Best Supporting Actor, 2008
• Academy Award: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
We’ll never know whether Heath Ledger would have won the Oscar anyway, had he lived. There’s a reasonably good chance that he would have. Some voters likely felt (correctly) that he’d been robbed three years earlier, when his sublimely internalized performance in Brokeback Mountain lost out to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s much showier Truman Capote impression. Others would rightly have been astonished that the same actor could embody two characters as radically dissimilar as Ennis Del Mar and The Joker—what astounding range! Nor was the competition that year especially robust. (See below.)
Most of all, though, Ledger’s Joker is simply a phenomenal piece of work, so obviously masterful that it could probably have overcome any superhero-movie stigma, even if Ledger hadn’t died six months before the film was released. Until The Dark Knight, this was a character who worked far better on the page than onscreen—Cesar Romero’s take (like the rest of the 1960s TV show) was high camp, while Jack Nicholson’s merely added some garish facepaint to the actor’s standard sardonic mannerisms. Ledger indulges in a few fun physical tics, constantly licking his lips and hunching over whenever possible, but what he brings to the role first and foremost is a genuine sense of play. He makes The Joker someone who takes an impish yet sadistic delight in fucking with people, delivering his lines with a weirdly folksy intimacy that’s nothing like what a reader of the comics might imagine, yet somehow seems exactly right. Rewatching some of his scenes, it occurred to me that his cadence often resembles Jeff Goldblum’s, albeit heavily modulated by the raspy twang he affects. Even if that wasn’t deliberate, it’s still inspired, and moments like the “magic trick”—in which The Joker makes a pencil disappear by slamming some random goon’s head down onto it—are all the more disturbing for how casually Ledger performs them. The character is conceived so eccentrically that overt flamboyance is rarely necessary.
• New York Film Critics Circle: Josh Brolin, Milk
This was my last year as a voting member of the NYFCC (I moved to California in 2009), and I wasn’t part of the contingent that turned the awards that year into a big ol’ Milk-fest. Like everything else in Gus Van Sant’s conventional biopic, Josh Brolin’s portrait of Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who assassinated Harvey Milk (and Mayor George Moscone), hits all its appointed marks. In particular, Brolin ably embodies White’s unconscious sense of entitlement, making it credible that he’d feel threatened and aggrieved enough to commit murder when Moscone refused to give him his job back. Still, I feel like we were collectively in a bit of a rush to anoint Brolin after he emerged from years in the wilderness with his strikingly subdued work in No Country For Old Men. He proved he deserved better roles than he’d been getting for the previous two decades, and stepped once and for all out of his father’s shadow, but neither his Dan White nor his George W. Bush (in Oliver Stone’s hatchet job W.) revealed a side of these public figures that any reasonably well-informed viewer wouldn’t expect and anticipate. Granted, this is more of a general biopic issue than a specific complaint about Brolin, but the notion that Brolin’s was the single best performance by a supporting actor all year just seems absurd; it’s a role any number of other actors could have played with equal effectiveness. (Frankly, whoever wound up cast as Milk and White would likely have become awards magnets; there’s a reason why pundits are able to predict many nominees long before anyone has even seen the films in question.) As a member of the Ledger camp in that year’s voting, I feel vindicated by the fact that Brolin’s subsequent work in films like Jonah Hex, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Labor Day hasn’t exactly wowed anybody. As a movie buff, however, I’m eagerly awaiting another performance as unfussily riveting as his Llewellyn Moss.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
The L.A. critics bestowed some legitimacy on Ledger, making it easier for Oscar voters to throw their weight behind him. I remember hoping one of the major groups would give their prize to Michael Shannon, because the thought of him as an Oscar nominee tickled me; none of them did, but Shannon got nominated all the same, just two years after his belated breakthrough in William Friedkin’s Bug. His performance in Revolutionary Road, like the movie as a whole, was fairly divisive—it’s probably peak Shannon in terms of his initial attention-getting persona as an impassioned lunatic, with an emphasis in this case on blunt truth-telling in a context of widespread repression.
