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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Five Best: Understated Oscar Nominees of the Last 20 Years (Male)

Gary Oldman in "Tinker Tailor
Soldier Spy" courtesy of
This year, we have a number of performances nominated that are much "calmer" than we are used to seeing. Typically, Oscar nominees and winners have something that defines their character so specifically (i.e. disability, accent, "volume") that it makes the work seem a little "cheeky." That doesn't make them bad performances - just more methodized. So, this week, lets look at the last 20 years and the lead performances (both men and women) from people who were called upon to be understated, internal, and, for lack of a better word, normal. Here they are - men today, women next week - in chronological order.

NOTE: If you haven't deduced it, these won't include roles that portray real people. That alone is a defining characteristic.

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Morgan Freeman
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Nominated for Best Actor against a gauntlet of talent (Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Paul Newman, Nigel Hawthorne) in one of the best historical years for film ever, Freeman didn't stand much of chance. Hanks took it home for Forrest Gump, but I would argue that Freeman's is the more difficult performance. The calming influence for Tim Robbins in this modern classic, he has to have composure, wit, and a strong personality without being overbearing. He's the father figure Shawshank needed without drawing unnecessary attention to himself.
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Tom Wilkinson
In the Bedroom (2001)

You'll notice that a lot of my choices here are pretty taste based. To this day, I think it's a crime that this film isn't recognized more in terms of the performances of its leads. Sissy Spacek is fantastic as a wounded mother, but Tom Wilkinson's quiet, controlled performance as a father who loses his son after engaging into a relationship with an older woman is brilliant. Wilkinson is a respected character actor, but his first recognized foray into a leading role should be looked to as an example of how to play somber and angry simultaneously.
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Jack Nicholson
About Schmidt (2002)

Nicholson can play some loud, excitable characters, but in Alexander Payne's 2002 film About Schmidt, he dialed it down considerably, earning yet another nomination. The story of a retiree who travels to his estranged daughter's wedding leads to some brilliant soul-searching and touching moments from the talented veteran actor. Payne knows how to write about the fear of getting older and taking on responsibility and Nicholson gives a great performance as his delivery method.
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Bill Murray
Lost in Translation (2003)

It's not a secret that I'm not a huge fan of this exceedingly overrated film. But I do see Murray's performance here as one of his best - a more simplistic approach to a man who is a fish out of water just trying to form any connection he can in a world he doesn't understand. He gets some great support from a young Scarlett Johansson, but Murray really saves the film from being nothing more than a boring, self-indulgent piece of modern filmmaking.
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Colin Firth
A Single Man (2009)

Maybe if you consider homosexuality a "quirk," this won't qualify for you. But Firth's calm, mournful performance in A Single Man as an English professor unprepared to deal with the unexpected death of his partner in 1960's Los Angeles is a touching, but devastating piece of work. Firth finds emotional strengths in the darkest parts of the film and brilliantly gives a face to loss and sadness without turning the film into a melancholy rant about love and loss.

So, tomorrow we'll look at the same category, but from the better sex. Enjoy!

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