An autodidactic Floridian, a pride-filled father of a con-man, a gangster, a cellophane man and a wheelchair-confined AIDS victim. These are the characters portrayed by the nominated class in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category at this year’s Oscars.
Chris Cooper’s gap-toothed redneck/academic hybrid John LaRoche took “Adaptation” and ran away with it. The incredibly smart script pegged LaRoche as a “fun” character, while making its own meta-referentialism a mockery of both LaRoche’s scripted comedy and the film’s faux realism. It is a surprisingly strong performance from a man previously best known for his portrayal of latently homosexual Colonel Fitts in the tragically overrated Sam Mendes film “American Beauty.”
While Mendes’ “Beauty” didn’t garner a supporting nod for Cooper in ’99, his “Road to Perdition” brought a nomination to Paul Newman. “Road to Perdition” traces the eventual transformation of a hit man on the emotional mend. This is Newman’s ninth acting nomination – he won in 1986 for “The Color of Money” – but only the actor’s first nomination for a supporting role. Newman’s depiction of father-like gangster John Rooney does not stand out among performances from the last year. Where Jack Nicholson’s spectacular performance in “About Schmidt” is clearly nominated for more than just being “Jack,” it would seem Newman was nominated because of who he is, and not his performance in “Perdition.”
Along with Newman, both Ed Harris and John C. Reilly are relatively undeserving of their nominations. Harris portrays an HIV-positive self-loathing, suicidal Richard Brown in “The Hours” – a film bred for one purpose, to win awards. The performance, while not bad, is markedly over the top, culminating predictably. Harris, previously nominated for “Pollock,” “The Truman Show” and “Apollo 13,” has never won an Academy Award.
Reilly’s nomination is an eloquent display of the Academy’s afterthought-ish tokenism (See Scorsese’s likely win for “Gangs of New York” for another example). After being snubbed for spectacular performances in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” Reilly received a nomination for his depiction of downtrodden doormat Amos Hart, sullen husband of starlet Roxy Hart in “Chicago.” While it is comforting to see Reilly finally recognized for his work, it is unfortunate he received a nomination for a film in which his performance is so average.
Ultimately, Reilly’s nomination is more a result of his involvement in other critically-revered films from 2002 (“The Hours,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Good Girl”) than his performance in “Chicago.”
The actor with the best chance to take the Oscar from Cooper’s hands is Christopher Walken. As Frank Abagnale Sr., father of the notorious con man, Walken sheds his tendency to portray caricatures, in favor of a more restrained performance. This nomination is his second, his first won him the Best Actor in a Supporting Role for 1978’s “The Deer Hunter.”
Where Ian McKellen’s involvement in last year’s “The Lord of the Rings” installment was painfully brief compared to his role in 2001’s “Fellowship of the Ring,” it is another actor from the film who deserved a nomination. Andy Serkis, the actor responsible for the movement, voice and expression of Gollum, was met with a snub from the Academy. Because Serkis’ face and body were shrouded by the digital technology that made Gollum, he was overlooked.
A similar situation occurred in 1980 with John Hurt receiving a nomination for his make-up covered portrayal of John Merrick.
With the progression of technology, the makeup worn by Hurt can be likened to the digital makeup Serkis was subjected to as Gollum. It is disarmingly frustrating that as technology changes, the conservative Academy and its voters are unable to respond to progressive technology and its role in cinema.
Instead of a very deserving Andy Serkis, voters are left to choose between Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, Paul Newman, Christopher Walken and the best of this year’s bunch, Chris Cooper.