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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 30, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Best Actors, True Grit, The King's Speech

The Best Actor Oscars are given out almost at random, it seems. Actors who play people who are physically impaired or mentally ill always have an advantage.

Thus Cliff Robertson (Charly) beat Peter O'Toole's brilliant portrayal of Henry II in The Lion in Winter and Dustin Hoffman's one-note performance in Rain Man won over Tom Hanks's astonishing performance in Big.

Hanks's revenge came when his performance as Forrest Gump defeated Paul Newman's best-of-career role in Nobody's Fool and Morgan Freeman's and Nigel Hawthorne's work in Shawshank Redemption and The Madness of King George, respectively.

Sometimes the award is given, not for the performance, but because the film was so admired that the effusion of love spatters votes all over the actors lucky enough to be in them.

Then there are the years when the list of nominees makes you scratch your head and wonder if the movies that year were so bad that these really were the best performances by actors in a leading role.

They can only be explained by saying that certain actors are regarded as nominatable, and so when they show up in a prestigious (i.e., much-hyped and "serious") movie, they are automatically going to be in the running.

The most perilous category, though, is "sentimental favorite." Certain actors become icons, and the Academy members long to give them an Oscar.

Sometimes such Oscars are given to actors who really were the best in one or more past years, but got passed over for one reason or another.

How else can you explain Al Pacino's win in 1992 for his self-indulgent performance in Scent of a Woman? Or Paul Newman's in 1986 for The Color of Money?

But then there are the Oscars that are given for sentiment alone -- because the Academy loves the persona that a very limited actor always plays.

Nobody can seriously think that there was any year in which Bing Crosby really gave the best performance of any actor -- but he was nominated three times and won once.

And anybody who has seen both versions of True Grit will simply laugh at the notion that John Wayne somehow earned his Best Actor Oscar.

His competition was weird that year. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman divided the vote of those who admired Midnight Cowboy, a sentimental but "edgy" movie that had an X rating. (Today it would be given a PG-13.)

Richard Burton was nominated for Anne of a Thousand Days and Peter O'Toole for Goodbye, Mr. Chips -- both merely serviceable performances by actors who had truly deserved Oscars before, but never received them. Both had the severe Oscar disadvantage (in those days) of being Brits.

It was simply John Wayne's turn.

In the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit, Jeff Bridges shows just how inadequate John Wayne's performance really was. It must be understood, now if not all along, that John Wayne's Oscar was for "Best Acting by John Wayne, Making His Oscar Less Embarrassing to the Academy."

It must be pointed out, in all fairness, that Jeff Bridges was working with a far better script and with better direction, too.

It's not just that the Coens were more faithful to the book. It's that the Coens' script was better than the book, and instead of emphasizing the stilted dialogue that was so much praised in Charles Portis's novel (a gross mistake; Portis apparently thought that when writers of the era did not use contractions, it was because the people of the time did not use them), they directed the actors to make the dialogue feel natural.

There are things in True Grit that will make some viewers wince -- recently-cut-off fingers lying on a table, for instance. But overall, True Grit deserves serious consideration as, not just a "best" picture, but a great one.

The Coen brothers are hit-or-miss, but their hits are amazing. Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy are perennial favorites at our house, with some votes as well for Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

But in True Grit, they may have found the perfect balance between savage realism and rueful human comedy. This is epitomized in the moment when Rooster Cogburn cheerfully offers to pull the partly-severed tongue of LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) from his mouth, promising that in time he will find a way to make his tongueless speech understood.

You don't know whether to laugh or screech. This is, I think, the reaction the Coens always try for.

These are directors who make you admire, not their own direction, and not even the actors' performances, because you are never forced to notice the direction or the acting.

Instead, you admire the characters, even when they are far from admirable. You love them because they are so appalling and well-meaning at the same time.

Will Jeff Bridges be nominated for this performance? On the one hand, he's an actor who not only gets nominations, but also wins -- he won last year, after all, for a faintly similar performance (aging drunken hero) in Crazy-Heart.

On the other hand ... he won last year, making an Oscar for him not such an urgent matter. The Academy owed him one for having ignored his performance in Starman back in 1984 -- but that debt is now discharged.

And we can't forget that Jeff Bridges also gave a definitely non-Oscar performance in TRON: Legacy. From trusted critics who've seen it, Bridges didn't even phone that performance in -- he left it as a post-it note on the fridge.

Well, who wouldn't be embarrassed to take part in either of the TRON movies? These are the stupidest movies about computers ever made -- yes, stupider than War Games -- and Bridges was in both TRONs.

(How stupid are they? They pretend to be all high-tech, but they're really about magic. To have an avatar inside a computer culture might have been interesting; but to have computers somehow make the person sitting at the computer disappear in the process is so mind-numbingly dumb that the actors who agreed to be in the film deserved to wear the embarrassing I'm-a-dummy hats.)

But set the awards aside for a moment. Is True Grit worth seeing?

Except for the squeamish, yes it is. And not for the performances of Jeff Bridges or Matt Damon -- though both are excellent. (Actors tend to give their best performances for the Coens -- making them the opposite of George Lucas and Woody Allen, who, as far as I can tell, suck the talent right out of all but the most brilliant actors they work with.)

No, the performance that you will love and admire the most is that of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. She is the one who ought to be nominated, because in every scene where she speaks, she blows everybody else off the screen by the sheer truth of her performance.

