[Editor’s note: This is the first entry in our ‘Video Evidence’ series on the Oscar race. For the complete list of ‘Who Really Deserves to Win’ essays, visit our Oscars 2015 landing page.]
J.K. Simmons (screentime: 43 minutes; 43% of movie) is all but a lock to win Best Supporting Actor as an abusive music teacher in Whiplash. It’s a forceful performance that grabs your attention, like the way Simmons grabs air to stop the music. But something about its guaranteed Oscar status doesn’t sit well with me. For one thing, this really should count as a lead role. Simmons actually has a greater screentime percentage than Best Actor nominee Steve Carell (43% to 42%).
The role itself is a big-bodied monster part that gives Simmons free rein to show a spectacular range of sociopathic behavior. It is fine work for what it is, but I wonder if it’s too easy to embrace this beefy kind of acting, and if there’s more nuanced work by others in this category that’s worth giving more credit.
Robert Duvall (42 mins; 31%) gives a similar kind of domineering older man performance in The Judge. He’s not as swift or nimble as Simmons, but then again, Duvall is 84 years old, playing a character who’s slipping away behind a hard exterior. Duvall plays his own fragility to good effect, whether to offset his character’s bullying demeanor, or offer a moment of sensitive candor. This is not a sympathy nomination for an old master, but a fully realized late-career achievement.
On the far opposite of the likability meter, there’s Ethan Hawke (44 mins; 28%) as the world’s coolest divorced dad with visitation rights in Boyhood. Even in the most awkward situations, Hawke is relentlessly upbeat, functioning almost like comic relief in the overall scheme of the film. It’s not as complex as his work in other Linklater movies, but as the years pass by, his character gains poignancy.
Also on the nice guy side of the scale, Mark Ruffalo (32 mins; 26%) is really the best thing about Foxcatcher. Of the film’s three main characters, he’s the most low-key, and yet the most three-dimensional. When his character’s naïve brother gets caught up with a shady millionaire, Ruffalo doesn’t have to say a lot to convey his concern. Just the way he looks shows how much he wants to protect his brother, and at the same time be responsible to his own family. The film’s best wrestling scenes are the conflicting emotions on Ruffalo’s face. I’m a big fan of this kind of nuance in general, which is why I think Ruffalo deserves an Oscar more than Simmons.
But I want to give the top prize to Edward Norton (30 mins; 27%) in Birdman, because he combines the best of both. Comparing his work to J.K. Simmons, we see how much Simmons’ performance is a one-way street, projecting outward and downward at kids who look up to him. Norton, on the other hand, plays someone who comes in as an actor for hire and work with Michael Keaton to breathe new life into his stale production. The energy and rhythm of Norton’s back and forth with Keaton creates the illusion that it’s all being invented on the spot.
Unlike Simmons, Norton’s not bullying you with age, rank or volume, but with the sheer joy of acting, of being alive in the moment. And that aliveness also comes through in the quieter moments with Emma Stone, where Norton gives generously, paying full attention to her and letting little moments of silence do the talking. Norton’s performance proves that to be a dominant actor, you don’t always have to dominate.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. His video essay Transformers: The Premake will screen at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Berlinale International Film Festival Critics’ Week. He tweets at @alsolikelife.