January 5, 2013

BEST OF 2012: Underrated Supporting Performances

by Steve Dollar

STARLET's Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson

Thursday's the big day: Oscar Day, when the nominations for the 85th Academy Awards will be announced. Pundits seem to agree on the obvious picks. What about the actors who are likely to slide under the radar of the voting body's notoriously square tastes? If any category shows a tendency to flexibility, it's Best Performance by an Actor or Actress in a Supporting Role. I mean, an 11-year-old (Anna Paquin) won it once, as have non-actors, like the late Haing S. Ngor (for The Killing Fields). Some obvious contenders this year include Amy Adams (The Master), Sally Field (Lincoln), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) and, if the Academy has a since of humor, Javier Bardem (Skyfall) for his fey and twisted turn as one of the greatest Bond villains in the half-century of the franchise's existence. If Ann Dowd (Compliance) scores even a nomination, for her complex performance as the fast-food manager in Craig Zobel's meticulous, based-on-a-true-story drama of a phone prank taken to horrifying extremes, it would be a beautiful thing. Although, in my book, she was the film's lead.

One thing is nearly guaranteed, you won't be hearing any of these names called out when the envelopes are unsealed this upcoming week.

KLOWN's Marcuz Jess Petersen

Marcuz Jess Petersen, Klown
Good kid actors are hard to come by, because they usually register not as kids but as painfully precocious mini-professionals—thespians, if you will—who already are too polished to register as actual kids. There's no innocence left, or else it's been shellacked by agents, coaches, accountants and stage moms. Let me tell you, though, Macaulay Culkin nearly died for somebody's sins but not Marcuz Jess Petersen. Who, you ask? He's the little boy in Klown. The Danish "men behaving badly" comedy boasts gutbuster riffs on male hysteria, which abounds as 11-year-old Bo (Petersen) is kidnapped by his mother's boyfriend Frank (Frank Hvam) to prove a point and save his relationship: That the hapless Frank can be a worthy father and husband. So, of course, the best way to display that is to take a minor on a debauched canoe adventure with your chronic sleaze of a best friend Casper (Casper Christensen), a journey described as the "Tour de Pussy" because its ultimate destination is a fabled riverside whorehouse. But Bo is no sexually curious junior horndog. He's been de-masculinized by his feminist mother. And puberty has definitely not set in, which, along with his pudgeball physique and blinkered naïveté about the ways of the world, makes him the butt of many jokes. The brilliance of the film, which pivots on Petersen's performance, is that his aching sincerity really isn't a joke. By the end of the film, the character displays his newfound maturity by turning his mentors' truly childish (and hilariously transgressive) act of humiliation against him, using it as sabotage. He was never the one who needed to grow up, obviously. This young actor plays it off perfectly.

THE LONELIEST PLANET's Bidzina Gujabidze

Bidzina Gujabidze, The Loneliest Planet
Director Julia Loktev: "We basically took Georgia's most accomplished, most famous mountain climber—he's climbed Mt. Everest and all these 8,000-meter peaks—and made him play this very ordinary village trekking guide who takes tourists out into the hills, which for him wouldn't even be considered hiking. It was quite a makeover. He has the coolest Facebook pictures of anyone I know. He's always hanging off some mountain with an ice axe." As Dato, the guide that backpacking lovebirds Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal hire to show them around the Caucasus Mountains on a most fateful hike, Gujabidze is an enigmatic figure onto whom is projected everything from fear of the other to the besotted intimacy of a drinking buddy. There's hardly any dialogue—Loktev never explains what's going on inside her characters' heads, you have to sort that out for yourself—and the guide commands only comically broken English. He's a stoic presence through so much of the film, until the very end when he reveals a tragic secret. Even if you could say that Gujabidze's acting is all in his bear-like physique, that's he's found object, he'd be great. But Loktev really discovers a wellspring underneath his stony regard.

STARLET's Besedka Johnson

Besedka Johnson, Starlet
She's 87. They discovered her at the Hollywood YMCA. It's her first movie. Ever. And she plays opposite the very definition of fresh young thing: Dree Hemingway, great-granddaughter of Papa, child of Mariel, who grew up on movie sets. Sean Baker's stealthy indie was one of 2012's best sleepers, a sensitively observational film about the little wonders of human nature, life in the San Ferndando Valley and the secrets that everyone stores inside themselves—or, perhaps, an old Thermos bottle someone buys for a buck at a yard sale. That's what brings Johnson's cranky, lonely retiree Sadie together with Hemingway's college-age Jane, who's arrived in town from wherever and now does what "wherever" girls do when they come to the 818 area code, although one of the movie's charms is how Baker pushes the details of Jane's 9-to-5 off to the side, where they're just a matter of fact. Johnson's an immovable object up against Hemingway's irresistible force. Rarely have you seen an elderly person portrayed quite so spikily, then start to peel away layers to reveal something else entirely. Hemingway: "I loved her from the minute I met her. She was quite cute. There was one thing she had difficulty with in the beginning. She said, "I can't be mean to you, you're so nice!" I was like, "You have to be mean to me." And then she got it down. The minute she had that meanness down she was so forthright. I'm like, "OK, now calm down, woman!"

KILLER JOE's Gina Gershon

Gina Gershon, Killer Joe It ain't no thing but a chicken wing. The fast-food fellatio scene from William Friedkin's film version of the Tracy Letts' trailer-park noir that forever burns itself into your consciousness requires an incredibly strong performer without a shred of trepidation. Gershon nailed it. Unfortunately for her, the material will probably be considered too far out there for a nomination. Even Matthew McConaughey, who is likewise, yes, "killer," in the lead, will wind up with a supporting actor nod for Magic Mike. Friedkin: "I didn't treat that scene any different from any other. Like a lot of chase scenes I've done, you do it one shot at a time. She did it once and I covered it with a couple of cameras. Gina understood what was going on there and so did Matthew."

HOLY MOTORS' Denis Lavant

Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
In those year-end polls, I wish I could have voted for Lavant, the man-of-a-million-faces (well, 10 or 11) in Leos Carax's delicious fever-dream ode to—you name it—as "best ensemble performance." He's in my Top 3 for Best Actor. But what the heck? He's also best supporting actor. Props as well to Kylie Minogue, whose brief moment onscreen gives the movie its melancholy heart, and Edith Scob, who brings to her performance an elegance, knowing and sense of humor that zings like a dry martini.

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Posted by ahillis at January 5, 2013 11:56 AM