Maybe there will never be another role that allows her such an opportunity -- great roles for women are rare in this world, alas -- but she absolutely nailed this one, and if she isn't nominated for Best Actress, what are the Oscars even for?

*

After all this Best Actor talk in connection with True Grit, guess what?

Right now, if you hurry, you can see the performance that shows an actor at such a fever pitch of perfection in his art that I do not expect to see its like again in a decade -- if ever.

I speak of Colin Firth's tour-de-force in the title role of The King's Speech.

We all know Colin Firth, right? As the aloof Mr. Darcy in the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice he permanently won the hearts of all women everywhere -- give it up, those hearts are owned.

Since then he played variations on "dignified Brit" until he was beginning to feel a little like a parody of himself. And then came Love Actually, in which his tender performance as the soul-injured man who falls in love across a language barrier stole a movie that was completely filled with brilliant performances.

But nothing prepared me to believe him capable of doing something so flat-out difficult as the role of Bertie (King George VI) in The King's Speech.

And that's something that seems almost never to be considered when people vote for acting Oscars: Was this performance actually hard to bring off?

Anthony Hopkins, for instance, is a wonderful actor and deserved the Oscar for his difficult performance of intense emotion behind a mask of imperturbability as the butler in Remains of the Day. Instead, he got it for the relatively easy scenery-chewing performance in Silence of the Lambs, where the mask was a mere prop instead of something he had to create himself.

This blindness of the Academy to the relative magnitude of various acting achievements is all the more surprising because the largest group of voters, by far, is actors.

How can they give awards to acting jobs that were showy but relatively easy (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman), but then fail even to nominate performances that were actually incredibly hard to bring off?

I will explain why this happens: Most actors aren't very good at their craft.

They don't understand what they themselves do. It's all instinct. In America, at least, most actors are taught completely useless and meaningless "skills" like getting in touch with their own emotions. This is not art but therapy.

The Brits, however, are usually trained to actually understand what they're doing as actors. And so I daresay many a British actor understands exactly what Firth achieved in this role.

Here's what he had to do: He had to play a man whose actual speech and manner actually exist on film and in recordings. This man had an accent (or speech impediment?) that caused him to pronounce his initial Rs in a weird and twisted way.

On top of this accent, Firth then had to place a convincing stammer of a particular type -- hesitant rather than repetitive. I have known several people with such stammers, and while they are easy to mock (if you're that kind of person), they are devilishly hard to produce. Firth has it dead right.

But that's not the hardest part. The hardest thing is then to give a performance that is not about the stammer, but instead is about the human being.

While doing these tricks with language and mannerisms, Firth then had to produce the aloofness and ignorance of a man raised to be royal, yet obviously incompetent to perform key parts of his role in life. He has to be warm and likeable, but also angry and arrogant, damaged and desperate, all at once.

Firth brings it off -- and does it so brilliantly that you never notice him acting.

He never calls your attention to his effort. In fact, you are never even aware of it. He just is Bertie Windsor, the younger brother who was never, never going to have to be King of England.

And you won't. Even though I've just prepped you to see nothing but his performance, when you go to The King's Speech you will get caught up in the story and think only of the relationship between Prince Bertie and his Australian-born vocal coach, Lionel Logue, played to perfection by Geoffrey Rush, who will simply win the Best-Supporting Actor Oscar this year. (The other nominees might as well not bother writing a speech.)

The King's Speech is a truly private movie. The people are caught up in great events, but the dilemmas and relationships are all utterly domestic. And the acting is so good that you come out of the theater loving, not the actors, but the people they portrayed.

Like True Grit, The King's Speech has an absolutely astonishing supporting cast. It also has a sensitive, nearly perfect script, whose few imperfections are completely overcome by the actors and director.

Don't see this movie because of awards talk. Don't even see it in order to admire the best acting performance of the year.

See it because it is a beautiful story of human struggle, of friendship born in adversity, of good people doing good. See it because your life will be better for having this story inside your memory.

And see it soon, because unless word of mouth -- for instance, the words of my mouth -- fills the theaters quickly, this is the kind of movie that will come and go in a moment. Why? Because it just doesn't have the ingredients that can be touted in advance.

It doesn't sound compelling in quick promos or sound bytes. It is only after seeing it that you know how very much you wanted to, needed to see it.

There is only one warning I must give before you rush off to the theater. This movie is rated R. And by the MCAA rules it deserves it. It has not just one or two F-words, but dozens, and lots of other foul language, too.

And it is absolutely right to have those words. They could not have been cut out or replaced with euphemisms.

That's because in the real world, stammerers often find that while they cannot speak without interruption, they can sing and they can swear without a hint of a stammer.

That's right -- once we code various words as "forbidden" in our brains, they actually emerge on a different mental track (so to speak), and a stammer that blocks normal speech does not stop the curses.

So part of the therapy is for Bertie to let rip with strings of foul language. The very fact that Bertie is not a swearing man makes this all the more poignant.

If you are one who cannot bear the sound of really bad words (though not the worst -- there really are words more vile than the F-word, and they are not used), then this movie is simply not available to you.

But if you can experience these words as an honest part of a truthful story which truly cannot be told anywhere near as well without them, then go to this movie, for apart from this perfectly explicable language, everything else about the movie is PG or even G; there is nothing else to stop you from loving the whole experience.


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