I know, I know. Ranting about, reflecting on, and rationalizing this year’s Oscar nomination snubs is so last week. But as I ponder the selections in the acting categories, it occurs to me that this year, perhaps more so than any in the recent past, the Academy’s choices all seem particularly slanted toward the straightforward: fine actors delivering dialogue well, if not especially inhabiting or transforming the material. In a year filled with top Hollywood talent—and a few critical darlings—delivering full-bodied, immersive performances in rather unorthodox roles, it’s hard to not be disappointed that the Academy didn’t take more risks in compiling their shortlists.
While I wouldn’t say I necessarily disagree with the final nominations (it’s exciting to see Sally Field, for example, receive kudos for her raw, nuanced embodiment of Mary Todd Lincoln, and recognition of Emmanuelle Riva’s unflinching work in Amour holds promise that these awards haven’t been completely diminished by mainstream hype), the Academy remains guilty of forsaking many of 2012’s boldest onscreen achievements.
Though impossible to draw a singular connective line among the excluded, I can’t help but notice what the Academy apparently did not: the most accomplished, and now officially unrecognized, performances of the year were all fundamentally “of the body,” carried and elevated by, however grandiose or subtle, the expressiveness of movement. Or, in some cases, a lack thereof: the images of Marion Cotillard, with a little help from digitized removal of her legs, crawling to and from the bathroom, or floating in the sunlit ocean, or unabashedly making love, are what will ultimately keep the strange and wayward Rust and Bone from fading into film obscurity. There seems unanimous consensus that using The Sessions as a platform to resuscitate Helen Hunt’s career instead of lauding John Hawkes’ careful, authentic physicality portraying a paralyzed man was unequivocally the wrong move.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Nicole Kidman’s seedy, energetic, balls-to-the-wall hijinks in Lee Daniels’ little-seen and misunderstood Paperboy thrives as much on Kidman’s choreography as it does her expert reading of the script. Likewise, no one worked harder at physically embodying his characters, sleazy warts and all, than comeback kid, and Paperboy costar Matthew McConaughey. His manic performance in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is something to behold—and something to watch cowered behind your fingers—while his role in Bernie reminds us of McConaughey’s ability to unearth the farcical through ostensibly serious gesturing, the simple shifting of body weight. But it is his work as Dallas, the aging, over-tanned male stripper in Magic Mike that we forgive McConaughey that decade or so of hurling inconsequential romantic comedy after the next at us, effectively tarnishing his brand. As Dallas, the owner and emcee of the Xquisite ladies club, he speaks with an optimistic, youthful lilt that makes the reality that his best years have gone by all the more sobering. In arguably the most important scene of the film, Dallas comes out of retirement for one final tease, giving his all in a way that eschews sexuality and instead serves as visual representation of the film’s most pressing message.
But perhaps the most blatant evidence of the Academy’s “body-blindness” can be found in the slighting of Django Unchained. Though the film secured a nomination for the always-deserving Christoph Waltz, it somehow seems too obvious a choice, an extension of Walt’z previous win for 2010’s Inglorious Basterds, the rubber-mouthed Nazi detective now a rubber-mouthed bounty hunter in the business of slaughtering slave traders. Samuel L. Jackson’s work as, what Quentin Tarantino coins “the most despicable Negro who ever lived,” the most hyperbolic but complex Uncle Tom you can imagine, was made all the more convincing and comical with the help of some aging prosthetics and a menacing limp. It was a bold turn, but a particularly loud one in a film already showered with bombast. Rather, it was in the discomfiting, quiet performances of Kerry Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio that Django truly soared.
Washington, as the title character’s beautiful, German speaking bride Broomhilda, the impetus for Django’s wrath and the elaborate ruse to buy her out of slavery, delivers an astonishing performance, one carefully curated by Tarantino, who drowns out her screams of agony as she’s lashed in flashback with his tragic spaghetti western score, yet allows her first soft, muttering words to Django—her head down, eyes locked on the silverware she’s polishing—to sing in our ears. Later in the film, during a tense and macabre dinner scene that rivals only Texas Chain Saw Massacre, she’s forced to expose her severely scarred back, and the way she resists in utter shame, a moment far more terrorizing than the whippings that created the permanent markings, is utterly heartbreaking.
It is DiCaprio, though, as the sociopathic plantation heir Calvin J. Candie, who truly steals the movie with his mesmerizing performance. It is without question DiCaprio’s strongest work as an actor to date, largely because it encompasses and addresses the actor’s various images from the past twenty years. Tarantino is known for often resurrecting B and C list actors in his films, but in casting a major Hollywood player in DiCaprio, he manages to resurrect the baby-faced leading man’s carefree heartthrob phase, his “I’m a grown-ass man, so treat me like one”/action phase, and his years of choosing roles where he’s ultimately desexualized himself, playing defeated thirtysomething men unable to make themselves or their depressive wives happy. His performance as Candie, strangely enough, has all of those gears servicing it: Candie is a Francophile who doesn’t speak a word of French; he’s dashingly handsome (save his tar-black front teeth), in most lights prettier and more effeminate in his gait than his sister, with whom it is suggested he’s having an incestuous affair; and when he believes he’s been conned, he throws a terrifying, manic fit like a child awoken mid-night terror. For an actor of DiCaprio’s status to take on and masterfully own a morally corrupt character such as Candie is one thing; to do so in a way that seems a running commentary and reflection on the archetypes he’s fulfilled in his own acting career is quite another.
The Academy has a longstanding history of rewarding those who “courageously” alter their physical selves for a role, and in recent years has been accused of falling too hard for this “uglying” or camouflaging. Perhaps they listened too carefully to those criticisms this year, so self-consciously that they were unable to pay mind to those who transformed themselves without the assistance of makeup artists, those who required nothing but their own bodies, their own movement. The nominee who most fits this pattern I’ve imposed here is Anne Hathaway, who will likely take Best Supporting Actress for chopping off her hair and submitting to the unflattering close-camera work of Les Miserables. But the actress I find myself focusing most on is the chameleonic Jessica Chastain who will likely, and deservedly, win Best Actress for her no frills performance in Zero Dark Thirty. Yet, when Chastain takes the stage on Oscar night and delivers what will undoubtedly be a lovely speech, I’ll remind myself that this win can, and should, be shared with her nominated work in last year’s The Help, in which she’s unrecognizably blond and busty and bouncy and daffy and chews up everything in sight every time she’s on camera, a reminder that the Academy was watching, and considering, with closer eyes just one year ago, and will hopefully return to that level of care in 2013.