2016 Oscars Preview Part 2: Best Actor

***WARNING – SPOILERS!!!!***

Time to look at what the Academy judged to be the five best acting masterclasses of the year. All I can say is, I’ve seen twenty other films with twenty better performances. None of these were “amazing”, even if some were surprising. Where’s Christopher Walken when you need him?

Leonardo DiCaprio – “The Revenant”

No, just no. Don’t start me, I don’t have the energy. Oh crap, OK then.

Listen, it’s a good film. It’s not great, it’s nowhere near great, it’s just good. The bear fight? Fabulous, completely brilliant, and if there was an Oscar for Best Actor In A Bear Fight, then Leo would walk it. But he should not, in any way, shape or form, win this award, which means he probably will, but the reason he probably will is not because he’s the Best Actor at all, but because everyone’s tired of wondering when he’ll win one, so they just want it over with so they can start the same debate next year with Johnny Depp.

The thing is, Leo could easily have won for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and definitely for This Boy’s Life, but that was when he was good, but it’s been downhill ever since. Not just that, but there’s really not a lot of acting going on in The Revenant. There’s at least half an hour where not a single word is even spoken, it’s like he’s doing a Crimewatch reconstruction or something – “OK, Leo, just look very pissed off for a bit, then hide behind a tree and look furtive for twenty minutes”. And you’ve got to be serious and look at the other nominees, because they’re all way better, without exception. Cranston, Redmayne (marginally), Fassbender, Jeez…even Matt flipping Damon, they’re all much, much stronger in their respective films than DiCaprio is in The Revenant. Am I biased? Probably, because I don’t think he’s a great actor, not anymore. But if The Wolf Of Wall Street (which is surely one of the worst films in the history of cinema) can get him a nomination, then the trophy is already his.

5/10 – The bear should have killed him

EDDIE REDMAYNE – “The Danish Girl”

I was a big Eddie fan this time last year – his turn as Stephen Hawking was one of the best transformations I’ve seen on screen. So I was looking forward to this film where he also plays a real life trailblazer – this time the Danish artist Einar Wegener, aka Lili Elbe, one of the first men to undergo a sex change operation, back in the 1930s.

The film follows the seemingly-idyllic marriage of Einar and his wife, Gerda (the brilliant Alicia Vikander), Einar being one of the darlings of the Copenhagen art world. Gerda, too, is an artist, but never gets the recognition she deserves. She’s bohemian, open-minded and experimental, but she’s not quite prepared for the discovery that hubby identifies more as a woman than a man. This doesn’t change their love for each other (they are true soulmates) – and Gerda even helps Einar with her dresses and make up when they venture out to parties, where Einar pretends to be his own (female) cousin.

But Einar (now calling himself “Lili Elbe”) is tired of having to hide her true self away and determines to become a woman in every sense of the word. S/he finds a surgeon, Dr Warnekros (Sebastian Koch, who seems to be in everything these days), to perform the numerous operations needed to complete Lili’s physical transition, as she and Gerda struggle to reconcile themselves to the fact they are no longer ‘man and wife’ in the traditional sense.

Redmayne, already very pretty, was the obvious choice for this role, but his attractiveness is the very thing which doesn’t work. There’s no denying his mastery of nuance, facial expression and body language (which is what made his portrayal of Hawking so mesmeric), but throughout the film he’s actually very dull and completely devoid of personality. There are so many twee turns of the chin, forced fluttering of eyelashes and overall cliched girliness, it didn’t take me long to start sighing at the sheer sugariness of it all.

The real Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe was certainly not as pretty in real life as Redmayne is and, had they cast an actual transgender woman (there are plenty of very capable actresses about), then the film could have retained some much-needed authenticity. As it is, although Redmayne was always going to get a nomination for playing such a “daring” role, he’s very, very annoying throughout. All he does is speak his lines with that cut glass accent of his (how very Danish…) and smirk a lot. My friend Tony summed it up best, calling him a “bloody simpering idiot”, and Tony’s a rather respected film reviewer, all of which gives Redmayne a real fighting shout of making it two in a row.

6.5/10 – Art for art’s sake

MICHAEL FASSBENDER – “Steve Jobs”

Stuck in development hell for a while as various scripts were written/rejected/burned, it’s Aaron Sorkin who finally came up with “the one”. Casting was equally tiresome, with almost every actor in the Western World being touted for the lead role, even Leonardo DiCaprio. Fassbender got it, and he’s very good. It was a risk on the part of the producers, as Fassbender is still not considered proper A-List, but it works.

This is not a bio-pic, as such, because it’s not a life story. It doesn’t show his childhood or even mention his death, instead choosing to dissect the film into three definitive acts, all based around product launches of different Jobs concepts – the Apple Mac, the NeXT PC and the iMac G3. As Jobs prepares backstage for each of these launches, he has to deal with issues ranging from problems with the child he denies is his, to fights with former best friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who is conflicted between personal loyalty and professional umbrage at the way Jobs always treats him.

Always on hand to offer advice and defuse any arguments is Jobs’ loyal Marketing Director, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who has been his right hand woman for a million years. As you’d expect from Aaron Sorkin, the script is fast and witty, packing in numerous pop culture references in a myriad walk’n’talks (of which Sorkin is the master). Time moves quickly, and you get to see under the surface of a man who was, by all accounts, very difficult to be around and, at times, very cruel.

There wasn’t a great deal of effort made to make Fassbender look like Jobs (except for the mandatory turtleneck near the end), but that was a good thing. Instead, the script and the storytelling really took centre stage and I found myself quite engrossed. Should Fassbender win? Well if it’s between him and Leo, then of course he bloody should. I mean, I should win ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio, and I’m not even an actor. Or a man.

8/10 – A solid lead performance in a difficult role

MATT DAMON – “The Martian”

Wasn’t expecting great things of The Martian, especially as I find Matt Damon a little bland, but both film and actor surprised me. Damon’s portrayal of stranded astronaut (Martianaut?) Watney is engrossing and funny at the same time. Enough has been said of the film already, but I don’t think Damon will win this, mainly because there just wasn’t that extra “umph” that all great leading performances should have. If they’d given him just twenty more minutes one-on-one time with the video log and lost some of the silly crew scenes, then it might have boosted his chances.

8/10 – It’s good but it’s not right

BRYAN CRANSTON – “Trumbo”

Dalton Trumbo was a weirdly-named American screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1940s and 1950s for his alleged Communist sympathies. Responsible for epics such as Spartacus, Exodus, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, Trumbo was a socialist who campaigned for workers rights (especially tradesmen who worked on film sets), which put him in the crosshairs of those insane donkeys at the House Committee for Un-American Activities. This committee would indict anybody in the movie industry who showed any compassion, for anything, because this naturally made them Communists, which made them Soviet sympathisers, which made them traitors. Still hard to believe any of that actually happened…

Anyway, Bryan Cranston is brilliant as Trumbo, even if the film itself is a little laboured. You only think about Walter White for about ten minutes (the two characters look remarkably similar for a while) but once Cranston gets going, you won’t be thinking about meth labs for at least an hour. He won’t win, because I doubt much of the Academy voters will have bothered to watch it, despite the subject matter being about their own back yard. But it’s worth renting out for a great performance and a chance to see Dean O’Gorman’s excellent turn as Kirk Douglas, complete with dimple.

8.5/10 – Nice to see Trumbo on a shortlist instead of a blacklist

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