Acting for Oscar

Matt Damon

Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”

OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (Good Will Hunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: Saving Private Ryan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.

In Hereafter Damon plays George Lonegan, a onetime celebrity psychic with the ability to channel messages from the dead. No parlor tricks or mumbo-jumbo; touch a living person’s hand and he’s jolted by lightning flashes of their departed loved ones, souls with unfinished business. The burden, and the psychic peril, of involuntary intimacy with others’ pain and dread led George to withdraw into working-class anonymity. But he can’t turn off that ability or shake the never-spoken suspicion that it’s his cross to bear.

Damon’s performance astonishes with its delicacy. George’s voice remains subdued even in rare moments of exasperation and anger, yet it’s never free of tension—including the tension of wondering whether he dare accept, in moments rarer still, the possibility of happiness. Standing or walking, looking at something or looking away, he’s an averted gaze. Yet he’s grounded even as he knows he can’t trust the ground beneath his feet. He makes jokes that seem to take him by surprise, and break our hearts and his.

What’s wrong with the Academy that it can’t cope with such an exquisite creation, find a nomination slot for it among the showier, busier performances? Maybe the Academy had it right the very first time it gave awards (1927–28); actors were cited for multiple performances during the year, saluted not for a single film but for their range and professionalism. (Some critics groups, such as the National Society of Film Critics, exercise such an option from time to time.) In addition to Hereafter, Matt Damon’s 2010 included the Iraq War drama Green Zone, which only his yeomanly performance saved from being terminally facile, and the year-end True Grit, in which he deftly limned the twit of a Texas Ranger who rises to the heroic occasion and then drops out of sight and story as the main characters roll on.

Damon’s situation vis-à-vis Oscar isn’t unique. The Academy has a long history of ignoring, or at least undervaluing, acting that doesn’t grab you by the lapels and demand attention. Yet it’s the essence of movies that eloquent being-there is the natural partner of a classically observant camera taking in a representative chunk of the world from the only right and proper angle. Hence, in earlier decades, as the likes of Paul Muni and Fredric March exulted in historical impersonations, layers of makeup, and accent parts, the premier work of such masterly screen actors as Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne went unnominated. If anyone challenged that (and back then no one did), the rationale would be that those guys were popular stars just “being themselves” in film after film—as if those selves weren’t fascinating, complex, and ever evolving, and the throwaway grace of the actors’ expertise not a thing of beauty.

Cary Grant’s peerless comic timing, balletic suaveness, and genius for portraying darkside heroes must have seemed too easy—that was just “what Cary Grant did.” It took tearfully pleading to adopt a child (Penny Serenade) and playing a glum Cockney wastrel (None but the Lonely Heart) to gain Oscar’s respect. Humphrey Bogart was deservedly nominated for Casablanca but bypassed for High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and what is increasingly regarded as his finest work ever, In a Lonely Place. He won for his shamelessly broad, gin-soaked riverboat captain in The African Queen. And John Wayne—well, “everybody knows” that John Wayne got his belated Oscar for lurching into comparable self-caricature as eyepatch-wearing, heavy-gutted Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 True Grit, after being regularly overlooked in landmark roles in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The SearchersThe Searchers!!!—et al.

Funny thing, though: Forty-one years later, Wayne’s crotchety Rooster, which seemed like showboating in its embrace of cornball grotesquerie, now comes off as almost naturalistic alongside Jeff Bridges’s fussy retooling of the same character. Of course, Bridges himself has been around long enough to see decades of his own cleanest work overlooked. His was only one of some half dozen fully inhabited male roles in Fat City (1972), John Huston’s late masterpiece about tank-town boxers—but the film’s lone Oscar notice was for supporting actress Susan Tyrrell as the blowsy barfly whose permanent snarl (visual as well as audible) could shatter glass.

Glass-shattering still commands respect. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo whoop up symbiotic storms as two members of a spectacularly dysfunctional family in The Fighter, and both are terrific (I’ve never been to Lowell, Mass., but I know that woman). But as acutely observed as their characterizations are, and as entertaining as it is to watch these nominally supporting actors do their juicy stuff, they effectively hijack the movie. If that’s a crime, then it’s director David O. Russell who should be locked up. (Don’t be surprised on Oscar night if crime pays.) Meanwhile, as the film’s official main character, Mark Wahlberg gives solid value but has the thankless task of playing the sole rational member of his family. Oscar doesn’t thank actors for such things, either. Ask Mila Kunis, omitted from the supporting actress slate for playing the one sane character in the delusional romp Black Swan.

Black Swan, of course, features a prime example of the sort of performance—and performance backstory—the Academy loves to salute. To play the tormented prima ballerina at the center of this fever dream, Natalie Portman put herself through half a year of grueling ballet training and reduced her already diminutive body to a taut bow—the inverse of Robert De Niro’s legendary larding-on of an extra 60 pounds to play the latterday Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Portman, like De Niro, also found her way to painful emotional and psychological truth in her portrayal, enough to validate it as something more than a masochistic stunt. But is the result—fierce, hieratic, masklike—really to be preferred to the comedic generosity, tender goofiness, and behavioral detailing of Annette Bening’s (and the unnominated Julianne Moore’s) work in The Kids Are All Right? Or the absolute backcountry veracity and stoic resolve of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ozark Antigone in Winter’s Bone?

Indeed, the entire cast of Winter’s Bone matches the film’s bleak, cold-sunlight setting in authenticity, from the manifestly nonprofessional players (that incredibly decent Army recruiter!) to hyper-professional character actors like Garret Dillahunt (unnominated) and John Hawkes. Hawkes is nominated, and his Teardrop—the Lawrence character’s doper uncle—is a thrilling original, yet so deep in the American grain it seems director Debra Granik might have found him in a Missouri hollow. Terrifying even when he’s being stalwart, Teardrop embodies the unwritten history and blood guilt of his race—something we know not from any dialogue, but from Hawkes’s cocked stance and the fire behind his ever watchful eyes. This is 2010’s best performance by an actor in a supporting role, confirmed by how intrinsic it is to the film’s very existence.

There’s rarely any serious quarrel with the nominees in the Academy’s supporting categories. Everybody nominated is damn good one way or another; the frustration is not being able to shoehorn a dozen more candidates in. The Social Network (you know, the movie that used to be frontrunner for Best Picture) boasts only one acting nomination, Jesse Eisenberg as lead actor. But it’s part of the almost geologically rich texture David Fincher gets that his cast could almost colonize Supporting Actor: Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Armie Hammer….

Garfield would be the one to go with, of course. He’s one of those invaluable chameleons (see also the Red Riding trilogy and Never Let Me Go that same season) almost unrecognizable from film to film, yet instinctually sharp and behaviorally precise. Oscar has disprized his Facebook co-creator Eduardo Saverin as rudely as Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg did, but Garfield’s characterization is as deft and definitive as it seems effortless: that little dance Eduardo does on his way over to Mark at the Jewish frat party, trying so hard to be “cool” and failing (yet being truly cool in the audience’s eyes). You get onto Parnassus for things like that. But like Matt Damon, you don’t get nominated.