They're the real thing
Strength of character makes for stronger characters as created by this year's top acting nominees
One might just as well try to make sense of the strange jumble of produce that is growing moss in the fridge. All those Jerusalem artichokes - what was I thinking?
The acting categories are invariably the most compelling and also the most deceptive. We scour for trends. We count the number of Australian actors. We look for precedents. We count the number of British actors. We pan and scan for aberrations. We count the number of black actors.
So many true-life roles: Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Harper Lee, Edward R. Murrow. "Aha! It's a biography year!" we conclude, groping for closure.
But when hasn't the academy gone cuckoo for the nonfictional tour de force? Oscar committees were certainly not indifferent to the actors who assayed Billie Holiday, Emile Zola, Thomas ... Becket, Loretta Lynn, Helen Keller, Karen Silkwood, John Reed, Fanny Brice, Jake La Motta, Ray Charles, Toulouse-Lautrec, Joan of Arc, Al Jolson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X, Jane Froman, Thomas More, Katharine Hepburn, Madame Curie, Maria von Trapp, Louis Pasteur, Gen. George Patton and Howard Hughes (that's Robards and DiCaprio), to name a handful.
What may be new in regard to biographical performance is the increasing emphasis on mimetic fidelity to the figure being profiled, partly because we care more about such things now and because there is a lot more recorded material available for actors to reference in preparing their roles. The physicality is less important: If we compare photos of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Truman Capote, for instance, we could hardly say they look to have been separated at birth. But we can marvel at how accurately Hoffman has captured the ambience and mannerisms of his subject.
Then there is the queer and transgender factor: Hoffman, again, as a gay writer, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as gay cowboys, Felicity Huffman as a male-to-female transsexual. Does Oscar have sex, or, more accurately, sexuality on the brain? Even the unimpeachable Judi Dench has added fuel to the fire of conservative Christian complaints over this year's nominee, "Mrs. Henderson Presents," playing a British theater owner whose nudie-girl shows send the soldiers off to war with a healthy stirring in their loins.
What unites all of these films is that they advocate a positive, unashamed sense of self in regard to one's sexuality and sexual identity. Huffman's Bree Osbourne, who chooses to claim her femaleness despite the lack of support systems in our culture for transgender makeovers, is merely the latest poster girl for Hollywood's longtime championing of people with the strength of character to own who they are.
The same could be said for Oscar-nominated women's roles as seemingly opposite as Charlize Theron's lone-rebel millworker in "North Country" and Amy Adams' unswervingly devoted Southern housewife in "Junebug." As with Keira Knightley's self-confident Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride & Prejudice," each of these women knows precisely what she is about. They express that sense of assuredness in bold, unapologetic colors.
Assertiveness in and of itself is not a prerequisite for an Oscar nod. It did nothing to win a nomination for Jeff Daniels' brilliantly withering English teacher-father in "The Squid in the Whale" or for Q'Orianka Kilcher, whose Pocahontas in "The New World" was, for my money, the most exhilarating performance of the year, female or male.
Nor does flamboyance figure into the low-flame craftsmanship of best actor nominee Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain" or supporting actress nominee Catherine Keener in "Capote." But it is in just those instances, when Oscar gets the beauty of the small gesture and the tucked-in performance, when this silly season seems a little less silly and a little more worthy of our multitasking attention.