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Depth of Field: The Best Lead Performances of 2006

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Thursday, Jan 4, 2007


Nominees, Best Actor: 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Matt Damon for The Departed
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed *
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Ray Winstone for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Edward Norton for Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, and The Painted Veil
Patrick Wilson for Little Children


The Best Actor races of awards seasons past have been really heating up in the past few years. 2006 is turning out to be more of a lean race for the men, where it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will take home the Oscar at the end of all of the pre-awards lunacy, but the same few names keep popping up as being “in the running”.


In his last two outings with Martin Scorsese, Dicaprio was either not the focus of the attention (he was far out-classed by Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; wearing a horrible fright wig and saddled with the wooden Cameron Diaz as a co-star), or he was passably functional but not “classic Scorsese” great (as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he had some terrific moments, but for my money was miscast). Third times a charm, it seems: Leo has finally given us a “classic Scorsese” performance with The Departed. Filled with rage, youthful macho abandon, and the expertly shaded heroics of Scorsese’s pack of anti-heroes of past awards seasons his character really stacks up favorable next to some of Robert DeNiro’s early work with Scorsese (the rawness in Mean Streets for some reason comes to my mind). DiCaprio has finally delivered fully on the promise everyone has been talking about for years now. We get it; you’re a very serious actor, Leonardo.


Co-star Matt Damon would be an equally compelling choice as actor of the year for his stellar, similarly surprising turn in Scorsese’s film; it seems as though Damon just gets better and better with age. In a cast that is filled with knockout turns, Damon fits perfectly. With strong performances in diverse lead and supporting roles (from tortured gay misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the sublime action of the Bourne films franchise) for more than ten years now, Damon’s collaboration with Scorsese makes perfect sense. It will be very exciting to see his next move after the third Bourne installment this year.


While comedy doesn’t really play well with most film critics organizations that dole out awards (generally to the most austere dramatic performances), Sacha Baron Cohen’s skilled portrayal of a hapless, hysterical Kazakhstan-born reporter is not only one of the best comedic performances of this year, but of any in recent memory. Tackling the outrageous physical demands of the part without any vanity, Cohen has seen his name popping up on year-end “best actor” lists all over the country. He shared the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Actor this year with Forest Whitaker’s ferocious characterization of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (talk about an odd couple), and snagged a Golden Globe nod the same week. His is a performance so buzzed about, that at this point he might be considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination, provided of course, they can look past the whole testicles-in-the-face scene (or the anti-Semitism, or the sexism, or the… well you get the point).


Two men flying under the radar of everyone this year, are Ryan Gosling for his searing, natural work in the indie drug-addiction drama Half Nelson and Ray Winstone as a English lawman in lawless Colonial Australia in Nick Cave’s revisionist western The Proposition. Both turned in career-best work that is shamefully going unnoticed by the predictable critic’s groups, mainly because everyone is so obsessed with Whitaker’s role in a shamefully by-the-numbers biography film. I guess original characters aren’t interesting to watch anymore?



Nominees, Best Actress: 2006
Penelope Cruz for Volver
Laura Dern for Inland Empire *
Kirsten Dunst for Marie Antionette
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Kate Winslet Little Children


Other notable performances:
Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett for Little Fish
Fernanda Montenegro for House of Sand


In the category of Best Actress this year, the only name anyone seems to be able to say is: Helen Mirren. Mirren has been fantastic consistently for so long that her sweep of critic’s prizes (and it’s very likely she will take the Oscar too) doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous, even though it sort of is. She is good in The Queen as Elizabeth, but she has been so much better elsewhere that it seems a little insulting that this sort of stock (at times boring) impersonation is being heralded as her career-best when there are so many other more interesting options in this race. Like in the case of Best Actor and Actress winners of the past (and the list is long), playing a real-life character will likely be Mirren’s ticket to a clean sweep of acting prizes this year.


