This year’s Best Supporting Actor field is a hotly contested affair — three of its nominees have fared equally well in pre-Oscar critics’ awards. “Million Dollar Baby’s” Morgan Freeman, “Sideways’s” Thomas Haden Church and “Closer’s” Clive Owen have all attracted significant attention for their solid work, though their fate come Sunday will rest upon whether the Academy chooses to recognize an old favorite like Freeman or christen one of the up-and-coming lesser-knowns.

Film Reviews
A toast. To “Wings.” (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Clive Owen’s meaty role as the sex-obsessed Dr. Larry in “Closer” — the screen adaptation of Patrick Marber’s gritty play — has finally garnered the Hollywood notice that had been expected of the British thespian last summer, when he took on the title role in Jerry Bruckheimer’s underwhelming “King Arthur.” For American audiences, “Closer” serves as a better introduction to Owen’s trademark intensity as he takes on the blunt callousness of Marber’s two-couple drama with his own particular brand of quiet smoldering. Oscar might reward him for the film’s most memorable scene, in which Owen’s Larry character verbally assaults wife Julia Roberts, to prying from her every coarse detail of her admitted affair. It is an exchange that is brutally frank in its simplicity, not unlike Owen’s own admirable performance.

From “The Shawshank Redemption” to “Unforgiven” to even “Bruce Almighty,” Morgan Freeman has long made a career out of providing movies with a gruff-voiced moral center, and he certainly doesn’t veer far from that beaten track for his best-buddy role in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” It might prove more important to note that this nod marks the fourth of Freeman’s as-yet fruitless Oscar nominations. If Freeman does find himself with an Oscar, it will be less for his “Baby” character work than for the general role he has virtually perfected.

As the category’s standout, Thomas Haden Church’s rakish turn as a skirt-chasing, cold-footed groom endows “Sideways” with the majority of its hefty comic wallop. In lesser hands, Church’s Jack character could have easily ended up the shabby stereotype of a two-timing stifler, but Church offers an unexpected layer of such well-meaning charm that the character becomes impossibly lovable despite his wealth of glaring flaws. As performances go, Church’s is career resuscitating, pulling him from the wasteland of failed sitcoms and bit movie roles where his most notable previous work has him providing Brendan Fraser with a doofus villain in “George of the Jungle.” And his lack of previous fame by no means works against him in this race — when the Academy does anoint new talent, it generally favors doing so in the supporting venues.

Alan Alda’s nomination for his solid, if unremarkable, turn as “The Aviator’s” villainous Senator Brewster is given more out of industry respect than a reward for any acting brilliance. The part itself gets lost in the sprawl of the film, as Alda’s scoundrel senator is but one of the many obstacles Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) must overcome in the film’s wide-reaching three hours. There is no doubt Alda invests Brewster with all the slimeball wheedling that has come to be expected of commercial Hollywood’s depiction of politicians, but it is a commonplace formula, and certainly not one that would have garnered award recognition if not titled with one of entertainment’s more beloved names. Even Alda’s iconic status cannot merit an award for his rather pedestrian role.

Jamie Foxx’s achievement of two same-year Oscar nominations for acting is indeed a notable rarity, though his “Collateral” role as a mild-mannered taxi driver is clearly secondary to his tour-de-force work in “Ray” which has him leading the race for Best Actor. And while Foxx certainly gives a strong and self-assured performance in Michael Mann’s Los Angeles drama, the role is too large to be correctly placed in this supporting category.

Who should win? If Oscars were truly determined by performance alone, Church would triumph, hands down, for a supporting performance that neither stoops to easy formula nor overshadows its movie’s subtle, bittersweet feel. In managing to both craft a memorably specific character and then deftly steer him through light comedy and heavy drama alike, Church pulls off an acting feat that, in a perfect world, would not go unrecognized. While the smart money still rests on Freeman to pull out the sympathy vote, there is no doubt to whose capable hands Oscar should go.

 

And the nominees are…

Alan Alda – “The Aviator”

Thomas Haden Church – “Sideways”

Jamie Foxx – “Collateral”

Morgan Freeman – “Million Dollar Baby”

Clive Owen – “Closer”

 

We Predict…

Morgan Freeman will win

But…

Thomas Haden Church should win

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