Best Supporting Actor, 1999
• Academy Award: Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Michael Caine has virtually never given a bad performance, and the only major issue with his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the mentor figure in Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel, is his shaky New England accent, which seems to have been layered atop his own Cockney vocal mannerisms. But this particular turn wasn’t outstanding: He’s warm and impassioned, but never surprising, and the role is too thinly conceived (at least onscreen) to provide an opportunity for greatness. Like the tastefully prestigious movie itself, Caine’s work has been largely forgotten a decade and a half later, and his Oscar win will ultimately prove more notable as a trivia question than as part of cinema history. None of the critics’ groups honored him that year. Why was he so appealing to AMPAS, then? If Caine had never won before, it’d be a clear career-achievement award, but he’d already nabbed a statuette for Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters 13 years earlier. More likely, voters were responding primarily to the character: a liberal-humanist paragon who performs abortions at a time when they were still illegal, strictly out of concern for the well-being of the mothers, and also takes loving care of a bunch of adorable little orphans. (At the same time, Dr. Larch is secretly addicted to ether—an isolated flaw that prevents him from coming across as nauseatingly virtuous.) This is one of those cases where it feels like there’s a hefty dose of self-congratulation in the Academy’s choice. To his credit, Caine seems to have recognized that: Even though he wasn’t present to receive his first Oscar (he was busy shooting Jaws: The Revenge, of all things), he devoted 90 percent of his acceptance speech to praising his fellow nominees, one at a time, which wasn’t nearly as common back then as it is now. A classy move from a classy guy.
• New York Film Critics Circle: John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich
Frankly, John Malkovich deserves all the awards in the world simply for allowing this movie to exist as Charlie Kaufman wrote it. Allowing his name, persona, and “image” (though one of the movie’s great running jokes is that nobody can quite remember who he is) to be utilized in this bizarre, absurdist fashion required a great leap of faith, especially since both Kaufman and director Spike Jonze were relative nobodies at the time. He could have just shown up and been a good sport, poking mild fun at himself, and contributed to a fun, memorable film. Instead, he committed wholeheartedly to Kaufman’s insane vision, throwing himself with gusto into every situation, from sitting around pretentiously speaking lines into a tape recorder to performing the ludicrous “dance of despair and disillusionment” clad only in a towel. For much of the film’s second half, “Malkovich” is inhabited by John Cusack’s character, Craig, and Malkovich doesn’t so much do a Cusack impression as simply perform a more wide-eyed, earnest variation on himself, which is absolutely perfect. It’s a shame that Jonze didn’t have the budget to make all the Malkoviches in the famous “feedback loop” sequence (when “Malkovich” enters his own portal) digital replicas of the actor himself—there are too many vague lookalikes and people obviously wearing masks—but those Malkovich does embody himself, especially the female lounge singer, are priceless. In what’s perhaps the greatest stretch of his entire career, Malkovich even convincingly plays himself as a man who’d be best pals with Charlie Sheen. Possibly that last element was just too much for AMPAS, which denied him a richly deserved Oscar nomination (he hasn’t been nominated since 1993’s In The Line Of Fire), but New Yorkers, at least, recognize world-class lunacy.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Christopher Plummer, The Insider
More surprising was AMPAS’ failure to recognize Christopher Plummer’s cagey portrayal of Mike Wallace, since the Academy tends to love actors who play real-life celebrities. Perhaps Wallace (who was still alive at the time) was too recognizable a face, having spent decades entering viewers’ homes via 60 Minutes. To his credit, though, Plummer opts to embody Wallace rather than impersonate him, focusing less on the man’s physical and vocal mannerisms than on the semi-fictional character’s understandable but problematic concern for his own legacy. The real Wallace was reportedly unhappy with the movie’s depiction of him; whether or not it’s accurate, though, it’s dramatically potent, which is what really matters. Plummer makes the most of relatively little screen time, emphasizing Wallace’s sense of entitlement (a scene in which he castigates an executive for calling him “Mike” is simultaneously cringeworthy and immensely satisfying) and his genuine love for journalism, along with the ways in which the two inevitably conflict. Wallace becomes a sort of intermediate bad guy (relative to the noble producer played by Al Pacino and the brave whistleblower played by Russell Crowe), but Plummer doesn’t turn him into a corporate cartoon. Instead, he offers a portrait of someone with a great deal to lose, who wants to do the right thing but is constantly, involuntarily calculating the potential cost to himself. It’s superlative work, but Plummer had to wait another 13 years to win his Oscar, for Beginners in 2012. Better late than never (he’s terrific in Beginners, too), but AMPAS really embarrassed itself that year.
