Rewinding 2008: Performance Anxiety

December 28, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Okay, let me get this out of the way to start with. Who's not on this mixed lead/supporting actor list? Heath Ledger. It's not that I have something against the late performer or his work in The Dark Knight. In fact, I believe it was about the best performance one could reasonably expect for the role. Easily the best Joker yet. Creepy. If I was to make a "Best Villains of 2008" list, the Joker would be at the top. On an all-time Baddies List, he might be in the Top 10. And if I was to expand this year's list to 20 names, Ledger would be on that. But, as good as it is, I don't think his work qualifies as being among the ten best performances of 2008. Many will disagree, which is fine. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, although I have to wonder whether he would have gotten one had he survived. Does the actor's death add a tragic resonance to his final full performance? That's something worthy of speculation but the truth of it can never be known in this lifetime.

As I have done for several years, I'm mixing leading performances and supporting performances because of the gray areas betwixt and between. There are five males and five females, and they are presented in alphabetical order by last name.

Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man): It's hard to get noticed for acting honors when one stars in a superhero comic book adaptation. Yet Robert Downey Jr. brought so much depth and humor to a role that could have been just another cookie-cutter secret identity. His Tony Stark made all the various Bruce Waynes look pale and colorless; a lot of Iron Man's energy resulted from Downey's performance. Downey is one of those rare actors who elevates everything he's in, making one wonder where his career might be today had it not been derailed for so long as a result of his personal demons.

Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married): Based on her lackluster past body of work, I never thought I'd be using the phrase "best actress" in the same sentence as Anne Hathaway. Nevertheless, in Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway plumbed hitherto unexpected depths to produce one of the most believably flawed and human characters of the year. Has she turned a corner, putting behind her all the tissue paper-thin portrayals that have littered her career? I’m willing to forgive her an awful performance in Passengers, but I have higher expectations than I previously might have had for her upcoming movies.

Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky): I saw Happy-Go-Lucky three times (not bad for a movie with virtually no story) and I grew more enamored with Hawkins on each viewing. It's virtually impossible to exhibit nonstop exuberance, but Hawkins does it relentlessly and believably. In the beginning, she's so perky, there's a tendency to want to douse her in kerosene and light her on fire. But, by the end, it's tough not to have fallen for her. The unanswered question, of course, is how much of the character is Hawkins and how much comes from Mike Leigh. In the end, though, it really doesn't matter.

Richard Jenkins (The Visitor): Character actors rarely get their moments in the sun, but this is the occasion for Richard Jenkins. In this small budget film (which straddled the 2007/2008 release schedule), Jenkins was given a chance to cross over from a supporting role to a leading one, and the resulting performance is among the year's most memorable. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do as an actor is to play a "normal" individual, but that's what Jenkins accomplishes here. Walter Vale doesn't have a dark secret. He lacks a physical or mental disability. And he isn't dying of a disease. He's just an ordinary man brought to the screen with extraordinary talent.

Ben Kingsley (Elegy): It took two very good performances by Ben Kingsley to wash away the aftertaste left behind by his appearance in Mike Myers' The Love Guru. Along with The Wackness, Elegy allowed Kingsley to remind us of his power to mesmerize when given good material with which to work. His self-absorbed character in Elegy is powerfully rendered, with Kingsley providing a glimpse inside the insecurities and disappointments of a towering egoist. Method acting? Perhaps, but it's effective.

Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon): Last year, I raved about Langella's work in Starting out in the Evening. This makes it two years in a row in which he has captured my attention. Here, he's playing Richard Nixon, but he elects not to attempt mimicry. Instead, he captures the essence of the man and delivers it without even affecting a Nixon-like voice. Yet, by the time the movie has ended, we don't feel like we're watching an impostor.

Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler): After languishing in relative obscurity (but still working) for more than a decade, Rourke has roared back with his work in The Wrestler, turning in what may be the performance of a career. In the real world, Rourke is a hugely entertaining, bigger-than-life figure. He translates some of that to the screen, but brings with it a heartbreaking humanity. It's entirely possible that Rourke related on a personal level to this movie about a one-time big star trying for one last chance at greatness after it seemed that life had passed him by.

Meryl Streep (Doubt): So does Streep deserve mention for Doubt or for Mamma Mia!. It's a testimony to her ability and range that she can do both in one year. And, as much in awe as I am of her for her performance in Doubt, it's the mid-air split in Mamma Mia! that truly amazes me. Without great acting, Doubt could not have worked. Streep takes a seemingly one-dimensional role - that of a modern-day witch hunter - and imbues it with complexity. The brilliance of the portrayal lies in the kernel of uncertainty with which her character approaches every scene. That doubt poisons everything, making Sister Beauvier more vindictive, more vicious, and more terrible than she would be if she was serene about the righteousness of her calling. Streep gets that across in subtle ways, avoiding the oh-so-easy missteps that would have transformed the nun into a caricature and, in the process, doomed the movie.

Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy): Like Richard Jenkins, Michelle Williams gets noticed by being ordinary. Some people have complained that Wendy is just another dumb white young adult getting in trouble on her way to Alaska. Fine - if that's what you get out of Wendy and Lucy, I'm okay with it. But that doesn't diminish the effectiveness of Williams' glamour-free transformation into another lost soul amidst life's flotsam. She doesn't overplay the part and doesn't go for the heartstrings. It's an honest, straightforward portrayal, and it stuck with me.

Kate Winslet (The Reader): I thought Kate Winslet was good in both of her year-end releases, The Reader and Revolutionary Road, but, while I believe the latter is the better film, I think the former offers the better Winslet performance. To reduce it to its simplest terms: she humanizes a Nazi almost to the point of making her sympathetic. Some viewers may have moral issues with that, but there's no denying the effectiveness of Winslet's performance in the service of that aim. And, in a move that's easy to appreciate, she argues by her actions that copious nudity is not a barrier to accepting a quality role.