Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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Men on the Edge: Supporting Actor, 1974

Once again, three actors from The Godfather dominated the field. Meanwhile, a never-honored veteran got his career nomination for a thankless role in a so-so film; and a young actor receives a surprise nomination from the unlikeliest of films. Even more surprising: two of the most legendary screen characters are ignored here in favor of, ahem, less noteworthy performances.

Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno

What's going on here? When Astaire appears, I see adorable old Astaire. When he romances Jennifer Jones, I see adorable Astaire romancing Jennifer Jones. When he confesses a secret past, I'm confused. Much of the film seems to forget about this character's existence, with a full forty minutes going by between his scenes. Then his surprise revelation is only surprising because it comes from nowhere, then is quickly forgotten. I have trouble believing his was one of the characters featured in either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, so forced is his presence. Astaire the actor sleepwalks throughout. Literally, actually. He's getting by on the movie star charm without playing any of his supposed beats. It's a real disappointment.

Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

A shocking nomination, coming from a heist film/buddy flick that didn't fare well. Bridges is co-lead as Lightfoot, an overconfident young buck who teams up with Clint Eastwood's Thunderbolt and two others to pull off a grand heist. Lightfoot is brash, irresponsible, horny; an all-around fun guy to be around. Bridges has a great swagger, flashing his winning smile whenever he can, allowing hints of youthful vulnerability so that his eleventh-hour doubts aren't shocking, but still a surprise. He and Eastwood build a great, believable repartee with each other that makes the ending pack such a wallop. Speaking of which, he plays the last scene so perfectly that I had tears in my eyes. A superb performance in an underseen gem.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II

De Niro learned Sicilian and studied Brando's performance in the previous film to play young Vito Corleone, winning an Academy Award for his dedication. You can see why when you watch the film: De Niro sounds like a young Brando, and you'd have t actually be Sicilian to know that this is a Brooklyn boy who didn't know the language before the film. De Niro plays Vito with his eyes, always watching, taking stock of the situation around him, calculating his next move. It's not hard to see where his character will become Brando's powerful, sometimes ruthless, leader. Unfortunately, he rarely plays -- or is given the opportunity to play -- anything else. We get few glimpses into Vito's home life, so that anytime we see him it's to chart his power plays within the community. It'd be nice to see moments where Vito doubts himself or meets his wife or something. De Niro's great, but it's a shame he doesn't have more to work with.

Michael V. Gazzo in The Godfather: Part II

Gazzo plays Frank Pentangeli, who runs the New York operations while Michael stays in Nevada, following the death of Clemenza; when he is led to believe Michael has tried to have him killed, Pentangeli becomes the chief witness in a Congressional hearing investigating the Corleone crime empire. I'm of two minds regarding Gazzo as Pentangeli. On the one hand, when I think of this movie, I think of his scenes. This could be due to my love of cinematic congressional hearings, or the knowledge that the character was originally supposed to be Clemenza before Richard Castellano dropped out (Clemenza is one of my favorite characters in the first one). Hell, maybe it's some sort of intrigue at Gazzo's performance. And yet, on the other hand, I wince at Gazzo's performance. It's so broad. I'm glad he's having fun (at least someone in the movie is), but something keeps me from fully embracing it. Maybe I just don't fully believe the arc.

Lee Strasberg in The Godfather: Part II

Hyman Roth is a Jewish crime boss, living and behaving like a retired businessman while making a deal with the Cuban government and trying to off Michael Corleone. Strasberg is hypnotic as Roth, playing up the sick old man aspects while keeping an eye on his enemies. Here is a respectable septuagenarian enjoying a pleasant birthday with friends, never showing the man who hired men to fire machine guns into Michael and Kay's bedroom. When Roth loses his temper, shows his anger, shows the crime boss side of himself, Strasberg's eyes are fiery. I'd like to see more of Roth -- I got excited whenever he came on screen -- but he doesn't overstay his welcome and Strasberg doesn't overplay it. Solid work.


De Niro won his first Oscar for a now legendary performance. I applaud respectfully and do not begrudge him this win, but I would give the Oscar to someone else entirely...

surprisingly magnetic, funny, touching


Unknown said...

I feel so bad for Jeff at the end of that movie. Totally awesome performance for sure.

TomS said...

THIS is the Jeff Bridges that I loved for so many years, before he morphed himself into Kenny Rogers (pre-face-lift). And I am SO glad you singled him out; I would have voted for him too.

Bridges' nomination came as a surprise, because the movie was only moderately successful. He really carries the picture and sets its tone. Look closer and there is a homoerotic subtext between him and Eastwood that is undeniable...Bridges is totally in love. (Up next for Michael Cimino--"The Deer Hunter", where he explores male bonding even further).

Astaire, I believe was the favorite that year because...well, because he was Fred Astaire. The Supporting Oscars often are used as sentimental career-recognition (see Jack Palance, Don Ameche) but I'm glad he wasn't immortalized for this.

It was unusual for a trio of nominees not to cancel each other out. Gazzo was the least well-known; in fact, when I first heard his nomination, I was damned if I could remember who he was! Strasberg was popular with fellow actors for organizing the School of Method Acting. he was intense and watchable. And he had perfect breath control... DeNiro was hot after he exploded on the screen in Mean Streets. He did a great job of convincing us that he would some day become Brando's "Godfather". Plus his Sicilian was perfect!

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Even some of those sentimental supporting Oscars were for characters that had actual roles and personality. Astaire's nod is ridiculous, especially when one considers the snub for his work in On the Beach!

Glad I'm not the only one who loves Bridges here. So amazing.