19 February 2007

Winning The Lovely Bugger Outright

The accepted wisdom in Hollyweird right now is this: The Oscars will be a drag. Well, of course they’ll be a drag, as we’ve all learnt over the years. The wisdom qualifies, however, that it's because the winners are all foregone conclusions. Helen Mirren’s victory for The Queen seems as inevitable as death, taxes and sexual dysfunction; the Academy’s finally going to recognize Martin Scorcese with Best Director and Best Picture for The Departed; Eddie Murphy will get the Supporting Actor nod for Dreamgirls, and in yet another manufacturing of a child star, Abigail Breslin will get the award for Little Miss Sunshine. (The Jennifer Hudson hullaballo will prove just that, as she's besided by the Academy's desire to reward Little Miss in some way, and to seperate itself from other award-giving bodies.) And Best Actor, that’ll go to Forest Whitaker for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

It all seems so neat and tidy, and so damned-near incontrovertible, there’s very little chatter about upsets or surprises. I suspect the wisdom’s going to prove right, too. There is, however, one category in which things may not be as clear as they seem: Best Actor. If there’s a head-turner on Oscar night, it’ll be in that category. To win, Whitaker will have to fade one other contender: Peter O’Toole. The other nominees--- Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith (?!?) and Ryan ("My surname is not indicative!") Gosling--- haven't a chance between them, especially since they’re all young and their performances, while all good or better, aren’t especially prize-worthy. So it’s Whitaker versus O’Toole, and I for one would be willing to place a dark-horse bet on O’Toole, because Oscar voting is never just casual ballot-checking. There are complicities and considerations everywhere, and sometimes you have to be as wily as Shakespeare’s Lennox to figure everything out.

00245941qz8[1]Whitaker has some compelling forces working against him, though none of them are of his making. The most obvious issue is that the Academy has long overlooked O’Toole, and he shares with the late Richard Burton the record for most nominations, a jaw-dropping seven excluding this one, without a win. (How he lost for Lawrence of Arabia, to the saintlier-than-thou Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, still mystifies.) This is an oversight the Academy will be sorely tempted to correct, and his performance in Venus affords just that sort of opportunity. It’s also probably the Academy’s last chance to do so. At 74, O’Toole’s health is failing, and he has already reached that stage of being consigned, like most British acting deans, to the supporting ranks. The situation is perfect for such a sentimental appeal: it can honour a legitimate Acting Great for what very well could be his swan-song as a leading man, and correct one of its greatest regrets at the same time. This is exactly what happened with John Wayne’s award for True Grit, Paul Newman’s for The Color of Money, and Henry Fonda’s for On Golden Pond. (So too, frankly, Sean Penn’s for Mystic River.) Such awards are for careers rather than performances, and they always have the whiff of compensation about them.

The Academy ostensibly (and dutifully) reimbursed O'Toole with an Honourary Oscar a couple of years ago for "[providing] cinema history with some of its most memorable characters," probably assuming it'd never be able to redeem its error otherwise. But this fact changes his chances. There are only three other instances of post-Honourary nomination in the past thirty years, and twice the results were fortunate: Newman and Fonda both won real Oscars just after their honourary ones. (The third was Alec Guinness, as Best Supporting Actor for Little Dorrit; he lost to Kevin Kline, but Guinness was a different case, because he had, unlike Fonda, Newman and O’Toole, already won the lovely bugger outright-- and almost thirty years earlier, no less.) O’Toole, then, has precedent working in his favour, a not insignificant thing considering the Academy’s near-legal obedience to it.

It also doesn’t help Whitaker that the Academy has in recent years been doling out the top awards to actors playing historical figures: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote; add in Mirren’s mortal-lock on her award, and the Academy will likely think twice about sending the message, "Just play someone famous." (Or infamous, as the case may be.) Whitaker’s prize, I suspect, will be his nomination and the buzz about his win before the red carpet’s pulled out beneath him. There's bound to be one surprise: no year is complete without the suggestion that at least one person got robbed.

And then there’s the least punditocratic reason for O’Toole to win: He deserves it. O’Toole’s performance in Venus is simply the best one of the lot, a remarkable creation that’s as inspired as it is deft. It’s also astonishingly brave. By turns lecherous, wry, cantankerous and heartbreakingly sincere, there’s an emotional gamut he runs that very, very few actors would dare to try, much less accomplish. He manages to be both hale and feeble, both dignified and perverse, in the perfect paradox of towering frailty. It’s as if he combines King Lear with Humbert Humbert, or more accurately, The Dresser with Lolita, and he makes it look effortless. Whitaker as Amin is excellent, but O’Toole is better, and in the more difficult part, despite what the nattering fools will and do say about the proximity between the roué actor and the roué part. Let’s see if the Academy is judicious enough to realize the relevant distinctions.

If Helen Mirren’s performance as the Queen is Wedgewood, O’Toole’s is earthenware, ruddier and more plainly elemental, but no less striking or perfect for being what it is. But how’s this for your perverse irony: If both O’Toole and Mirren win on Oscar Night, the top acting awards would be going to the stars of one of the most derided spectacles in film history. In a year ripe for academic redemptions, that’d be the ripest one of all, as those golden statuettes prove to have Brass rings after all. B)


RK said...

I know very few people who have actually seen Caligula. And of course you can't admit to enjoying Tinto Brass, whose surname really is indicative, if only of his b*lls. I thought the film was a wonderful romp. Now you remind me O'T was in it I'll have to rent it again and have another look. It's a hard life.

Dr J said...

Not sure I should admit this, but I actually have Caligula in my DVD collection. It really is quite awful, as are O'Toole, Mirren, and Malcolm McDowell. You'd be shocked to see Gielgud in it (as Nerva), feigning elegance on his trek through the muck.

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