify with the character, and thus, had no sympathy for him. He was simply vengeful and evil.

I might be splitting hairs here, because he IS, after all, a cartoon character and thus, a two-dimensional character. But the job of an actor is to take a character who is two dimensional (after all, a character is only words on a page of a script) and create a three dimensional person.

Now, let me say too, that I didn't think that Daniel Day-Lewis deserved the Oscar last year for No Country for Old Men. My choice was Javier Bardem, for the same reason I just mentioned. Day-Lewis was pure evil and greed without any redeeming qualities, while Bardem, in his role as a killer, at least had an ethic that a 'normal' person could understand and somewhat agree with.

Twisted, yes, but it's the *empathy* with the character's intention and world view that draws me in.

And that's the role of an actor--to portray humanity in such a way that we understand more deeply about people for having watched the actor's performance. It's easy to play pure evil, badness or greed. It's FAR more difficult to play an evil character and to create some understanding and empathy for that character in spite of their evilness.

THAT is what an Oscar-worthy performance is about.

Of the films that I've seen this year and the actors who are nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category that Ledger is nominated in both Golden Globes and SAG Awards, my choices for Best Supporting Actor are (in order) Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Tom Cruise and Ralph Fiennes ahead of Ledger.

Fiennes, in particular, gives a master class in playing a character in The Duchess who by all accounts, is a bastard and someone you shouldn't like as an audience. Almost every single thing he does throughout the film is an unlikeable action, and yet, by the end of the film, his is forgiveable. Not *excuseable* for his actions, but forgiveable.

I don't find any such forgiveness for Ledger's Joker.

The hands down winner for best ACTING performance, deserves to go to Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Not only does he do the *unimaginable* by playing an Australian actor playing an African-American actor in a film-within-a-film, he is believable in both roles, and shows a remarkable sensitivity in finding the right 'tone' to doing the role in blackface makeup that is both hilarious and spot-on.

He manages to tackle the most offensive racial stereotype possible and carry it off with skill, class and the right sense of humor. This is one of the most gifted actors around today taking on a role that could have been a total disaster on so many levels. It is simply an amazing acting performance, and more of a challenge than Ledger's Joker character. If Ledger fails with his role, people just say that Nicholson was a better Joker.

If Downey fails in HIS role, race riots break out all over the US. It's a riskier performance and he carries it of brillaintly.

I also want to give props to Tom Cruise for his role in Tropic Thunder as well. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I'm not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say even though I knew he was in the movie, it wasn't until the very end that I figured out which part he played. I was mesmerized by the character he played, and had no idea it was Cruise for most of the movie. Great stuff.

So, there you have it--while Ledger is/was a very gifted actor, I'm hoping that he doesn't get the sympathy vote for a posthumous Oscar. Not because I don't think he deserves it...but because others deserve it more.

What do you think? Do you give it to the dead guy because he was 'close enough' and will never get another chance to win one? Or do you honor the living and give it to the best performance of the year?

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1 comment:

Dave said...

Reading this is an education in acting (and in watching acting performances). You're analysis is spot on. As difficult as it is to find the humanity in a villain, it's even more baffling to me when a hero character fails to exhibit enough humanity for me to care. That was the case for virtually everybody in the first Lord of the Rings movie -- I didn't care if a single one of them, with the possible exception of Samwise Gamgee, made it to the end.