Saturday, March 28, 2009

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part V: 1999


1999 was a pretty solid year for movies. Nothing amazing, but a good list of films for Best Picture. American Beauty, The Insider, The Cider House Rules and The Sixth Sense are all good films, done well. Of the Best Picture nominations, only The Green Mile is sub-standard (as I've written before). Of those that missed out, you could argue for The Hurricane, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, The End of the Affair or even the wonderfully subversive Election.

I'm no fan of Being John Malkovich but I can see why people like it, so I think that would be a better nominee than The Green Mile.

But, all in all, a good dozen or so films, led by American Beauty.

According to imdb, the Best Picture winner of this year, American Beauty, is the 36th best movie of all time. Now I wouldn't agree with that, but I'll keep it as the winner. It certainly hit a nice vein of zeitgeist at the time. And it was deserving if only for bringing Sam Mendes to prominence as a director.

It featured outstanding work by the leads of Kevin Spacey and the wonderful Annette Benning. It's also note worthy for being pretty much the first and last good film and performance by Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley. For me the best aspect of the film was to ensure everyone was also aware of the brilliant Chris Cooper, who since this film has become one of the strongest supporting actors in movies - The Patriot, The Bourne Identity, Adaptation, Capote, Syrianna, Seabiscuit, October Sky. He just keeps churning out great role after great role.

So American Beauty keeps its Oscar, but I have to take one away...

Best Actor: Kevin Spacey (American Beauty)
Nominees: Denzell Washington (The Hurricane), Russell Crowe (The Insider), Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story), Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown).

Should have won: Russell Crowe.

Kevin Spacey in the 1990s was the character actor. If you saw his name on a film poster you knew you were a good chance to see something special. Even if the film was bad, you knew his performance would be top notch.

Check out this list of credits: Glengarry Glen Ross, Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, LA Confidential, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, plus doing-it-for-the-money work in Outbreak, A Bug's Life and A Time to Kill. The guy was an actor you could count on. He was Kaiser Soze for crying out loud!

And then he won an Oscar for American Beauty.

Now look, I thought he was excellent in this film. But it has killed his career. Suddenly he wasn't character actor Kevin Spacey. He wasn't the guy you saw and though oh yeah that's that guy who was in you know that film.

Nope now he was "Best Actor Winner Kevin Spacey", and he tried to live up to it by choosing roles that he hoped would win him another Oscar.

Check out this post Oscar list: Pay it Forward, K-PAX, The Shipping News, The Life of David Gale, and his own pet project of Beyond the Sea.

Role after role of the type of characters you would expect to see in a TV show that is advertised with the line "a very important episode of...", before he finally became a joke playing Lex Luthor in Superman Returns.

Instead of picking good roles, he picked films that he though were worthy of his new found status. He should have taken the advice of his character Lester Burnham in American Beauty when he is introduced to someone who doesn't remember him:

Lester Burnham: It's OK, I wouldn't remember me either.
Carolyn Burnham: [laughs nervously] Honey, don't be weird.
Lester Burnham: OK honey, I won't be weird. I'll be whatever what you want me to be.

Spacey was good when he could be anything. He should leave being the star to someone who never gets forgotten.

Which brings me to Russell Crowe.

Back in 1992, I saw Spostwood. It was nice film starring Ben Mendelson and Anthony Hopkins. And yet when I came out of the theatre all I could think was that Russell Crowe was going to be a huge star. He had a small part, and yet he dominated. Stars do that, no one knows why they do, they just do. Crowe always does.

From 1999 till 2005 and his first failure of A Good Life, he was the gold standard of actors. He was Brando for the 21st century, and he was at his peak. Had he not had a fight with the producer at the BAFTAs he probably would have won Best Actor for A Beautiful Mind (which would have been 2 in a row). Had he not hit the hotel clerk with a phone, he probably would have been nominated for Cinderella Man.

In The Insider he was brilliant playing a man, Jeff Wigand, who put his whole life on the line to expose the tobacco industry. He acted Al Pacino off the screen (admittedly not so hard to do now), totally disappeared into the role, and conveyed the stress that Wigand was under with incredible intensity through small movements of his hands and subtle use of facial expression. It's a brilliant example of method acting not having to be "showy".

I haven't been able to find any good short scenes that highlight his role from youtube so I'll have to make do with the trailer.

Since he's turned 40 he no longer generates the heat he once did (perhaps also a victim of trying to win Best Actor with every role), but he still does strong work, and at least he hasn't descended into "very important episode" mode.

Look out for his next film - State of Play. The original mini-series was amazing, and the film version looks fantastic (here's hoping - 28 May).

1 comment:

LiteraryMinded said...

Oh I do love Rusty. I met him a couple times back in Coffs Hbr (his parents have a property out there and everyone has a RC story). He was lovely (though drunk as). A brilliant actor I've always thought.

But American Beauty remains my favourite film. Changed my whole life outlook seeing it when I was 14. It spoke of all the things I'd been pondering without even knowing I was, if you know what I mean.