• National Society of Film Critics: Christopher Plummer, The Insider
Since the NSFC also gave its prize to Plummer, let’s take a look at the other folks who did get nominated, receiving shoutouts from Caine on Oscar night. It wasn’t the most stellar lineup. The late Michael Clarke Duncan was elevated from obscurity for playing John Coffey, the hulking condemned prisoner in The Green Mile. While he did what was asked of him, however, the character isn’t exactly Stephen King’s finest hour; it skirts dangerously close to Magical Negro territory. Haley Joel Osment was considered the most amazing child actor around following his performance in The Sixth Sense, but he’s burdened with the task of making his character’s actions and words seem credible without giving away the big twist, which is a tall order for a 10-year-old. He’s much stronger in Spielberg’s A.I., in which emotional ambiguity serves the story rather than functioning as a smokescreen. Likewise, Jude Law has done much more impressive work since being nominated as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which mostly just requires him to look fantastic in designer duds and Italian locations. (I say that as a huge fan of that movie—he’s perfect in the role. It’s just doesn’t demand much but natural charisma). The only truly deserving nominee that year was Tom Cruise, in one of the few supporting performances of his entire career. As Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, he plays a character who is almost always in character, and has rarely been more thrillingly artificial. In a just world, though, Cruise would have been in a dead heat with John C. Reilly from the same movie—a strong contender for my Most Overlooked Performance (see below). Reilly is as sweet and sincere as Cruise is venal and manipulative; they make a fantastic yin/yang.
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Nigel Hawthorne, The Winslow Boy
David Mamet has a reputation for sort of lobotomizing actors—a rep that isn’t entirely undeserved. With few exceptions, he despises conventional emoting, and tends to discourage it; it’s not coincidental that the most memorable Mamet-written performances on film are in Glengarry Glen Ross, which he didn’t direct. The Winslow Boy is the major exception to that rule, and Nigel Hawthorne is its beating heart and soul. It’s the only feature Mamet has written and directed that originated elsewhere (it’s an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play), and that somehow appears to have loosened him up, allowing his cast a bit more leeway than usual. Whatever the cause, Hawthorne, who was 70 at the time and died just two years later, walks a magnificently precise line between frank and reserved as Arthur Winslow, a man whose pre-adolescent son is accused of having stolen a postal order from another student at the military academy he attends. Arthur’s efforts to clear his son’s name test his resolve, but Hawthorne is actually at his best during the film’s comparatively placid first act, blithely navigating the demands of his family (including two much older children, played by real-life siblings Rebecca and Matthew Pidgeon) and quietly interrogating young Ronnie Winslow when the charge is revealed. “Did you steal this postal order?” Arthur asks the boy, and when Ronnie says no, the script has him repeat the question: “Did you steal this postal order?” It must have been tempting to distinguish the two in some way, but Hawthorne merely intones it a second time the exact same way as the first, which is even more unnerving… and cements the conviction that Ronnie is telling the truth, which is necessary for the story to continue. It’s an exquisitely subtle, finely calibrated performance, nowhere near flashy enough to generate any awards heat (and Plummer had the old-dude vote locked up in any case). As The Winslow Boy itself insists, though, virtue is its own reward.