Much like The Joker, Shannon’s character, John Givings, enjoys messing with people, saying things others might think but wouldn’t dream of saying out loud. John has been diagnosed as mentally unstable, but Shannon plays him mostly as a rational man with no filters whatsoever, “crazy” only in the sense that he refuses to play by society’s rules. Since the none-too-subtle point of the movie (and source novel) is that many of society’s rules are stifling and destructive, John’s unapologetically aggressive manner proves cathartic, at least for viewers who don’t find him the most insufferable aspect of an overdetermined attack on 1950s suburbia. This is another role that would probably have garnered plaudits for any actor cast in it, but Shannon does manic intensity better than just about anybody else working right now, and he gives his scenes a darkly comic tinge that helps prevent them from playing too blatantly like an Author’s Message. His subsequent turns as flat-out villains in Premium Rush and Man Of Steel can be traced directly back to this performance.
• National Society of Film Critics: Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Though Marsan had been working steadily for a decade, he made his first strong impression as the angry foil for Sally Hawkins’ unfailingly chipper Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, representing the precise opposite of the film’s title. There’s no question that it’s a memorable turn; for my taste, though, this is one of those instances when Mike Leigh allows one of his actors to go a bit too far over the top. I’ve since enjoyed Marsan in other films, but his driving instructor here is such a seething mass of free-floating bile that he seems to exist solely to challenge Poppy’s fundamental good nature.
Leigh’s method, collaborating with the cast to invent a film from scratch via improvisation, ensures that his characters almost never come across like screenwriting devices; Scott the driving instructor, with his racist diatribes and nonstop rudeness, is an exception to the rule, and Marsan leans hard on the same bitter note throughout, so it becomes just a matter of waiting for the inevitable moment when Scott finally loses his cool entirely, and does something unforgivably ugly. (Thankfully, the final Poppy/Scott scene isn’t as violent as I feared it might be.) As brilliant a director of actors as Leigh is, his Achilles’ heel is a failure to recognize when one of his cast members needs to rein it in—other examples include Timothy Spall in Life Is Sweet, Greg Cruttwell in Naked, and (contrarian opinion ahoy!) Lesley Manville in Another Year. Marsan could have made Scott maybe 40 percent as horrible a person and still achieved the same purpose, without crossing the line from human being into object lesson. It’s no compliment—not from me, anyway—to observe that Scott would have fit snugly into the overbearing ensemble of Paul Haggis’ Crash.
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Russell Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Multiple disclaimers here: 1) Brad Pitt’s magnificently idiotic performance in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading could very easily have been in this spot instead; I nearly chewed my arm off trying to decide, and I’m still not sure I made the right decision. 2) I had never even heard of Brand before seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. 3) I have not seen anything Brand has done since Forgetting Sarah Marshall—including Get Him To The Greek, in which he reprises the character of Aldous Snow. 4) I have, however, seen Brand’s audition for Sarah Marshall, which only reinforces my sense of his utter brilliance in it.
Point being, it’s entirely possible that this performance is the acting equivalent of a one-hit wonder, perfectly aligning Brand’s comic persona with a role in a way that will never happen again. Doesn’t matter. His flaky spin on rock stardom remains sui generis, an unholy amalgam of Bugs Bunny and Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel. Part of the fun is that you can actually see Brand thinking up jokes in real time, while remaining in character—he’ll tell a desk clerk that he’s lost a shoe, for example, holding up the remaining shoe and noting that the missing one is its exact opposite… then visibly realize that that could be misinterpreted, and helpfully explain that the other shoe isn’t evil or anything, just shaped the other way. What’s more, while Aldous is clearly written to be a complete prick, Brand makes him oddly likable, to the point where it actually becomes difficult to maintain a rooting interest in Jason Segel’s hero. Oblivious self-confidence has rarely been so effortlessly, hilariously projected: Aldous knows he’s a god among mortals, and behaves like it, yet he never looks down on anyone. He treats every aspect of life as part of a continuing adventure. He’s the goofiest Rival Man in the history of the romantic comedy, which is perhaps why the attempt to make him the protagonist of a quasi-sequel was doomed to be problematic. Still, we’ll always have Aldous pompously citing “the code of the ocean” when someone unexpectedly splashes water in his face.