For actors to win Oscars, they often need to do a lot more than act. More often than not, if actors want to win Oscars, they must chew the scenery without restraint. Past winners like Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Daniel Day-Lewis took that advice to heart. As such, it has become a big Oscar stereotype for actors to win by going way, way over the top, leaving restrained, nuanced performances in the dust.
But in the Best Actor category this year, the rules may have been bent a bit. For once, the Best Actor nominees this year are not scenery chewers who went way overboard. In fact, the nominees are actors who are surprisingly more restrained and subtle than they’ve ever been before.
The favorite since fall has been Sean Penn, who defied a lot of conventions with Milk. Penn is used to playing sour and furious characters throughout his career. Harvey Milk was not a sour and furious person by any means. But even beyond that, Milk was a gay activist/politician and an icon of a changing political time. For Oscar-bait films like Milk, that often translates into many sentimental speeches and over-the-top attacks on the evil power that be. With Penn’s political history, one would have expected him to go particularly overboard with political sentiments.
But for once, Penn tones it down with the politics, the scenery chewing, and even doesn’t go too far with the gay mannerisms. Compare this to how deranged Penn was, and how he gave speeches like a stroke victim, in All The King’s Men two years earlier. Milk goes against so many of the stereotypes that Penn has created for himself in his career. For once, Penn isn’t grouchy, doesn’t overdo a political point – even if the movie does – and doesn’t give the appearance of Oscar-baiting. Instead, Penn just disappears into a part like he always does, with more conviction than ever before.
Penn’s closest competitor is Mickey Rourke, who is riding the biggest momentum for The Wrestler. With the constant Rourke comeback stories, and parallels between Rourke and his character, those emotions do much of the work for Rourke. The Wrestler is a sentimental/gritty story, so Rourke may come the closest to being manipulative and Oscar-baity himself in this category. But although he may try more than the other nominees to wring tears, Rourke certainly wasn’t aiming to bait for Oscars with the performance – just aiming to be relevant again. So by that loophole, Rourke avoids the stereotype of going over the top for awards sake.
Frank Langella, like Penn, takes on a political role that could have gone very overboard. But Langella has been playing Richard Nixon for years, with Frost/Nixon bringing it to the big screen. Langella’s Nixon voice, or lack of it, could certainly have been used for scenery chewing in the wrong hands. But Langella’s Nixon is reserved, cagey, and awkward like the real Nixon. Even in the centerpiece scene of the film – the fictional Nixon phone call to David Frost – Langella’s theatrical approach is more revealing than over the top. For good measure, Langella gets a sadder confessional scene as the climax of the movie. Like many of the year’s best actors, Langella got a role he could have easily gone overboard with, but largely resisted that temptation for better results.
Brad Pitt is rarely thought of as a theatrical, showy actor, except for showing off his famous looks. Pitt is nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in a performance that’s the opposite of showing off. The aging visual effects on Pitt’s character do all the showing off for him anyway. But as for Pitt himself, he is far more minimalist than his backwards aging. And that was the problem for many critics, as they complained that Pitt had nothing to do with such a mild – some may say uninteresting – character. With many not too fond of Benjamin Button as a character, it was likely star power, not a showboat performance, that got Pitt the nomination.
Richard Jenkins offered a minimalist performance that more critics were found of, which got him the final nomination. Jenkins is one of those long time character actors that finally got a showcase in the lead, complete with awards attention. The Visitor allows Jenkins the chance to show how his lonely professor comes out of his shell, all through the emotions on his face. Jenkins reveals more from a glance, and from playing musical instruments, than with words in the movie. In fact, Jenkins’ big final speech, denouncing the treatment of his illegal immigrant friend, is by far his worst moment in the movie. But that is more due to the overwrought writing than Jenkins being overwrought himself.
The Oscars will still always be best known for honoring actors who chew the right scenery, rather than actors who give the best performances. Too many Oscar mistakes have happened to erase that. But in the Best Actor category, it would appear that actors who are relatively restrained, by Oscar standards and by their own personal standards, are the ones getting ahead this year.
Penn, Rourke, Langella, Pitt and Jenkins have all avoided the pratfalls of going over the top, in roles that they could have very easily overplayed. But for once, it seems that a Best Actor winner will take home the Oscar for a performance that isn’t the traditional Oscar-bait. Or at least less so than usual, which is progress.