Sunday, August 23, 2009

For Your Consideration 2009 Campaign - Best Supporting Actress

In Public Enemies

There is a minor yet telling little moment in the climax of Public Enemies (Michael Mann’s art-house / action gangster hybrid) when John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) is sitting in the movie theater watching Manhattan Melodrama. There are layers at work here as Public Enemies is loosely documenting the true story of Dillinger’s capture outside the theater on July 22, 1934 while giving a rare glimpse into Dillinger.

Of course the film Dillinger is watching also shares some parallels with his own life, and as we observe Depp watching the film it becomes obvious he believes he is in many ways watching his life play out on screen. Enter beloved 1930s Hollywood actress Myrna Loy, who in Manhattan Melodrama is stuck in the middle of a love triangle between feuding friends William Powell and Clark Gable. When Dillinger sees her face he lights up because in her he sees his own love Billie Frechette (played by French actress Marion Cotillard). Credit to Michael Mann’s direction and Depp’s performance for making this moment one of reflection into Dillinger’s consciousness. However this reflective glimpse is relevant because of what Cotillard had given the film leading up to that point. She provided Dillinger with the love and integrity that makes this scene work emotionally.

One can easily confuse Loy for Cotillard and not only because of their radiant beauty. First to understand Loy’s on-screen persona which was the image of “The Perfect Wife” a title she was often referred by in the 1930s/40s. This perfect wife screen persona was comparable to that of John Wayne as the American hero. Loy’s presence alone on screen conveyed this image of the quintessential loving wife.

Cotillard is one of the very great actresses of her generation, and I’ve felt this long before she won the Academy Award for La vie en rose (2007). While with Public Enemies she is only given small screen time, her presence is felt throughout, and her moments on-screen are the most lasting highlights of the entire film. It is mostly what she conveys through her eyes (something that has always been a standout for Cotillard). You see her eyes and you first appreciate how beautiful she is before you quickly realize the emotional depth they are expressing. Perhaps above all else in Public Enemies it is a toughness even in the most vulnerable of realities. In the traditional Michael Mann female role (think Ashley Judd in Heat, Gong Li in Miami Vice or Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May in The Last of the Mohicans), Billie is an intense survivor and Cotillard transcendently captures this with the most subtle eye glances and gestures.

Among the most remarkable scenes of the film is a powerful interrogation scene. Billie ambitiously refuses to give in to the abuse or the odds. This is such an unforgettable scene that works almost entirely because of Cotillard and her unrelenting love and strength. This is again reflected in the films touching final scene, which ascends to the ranks of classic film moments. Cotillard barely speaks but it is the most moving moment of the film (credit to Stephen Lang for his very fine performance alongside Cotillard). For the first time in the film her emotions become vulnerable but even through this her eyes reflect the dignity of a true and noble survivor. It is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

So in the climax of Public Enemies we understand seeing Dillinger smiling when watching Manhattan Melodrama while thinking to himself that this “escapist dream” is his reality. And from what we know of Billie through Cotillard’s pitch-perfect performance – Myrna Loy belongs to him!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

For Your Consideration 2009 Campaign - Best Actor

a closer look at the layered performance of Joaquin Phoenix
In October 2008 Joaquin Phoenix surprised and confused everyone by announcing he was leaving acting for good to pursue a career as a hip-hop musician. A few months later he went in front of a nationally televised audience on the Late Show with David Letterman where he was unresponsive towards Letterman's questions about the film and his acting career. The backlash of this (which many insist to be some form of a performance-art hoax, while others believe it is the call of a man on the verge of a breakdown) ultimately reflected negatively on Phoenix’s potentially final film, Two Lovers. The film was a major box office disappointment and was critically mixed, leaving cynics an easy chance to make cheap jokes and catch phrases at Phoenix’s expense.

Most unfortunate is what is being overlooked for cheap tabloid news. Two Lovers is not only a great film (from talented young filmmaker James Gray) but it is also a career-best performance for Phoenix, an actor that has already had a successful and diverse career (with notable performances in To Die For, Quills, Reservation Road, as well as two Academy Award nominations for Walk the Line and Gladiator, and also Gray’s previous two films We Own the Night and The Yards).

Two Lovers is a film that is personal, detailed and uniquely original in its own way. It is complex in dealing with issues of love, obsession and loneliness. Phoenix perfectly taps into the layers of his characters sense of longing, obsession and loneliness. We are immersed into the emotion from the gloomy opening sequence, in which Phoenix’s character (Leonard) considers a suicide.

What transcends the performance is the authentic execution, avoiding the easy route of self-absorbed young man longing for love. This film is more complex, and the complexities emerge from the layered performance of Phoenix. With his character (like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain for examples), there is an inner-struggle that is exteriorly masked and only evident in subtle moments of the performance.

Take for instance a scene when Leonard is to meet Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her lover/married-man Ronald (Elias Koteas). Leonard is sitting alone waiting for them in an expensive New York restaurant. This is a world completely foreign to him. He is lonely and lost yet externally he tries to appear as though he fits in (by checking his cell phone as if he has calls and ordering a high-class drink Michelle told him about earlier). It is the performance of Phoenix and the subtle gestures which takes you emotionally into the moment and the character. Phoenix is again brilliant in the final scenes (which I will not reveal for those yet to see the film). His complex emotions give Two Lovers an ambiguity that can be seen as sad, bittersweet or hopeful all at once.