Best Actor, 2002
• Academy Award: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Anyone who followed the 2002 Oscar race and watched the ceremony in March 2003 still remembers the shock of Adrien Brody’s Best Actor win, one of the most unexpected victories in recent memory. On one level, it was easy to be thrilled for Brody, who first drew attention nearly a decade earlier as a lanky, wisecracking teenager in Steven Soderbergh’s King Of The Hill. At the same time, however, it seemed like a classic case of the trophy going to the role rather than the performance.
Certainly Brody is suitably anguished (and frighteningly gaunt, even for him) as The Pianist’s title character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jew in World War II Poland who spends most of the film in various states of severe loss and deprivation. Thing is, though, gravity isn’t really Brody’s forte. He’s a fundamentally playful actor, at his best when given the opportunity to convey a sense of mischief. (His brief cameo as Salvador Dalí in Midnight In Paris is the best thing in that movie.) In The Pianist, he’s primarily a victim, just struggling to stay alive, and while he does perfectly solid, sometimes moving work, he can’t fully transcend Szpilman’s function as an embodiment of the human spirit. When Szpilman plays a Chopin piece for a German officer in the film’s key scene, director Roman Polanski focuses mostly on Brody’s hands (and/or his stand-in’s hands) and the officer’s reaction, rather than allowing Brody to convey whatever conflicted emotions Szpilman would be feeling at this moment. His uncut hair and overgrown beard are arguably doing more work than he is.
• New York Film Critics Circle: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs Of New York
During the eight years I was a voting member of the NYFCC (2001–2008), this was the single most contentious and hard-fought race, with the Day-Lewis faction squaring off against an equally passionate cadre who favored Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. Day-Lewis wound up squeaking out a victory on the fourth ballot, following multiple deadlocks. (Day-Lewis is actually a supporting actor in Gangs, but that never came up.)
Bill the Butcher may be Day-Lewis’ hammiest performance, which is a) saying a lot, and b) not meant as a criticism. His fearlessness about being much larger than life constitutes an amazing high-wire act, as he retains an emotional credibility that’s presumably rooted in his immersive technique. (This quality is what separates him from his nearest rival for thrilling expressionism, Nicolas Cage When He’s Actually Trying.) The monologue Day-Lewis delivers at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bedside, wrapped in an American flag as he describes his decision to cut out one of his own eyes because he’d once looked away in fear, is somehow simultaneously intimidating and tender, inflected by his bold approximation of an early New York accent. Looking back now, Bill seems to provide the template for half the cast of Deadwood, with Day-Lewis relishing every syllable of the script’s rococo dialogue. It’s an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind turn—perhaps not as astounding as his Christy Brown, Daniel Plainview, or Abe Lincoln, but that just puts him in, let’s say, the 96th percentile for all time, rather than his usual spot in the 99th.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs Of New York and Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Apparently, the L.A. critics were unable to break their own deadlock, and awarded their prize to both actors in a rare tie. As great as Day-Lewis is, I voted for him on my NYFCC ballot primarily as a means of blocking Nicholson, whose performance in Schmidt is hammy in a decidedly unproductive way. Not that he’s to blame: He’s doing exactly what director Alexander Payne wants him to, for better and (too often) worse. Schmidt was Payne’s third feature, and the first in which he strove for pathos as well as broad satire; he arguably still hasn’t found the right balance between the two (though his latest film, the forthcoming Nebraska, comes pretty close), but it’s severely out of whack here. Nicholson is grouchy fun for the movie’s Omaha-set first half, veering from cartoonishly hangdog to cartoonishly irascible and getting laughs just from the deliberate way he says the words “Dear… Ndugu…” At a certain point, however, Schmidt heads to Denver, hoping to convince his daughter to call off her wedding, and encountering various folks for whom he feels unbridled contempt, which Nicholson signals with every facial muscle he can muster. The film’s second half is a cavalcade of goofy reaction shots and regrettable Jackisms, culminating in a scene—naked Kathy Bates coming on to Schmidt in a hot tub—that would look right at home in a Rob Schneider movie, with Nicholson cranking the horror up to 11 much as Schneider surely would. Whether the scene is funny is perhaps a matter of personal taste, but surely all the mugging undermines Payne’s attempt at a cathartic, tearful ending, predicated on the character’s humanity. The acclaim for Schmidt seems even nuttier given Nicholson’s strong, subtle work in Sean Penn’s The Pledge the previous year—a performance ignored by awards bodies.
• National Society of Film Critics: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Here’s Brody again, so I’ll use this space to rave about my own choice for Best Actor of 2002, which doesn’t quite qualify as Most Overlooked. My vote on the first couple of NYFCC ballots, before I changed it to Day-Lewis, was for Aurélien Recoing in Time Out, a French drama loosely based on a true story about a man who spent years pretending to go to work after he was laid off. Unlike the three performances above, Recoing’s is anything but showy—his wounded character, Vincent, retreats deeply into himself, spending much of the film silently observing others, and the rest of it concocting increasingly desperate lies that’ll allow him to borrow the cash he needs to replace his lost paycheck. When Vincent is playing the role of harried breadwinner, Recoing makes him entirely credible, never telegraphing his anxiousness at the prospect of being found out; when Vincent is alone with his thoughts, Recoing creates the impression of a man who’s harboring a wonderful secret, always keeping viewers guessing about why someone would go to these extraordinary lengths. (The person the film is based on kept the act up for 18 years.) It’s a magnificently enigmatic portrait of an impenetrable cipher, and while Recoing has appeared in dozens of films since, including 2013’s Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Color, it’s increasingly looking as if he may be the acting equivalent of a one-hit wonder. That’s fine, though. Often, the greatest performances are just the perfect confluence of an actor and a role.
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Campbell Scott, Roger Dodger
Campbell Scott is Hollywood royalty, but he’s never been properly appreciated. For one thing, unlike his father, George C. Scott, who looked vaguely dangerous, Campbell Scott has the superficial appearance of a nice guy, which led to his first big role in the vapid Julia Roberts vehicle Dying Young. He quickly rebelled, though, and as the title character in Roger Dodger—a smarmy ad copywriter teaching his young, virginal nephew how to pick up women—he was finally given a golden opportunity to play against type. From the very first scene, Roger Swanson unleashes a torrent of proto-Game bullshit, and Scott makes him magnetic and repellent in equal measure, a cocksure study in congealed self-pity. (His first big rant is about how technological innovation will soon render the male sex irrelevant.)
What makes Scott’s performance so bracing is that it doesn’t involve a chameleonic transformation. He simply turbo-boosts his natural rhythm, thereby suggesting a continuity between the decent Joes he usually plays and this unregenerate cad. Writer-director Dylan Kidd provides plenty of sharp, hyper-articulate dialogue, but it’s the unapologetic arrogance with which Scott delivers the lines that gives the movie its bite. And he arguably inspired a future great performance: Jesse Eisenberg plays Roger’s nephew, and it’s almost possible to see the kid taking mental notes that came in handy eight years later, when he was cast in The Social Network. Both characters (let’s stipulate that Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is essentially a fictional creation) share an all-consuming need to be the smartest person in any given room. But Scott’s alpha nerd is older, has already achieved a moderate level of success, and is looking to do some serious damage. This might not be Scott’s best work—The Secret Lives Of Dentists would be in the running, for sure—but it was probably his best shot at awards recognition, and everyone mysteriously blew it.