The acting races are always the most fun because they can be such contests of personality, and sometimes it's not so much about the single role, but about that role with in the context of people's careers, and who has the best narrative, and all sorts of other intangibles that have nothing to do with the actual performances. I admit that I'm also susceptible to the hype and the drama, and frankly I don't think I'm as good a judge of acting as I am with other filmmaking disciplines, so I always find it a challenge to form my own opinions about these categories. Let's get down to business.
The 2011 Best Actor nominees are Demián Bichir for "A Better Life," George Clooney for "The Descendants," Jean Dujardin for "The Artist," Gary Oldman for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and Brad Pitt for "Moneyball." I've already gotten into a few arguments about Brad Pitt's performance, which I find too close to his regular screen persona for comfort. At no point did he convince me that he was playing Billy Beane rather than just another variation of good guy Brad Pitt. Surely playing someone closer to your real self is harder than playing a more obvious, distinct character, like George Valentin or George Smiley, but in those cases it means the performance just has to be that much better to come across well. I don't think Pitt measured up, certainly not in comparison to George Clooney, who also wasn't stretching that hard to play a father in crisis, but had to handle some really difficult emotional moments and some delightfully absurd ones, all in the same movie.
But when it comes down to it, the performances I'm really going to remember came from Demián Bichir, Gary Oldman, and Jean Dujardin. Birchir's quiet Latino father has such a great presence, the troubles he suffers are immediately more relatable. He also delivers a final monologue that is just a killer, one that plays a huge part in making the end of "A Better Life" work. "The Artist" wouldn't have been the same with anyone but Dujardin as George Valentin. He's not just adopting the silent era acting style, but embodying it. As for Gary Oldman, his George Smiley is a coolly minimalist wonder, practically radiating unblinking paranoia in every frame. I'd be happy if any of the three of them won, but the one who stands up to the most scrutiny, and I mean that literally, is Gary Oldman. I have never seen a performance that intensely cerebral, where so much of a film hinges on watching a man simply observe other people, and think and reason his way to the truth. Gary Oldman for Best Actor.
The Best Actress contenders are Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis for "The Help," Rooney Mara for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," and Michelle Williams for "My Week with Marilyn." This category isn't nearly so tough, because I haven't seen "My Week With Marilyn" yet, and didn't like "Albert Nobbs" or Glenn Close's performance in it. Rooney Mara made a good impression as Lisbeth Salander, but her work was not what I'd think of as awards worthy. That leaves Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Viola Davis as Abilene. The roles are so different that it's akin to comparing apples to piccolos. Streep had more of a technical challenge playing a widely recognized historical figure and dealing with old age make-up in many scenes. Her performance is showier, more complicated, and more iconic. It reeks of importance, which is why I think I like Viola Davis's work a bit better. Abilene is in her own way, a great woman, and Davis makes her small, but vital moments of self-realization far more moving and genuine than any of Thatcher's speeches. Viola Davis for Best Actress.
I'm afraid I'm not in a good position to say much about Best Supporting Actor, because I haven't seen either Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn" or Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." But based on the other three performances, this appears to be a remarkably weak year for the category. Jonah Hill didn't get on my nerves in "Moneyball" the way he usually does, but what about his performance landed him here? There was barely anything to the character of Peter Brand beyond serving as a banter buddy for Billy Beane. I also fail to see anything all that interesting about Nick Nolte in "Warrior," where he plays the deeply troubled father of a pair of MMA fighters, trying to make good. Who's left? Christopher Plummer gets a few moments in the spotlight as Hal, a gay man who comes out of the closet in his golden years, shortly before becoming terminally ill. It was a nice performance, but again, not an especially impressive one. Of the three, however, Plummer comes out ahead. Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor.
And last, but surely not least, is the Best Supporting Actress category. I've seen all the nominated performances for this one. Janet McTeer makes a more convincing man in "Albert Nobbs" than Glenn Close does, but that's not saying much. I still think that Bérénice Bejo was miscast in "The Artist." She's a little too old and much too modern-looking to pass for a 1920s ingenue. She tries her darnedest to make up for it though, so I don't begrudge her the nomination. It's good to see Jessica Chastain from "The Help," though of all the roles she's played this year, I'm not sure this is the one most deserving of being singled out for praise. Octavia Spencer would seem to be the obvious choice here, as the sharp-minded maid who gets sweet revenge on a bad employer in "The Help." Then again, I also liked Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," more than I think I should. She is such a bright spot in that film, and plays such a positive, funny character, without becoming a stereotype. Comedy is always harder than it looks, and the Academy never gives comedians enough credit. Oh, what the hell. Melissa McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress.