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Oscar 2014: Video Evidence, Lead Actor

Who deserves to win?

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

[This is the fifth entry in "Video Evidence," a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the 2014 Oscars :Video Evidence main page.]

12 YEARS A SLAVE

Chiwetel Ejiofor, ’12 Years a Slave’

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Total screen time: 91 minutes (72% of movie screen time)

If I were giving an Oscar to the most compelling character in this category, I’d give it to Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. his personal saga of injustice and survival is simply devastating to witness. Chiwetel Ejiofor embodies his physical torments with a sturdy dignity, and it’s sympathetic. . .but never surprising. His pained expressions and rational demeanor pretty much hit the same note of tragic, noble suffering from start to finish.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Total screen time: 125 minutes (73% of total)

Way on the far opposite end, there’s nothing noble about DiCaprio’s hedonistic stock trader Jordan Belfort. Regardless of what you think of this thoroughly amoral antihero, DiCaprio relishes the juiciness of the role, squeezing it for maximum entertainment value. There’s one particular sequence where he unleashes hilarious physical comic talent that I hadn’t seen from him before. Otherwise, I’m skeptical of this performance because it tries so hard to overpower you as a viewer. It’s the acting equivalent of a three-hour arena rock concert, with DiCaprio playing the same power chord over and over.

AMERICAN HUSTLE

Christian Bale, ‘American Hustle’

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Total screen time: 60 minutes (46% of total)

“Subtle” is not the first word that comes to mind with American Hustle, and on one level Christian Bale’s turn as a seasoned con artist comes off as a tacky homage to Robert De Niro. But Bale adds his own twists. He’s the backbone of the ensemble, but in a strange way: he’s a character who seems to play hide and seek with the others and with the audience. He wears his sunglasses like a protective armor, while his voice and gestures try to persuade others. Bale combines shiftiness with vulnerability to create an unusual charisma. And there are surprising moments where his warmth comes through like few times in Bale’s career. Follow his eyes in this moment and you might be able to follow his heart.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Matthew McConaughey, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Total screen time: 89 minutes (80% of total)

McConaughey absolutely dominates Dallas Buyers Club, turning the movie into a showcase of the full range of his talents. He occupies eighty percent of the movie, more than anyone else in this category. But beyond sheer numbers, what’s impressive is the different ways he dominates the screen. Look at how he runs this scene, balancing authoritative force with relaxed comic confidence. Then look here at how he dominates from a position of weakness. Through a swift series of eye movements and body language, he shows you his mind racing desperately for solutions. Even in one of the movie’s most patronizing scenes, he owns the moment with deadpan conviction. It’s a special blend of rage and kindness that defines this performance.

NEBRASKA

Bruce Dern, ‘Nebraska’

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Total screen time: 61 minutes (56% of total)

Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody Grant is the most low-key of the bunch. At first, this old man doesn’t seem that complex. You’re not sure whether Woody is senile or just plain stupid; either way, he’s easy to condescend to, as a viewer and as an actor. But Dern doesn’t condescend in the least. Instead he uses his character’s simplicity to conjure a mystery.

The split second precision in the timing of his responses make you wonder, how is his mind working? His delivery gives dignity to his answers. This man has his own values, strange as they are. And that strangeness cracks open a door to whole way of life that is now dead and gone. We can only hear it in Dern’s brief answers, not just the words, but the way he answers.  And we see it in his eyes, the way he looks. They’re not answers but more questions: What does this man see? What does this man remember?

This kind of performance is a world away from the wall to wall salesmanship of Leonardo DiCaprio, or the prestigious suffering of Chiwetel Ejiofor. It’s not just for pleasure, and it’s not just for spectacle. It’s the kind of acting that feels like a lost art. The art of mystery. The mystery of the strangeness that great movies can bring to life: the mystery of life itself.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets as @alsolikelife.

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6 Comments »

  • Elisa@elisaclowes.com says:

    You nailed it on the Wolf of Wall Street: “It’s the acting equivalent of a three-hour arena rock concert, with DiCaprio playing the same power chord over and over.” I was exhausted and tone deaf after seeing this movie.

  • Ladyd7 says:

    Matthew McConaughey deserves the Oscar his portrayal of Ron Woodruff was real. He didn’t overact (Leo) or underplay who Ron really was. When you have such a likeable actor playing the part of an a**hole sometimes the character is toned down. Matthew did an awesome job of getting us to see Ron’s life and how Aids made him think about his life and how Rayon made him see others lives. This is my favorite movie of the year.

  • The voting age of the Academy has dropped in the past decade to where the majority of the members probably won’t see the brilliance of Bruce Dern’s performance any more than they will appreciate the classic simplicity of the direction (“what? The camera didn’t move throughout that whole 3 minute scene!”), the beauty of the black & white photography, the virtuoso use of a cast in which no one character is dominant, and the unadorned truth of a story that is relevant to everyone, whether they live in the Heartland or on the coasts. Hollywood can’t maintain its glamorous image and fill theaters with such a film, so it will be overlooked at award time–as so many imperishable movies were overlooked by the Academy in the past–but history will have the final say. It seems a pity, though, that the crowning achievement of a lifetime of fine work by Bruce Dern will not have the publicity which could help the film find the audience it deserves.

  • Carter says:

    I dont think you quite understand what Jordan Belfort was actually like. He WAS the over the top and over medicated guy that Leo portrays to a T. He had a way of motivating the people that worked around him and that’s what led to his success (money wise). Belfort made money off of how hard his employees worked, and all the energy in the office certainly helped their productivity. That’s why he is still a fantastic public speaker today, all that energy. This wasn’t Leo over emphasizing the man just to put on a better performance, he was simply doing as Belfort had done and I dont think you can hold that against him. Not to mention he ACTUALLY WORKED WITH BELFORT during the movie. Everyone here just wants to come off as original and bash the favorite in the Oscar while seeming artsy because they appreciate a slower paced “wittier” movie. By no means does Dern deserve to win, the only other actor I think may have had a better perfomance than Leo was McConaughey.

  • Carter says:

    Also, just watched your take on Emmanuelle Riva performance in “Amour” where you criticize why she’s getting Oscar attention when her co-star who in your words “has the more difficult job”. Tell me that this isn’t the same case in “Nebraska”? Dern does/ says very little during the movie, mostly just blank stares and bland statements and his supporting cast (namely Will Forte) are the ones who shoulder the weight and deserve the credit for their genuine reactions and responses. The whole basis of your argument for his good acting is all hypothetical, just assuming that there is more going on in his mind than what he’s saying. That feeling you get wouldn’t be credited to the actor, it would be credited to Alexander Payne and the writer, Bob Nelson. To end on a quote from you about Riva that seems ever so fitting for Dern’s role: “the pathos of the character catches our attention more than the actual performance”.

  • Carole says:

    Leo deserved the Oscar for Aviator and for Blood Diamond. He was ignored so, they may just give it to him because of that. That being said, he gave, as always, a stellar performance. Bruce Dern, however, really shows what acting is all about in Nebraska. You don’t think of him as acting the part, you see him as the person he’s portraying.

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