Nothing any other artist, male or female, will pull off this year will top the experimental Laura Dern/David Lynch alliance in Inland Empire. It’s the kind of performance that will be talked about for years to come and will be properly understood sometime in the future, too late. Dern has been kicking ass and taking names since 1985 (with the underrated teen drama Smooth Talk, which was immediately followed by her first Lynch outing, 1986’s Blue Velvet) and this is he best work to date. As she’s gotten older, her acting choices have become some of the most interesting of any woman in the industry: another Lynch turn in 1990 with Wild at Heart, her Oscar-nominated Rambling Rose, the razor sharp Citizen Ruth, and the searing relationship drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore offer a mere sampling of her film work; while her small screen work has been equally effective (just check out 1998’s The Baby Dance, in which she goes toe to toe with the formidable Stockard Channing, if you don’t believe me). Lynch’s film could very well turn out to be one of the worst-reviewed of the year, but even the critics who hate the film couldn’t help singling out the brave performance of Dern.


Another revelation this year is Penelope Cruz, working again with director Pedro Almodovar on Volver (the two last worked together in 1999 for All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a pregnant nun with AIDS). It’s probably a sound bet for any actress to take even the smallest part with Almodovar, who is so famous for drawing out unique, memorable women but never has such a familiar actress caught me this off-guard: I am not at all a fan of Cruz’s technique, but found her utterly compelling here. When she is performing in English, I always feel like something is missing or something isn’t really connecting properly. In her native Spanish, she comes across deadly sexy, fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her material; it’s like we are watching a completely transformed woman. Though she continues to churn out misfire after misfire in the US (my apologies if anyone was really into her “performance” in Sahara), Almodovar continues to see something exceptional in Cruz, which is lucky for fans of great female acting everywhere in the world.


Left out of every major critical outing this year (unjustly) is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, but specifically the deviously girlish performance of Kirsten Dunst, who like Cruz, sometimes has trouble connecting to characters that are perhaps outside of her range or experience. As the young queen, Dunst was able to register on screen like she never had before: she was appropriately beguiling, and eventually commandingly tragic. It’s another case of an actress really hitting her artistic stride alongside a favorite director (2000’s The Virgin Suicides was their first successful match up), which looks to be the most surefire way to achieve a modicum of artistic merit this year.


Little Children was one of the best films of the year that, unfortunately, no one saw. Kate Winslet can apparently not give a bad performance, audience or not: her turn as a bourgeois suburbanite mother whose life is uproariously stirred up by a neighbor is one of the most introspective and well-thought out pieces of acting she has done to date (think American Beauty meets Madame Bovary, and you’ll get the idea of where she is coming from). Considering the career that Winslet has nurtured over the years, it’s a bold statement to call this her best work, but it is clear that she wholly identifies with the material and connects with it on a very important level, being a young mother herself in real life. Playing a woman who isn’t concerned with appearances at all, and who also might not be a great mother, Winslet is able to speak volumes with the most seemingly insignificant gestures and looks; but also with a singular lack of personal vanity. In Little Children Winslet’s beauty is presented as many things other than just physical: it’s empowering, tragic, and even stoic.


And lastly, we have the biggest, boldest hype of the year: Jennifer Hudson. She of the mega-buildup, she of American Idol fame has had a maddening amount of buzz being spilled her way for her tour-de-force debut performance as the now-mythical Broadway character Effie White in Bill Condon’s adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. It is the only time in recent memory I can confidently say that the performance lives up to the hoopla: Hudson is flat-out astonishing. At the end of her huge diva number that closes the first act, prepare to be amazed at her skillful combination of real, gritty emotion (that isn’t glam in the least), theatricality, and vocal prowess. The audience I saw this scene with, outside of Detroit, erupted in thunderous applause and cheers in the middle of the film, after this scene (something I have not seen with any other performance, in any other film).  Hudson is charming, and it is refreshing to see a real woman like her run away with show. She may not be as skinny as co-star Beyonce Knowles or as popular, but she is way, way cooler.


Hudson’s off-screen persona compliments her character’s transition from nothing to star to has-been and back again perfectly and naturally. The only issue I have with her performance is that she is being promoted (and winning) supporting actress honors all over the place, when really she is the lead of the film: she has more screen time than her co-stars and is so expressive that when she is not onscreen, you are still thinking about her and hoping she will be back soon. Like her character in the film, she is being screwed out of what is rightfully hers just so Knowles, who is more of a supporting character in the story than Hudson, can be primed to take a spot in the lead actress categories. At least losing gracefully this time will likely result in an Hudson getting Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rather than an insult from Simon Cowell. Thanks, J.Hud for taking one for the team, a classy, winning move indeed.

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