Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do Movies Need Movie Stars?

I'm not going to question, examine or otherwise dissect why I and millions of other people care about the Oscars. We just do.

Now that the nominations have been announced, the official horse race is on. If I were a betting man and not a female averse to gambling, I'd wager on Colin Firth as a lock for Best Actor and Natalie Portman for Best Actress, though I've yet to see "The Black Swan" because I'm not a fan of psycho-thrillers or birds. Up until last night, I would have been thrilled to see Christian Bale take home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.

And then I watched "Winter's Bone."

"Winter's Bone" is one of those small indie features, made on a shoestring budget, that grabs all kinds of critical attention and next to no box office. Seriously, who wants to go see a movie about the daughter who has to clean up the mess left by her sorry ass crystal meth addicted father. I'll take another ticket to "Toy Story" please.

Still, I didn't want to miss out on a potential Oscar contender, so I added "Winter's Bone" to our Netflix queue and it eventually percolated to the top of the heap. Turns out, the movie isn't so much depressing as outright compelling. We've grown accustomed to seeing the urban poor onscreen ("Precious," "Gone Baby Gone"), but not so much abject rural poverty, and it is an eye opener. The people who populate this film are menacing and hard, so it would follow that the actors cast in these roles are not your standard Hollywood type.

That's a good thing, and brings us back to Christian Bale. Bale is outstanding in "The Fighter," an emaciated bundle of twitchy energy. You can't take your eyes off him (why he's considered "supporting" and not "lead" is a question for the Academy). But at no point are you not aware of this being Christian Bale delivering an Oscar-worthy turn. At no point are you not cognizant of the way Christian Bale transformed himself for the part--losing weight, learning an accent, dressing like a downscale caricature of Vanilla Ice. I'm not saying I wasn't amazed by all of this, but I also felt like that reaction was the whole point--look at what Christian Bale can do. I've seen Bale in interviews and more glammed-up roles like "Batman." I know how articulate he is, I know how handsome he is, I know that he's a movie star--I know what a "stretch" it is for him to tackle the part of this low-class lowlife.

Contrast that with John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone." Like Bale's character, Hawkes' is a drug addict. Unlike Bale, Hawkes doesn't just make you nervous, he scares the crap out of you. From the moment his Teardrop appears on screen, you understand that violence is his language of choice; you do not, for one second, feel safe in his presence. Yet, by the end of the film, Teardrop, within the context of the culture depicted in the film, has become almost noble. This is so deftly handled by Hawkes, you don't fully appreciate what he's accomplished until his final scene.

Hawkes inhabits Teardrop in a way that Bale couldn't possibly inhabit his character largely because John Hawkes is a blank slate. We see Teardrop, not John Hawkes playing Teardrop or transforming himself into Teardrop. We see a guy with a grizzled beard, a slight frame, and a face that looks like its taken a beating or two, and we don't have to stop to think about whether Hawkes grew the beard for the part or whether those scars are his or an expert application of makeup. It doesn't enter our consciousness. We're never taken out of the story unfolding onscreen because John Hawkes, for now at least, is just an actor doing his job and not a movie star.

Think about any character Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks has ever played. If the name wasn't in the title--like Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button--would you know it? What about Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie? When you go home and talk about one of their movies, don't you always refer to "the Julie Roberts character" or the "Brad Pitt character"?

I don't mean to suggest that "movie stars" and "actors" are mutually exclusive. I just mean to say that we're always aware of movie stars being actors playing a part. In "The King's Speech," Colin Firth offers a stunning turn as a stammering king, but you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Colin Firth portraying King George. In "Winter's Bone," you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Teardrop.

I sat through the credits last night for Hawkes name alone. Turns out, I'd seen him before. He was in "The Perfect Storm," one of the crew who sets out with George Clooney (oops, I mean the character being played by George Clooney) and winds up fish food. I remembered Hawkes--he's the guy who's not John C. Reilly or Mark Wahlberg. I'd also seen him on "Lost," where he had the misfortune of playing the much-maligned "Lennon" in the much-reviled "temple" episodes during the much-debated final season. I would never have made the connection.

Now that I know who Hawkes is, the next time he turns up in a film, it's quite possible that I'll think, "That's John Hawkes playing so-and-so." His magical effect as an unknown (to me at least) will be slightly diminished.

We'll always have "Winter's Bone."


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