With the 85th Academy Awards just over three weeks away, the bookies are already adding to their ever bulging coffers in receipt of punters anticipating the recipients of those famous gold statues.
This year’s ceremony promises to be must see TV for all the right reasons. For the first time in years, the competition is genuinely fierce. None more so than in the Best Actor category, a contest that had seen its traditionally fierce streak subdued by the widely predicted, foregone conclusions of recent years. Last year, Jean Dujardin’s victory for The Artist, as deserving as it was, was the most predictable conclusion since Colin Firth’s 2011 win for the King’s Speech. You get the idea.
The five man category makes for a fascinating contest, documenting an eclectic but wholly deserving list of actors delivering stellar performances. There are Academy favourites Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Denzel Washington (Flight), who both seemingly have to turn up in a film these days to bag a nomination; such is their consistency in awards-baiting films. Also in the mix is Hugh Jackman’s musical turn in Les Misérables, and the ever-consistent Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. But the most intriguing and deserving of the nominations is Bradley Cooper for his turn in romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook.
The other four nominees are shining in roles they were born to play. Jackman, as much a veteran of musical theatre as he is action films, looks as at home as doomed Jean Valjean as he ever did Wolverine. Day-Lewis, slight favourite with the bookies, remains the go-to guy for going big and bringing gravitas considering his scarce screen appearances. Teamed with that young upstart Steven Spielberg, America’s greatest President was always within his grasp. Washington, who won in 2002 for Training Day when he went against type as the villainous Alonzo Harris, plays the embattled everyman that’s become his staple in Robert Zemeckis’ solid drama Flight. And it’s a given no one can play troubled and conflicted like Phoenix, showcased so efficiently as an aimless World War II veteran falling under the influence of a cult in The Master. Despite the considerable merits of these performances, they fall short of Cooper’s raw human emotion. His performance is by far the most natural and affecting. And this is reason enough to root for the man come Oscar night.
Despite rising to stardom in the last few years through The Hangover series and other entertaining but ultimately lightweight big budget studio fare such as Limitless and The A-Team, Cooper never appeared to be a name destined for bonafide leading man status. As much as we all loved the Hangover (part I anyway) and admired his comedic chops and wonderful head of hair, he didn’t appear capable of delivering the powerhouse performances regularly served up by peers Leonardo Di Caprio, Christian Bale and the aforementioned Phoenix.
With no track record and wildly out of his comfort zone, working with a distinguished director in the mould of David O. Russell proved a revelation: engaging, funny yet undoubtedly moving. As Pat Solitano, a man picking up the pieces of his life after being sectioned for eight months with bipolar disorder and his wife walking out on him; Cooper delivers a bold performance which hits the right notes on every level. For a film adapted from Matthew Quick’s multi-layered and complex novel dealing with taboo subjects such as mental health marketed along the lines of a romantic comedy, the wrong level of execution would have resulted in a cinematic mess, but instead, delivers a genuine American classic.
The film’s true strength is the collective efforts of its cast and their ability to bring the best out of each other. Playing so spectacularly off of Cooper is co-star and Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Making a mockery of initial studio fears that the 15-year age gap between herself and Cooper would affect their electric screen chemistry, Lawrence delivers a genuinely stunning performance as grieving widow Tiffany, who bonds with Pat through shared heartbreak as they form an unlikely pairing for dance contest. As far as spiky double acts go, it’s up there with the greatest of modern times. The supporting nominees shine also. Jacki Weaver plays an effective family matriarch while it’s a joy to see Robert De Niro breaking a sweat for the first time in years as Pat’s bookmaker father.
Of course, Silver Linings Playbook isn’t entirely flawless. The eternally annoying Chris Tucker seemingly prepared for his role as Pat’s fellow mental patient by looking up the definition of ‘nuts’ in a dictionary and cranking it up to 11. And this was one of his more sober performances. After a flawless and often frantic first hour, the film changes pace quite drastically to an obvious degree. What’s more, while David O. Russell has a fine shout for a Best Director nod, if you were asking me to pick the cinematic needle out of the ludicrous ten film Best Picture haystack, I’d go for Zero Dark Thirty.
But come the final Sunday of the month in Los Angeles, there remains a hope that The Academy, for so long maligned as being purveyors of all things safe while overlooking true ingenuity, may get it right and go with Bradley Cooper this time. Whilst he is perhaps the most unlikely of outsiders in this year’s nominations, he is undoubtedly its biggest revelation.