Monday, January 5, 2009

Supporting Evidence

Like Rick Olson, I haven't seen enough 2008 movies yet to do a full wrap-up and may not before January is out at which point it becomes kind of pointless to do one anyway. But I have seen the two top contenders for one of the big Oscar categories, and that, along with the whole idea of the category itself, is the topic for this post today.

In 1944, Barry Fitzgerald found himself the center of an interesting dilemma. Since creating the Supporting Actor Oscar category in 1936 the Academy had not defined the rules for nomination in any of the acting categories. Before 1936 the idea was to nominate any performance that was thought to be among the best of the year. It could be any role, big or small, but quickly it became clear that lead roles were the only ones being nominated and so they created the Supporting Acting categories to solve the problem. And it did until 1944. That's when half the members voted to nominate Barry Fitzgerald for Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way and the other half voted to nominate him for Best Actor. And the Academy let it stand. Fitzgerald remains the only actor nominated twice for the same exact role in a single film. He won the Supporting Oscar and lost the Best Actor Oscar to his co-star Bing Crosby. After that the rules were changed to state that whichever category the actor receives more votes for nomination in is the category for which they will be nominated. What wasn't defined, and still isn't and most likely never will be, is what is a supporting performance?

In my days of studying theatre in college the discussions of Protagonist and Antagonist were plentiful in class as we endeavored to understand dramatic conflict and the structure of playwriting. Although most people assume the Protagonist is the good guy and the Antagonist is the bad guy the true meaning is quite different. The Protagonist is the lead, or main, character and the Antagonist works in opposition to him. They are not defined according to good or bad. Two plays that were often used as examples were Othello and Amadeus. In both plays, the Protagonist is what would classically be called the "bad guy." Iago from Othello and Salieri from Amadeus are the main characters with more lines, more stage time, more everything. The title characters, Othello and Amadeus (Mozart), operate in opposition to them, and in both cases, unconsciously, unaware there is any opposition at all. Were Othello and Mozart the main characters consciously working against the designs of Iago and Salieri in an effort to "defeat" them, they would be the Protagonists instead.

Both plays have been made into films and in the case of the 1965 version of Othello, Laurence Olivier, in the supporting role of the Antagonist Othello, received a nomination for Best Actor while Frank Finlay, in the lead role of the Protagonist Iago, received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Amadeus, both roles, played by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, received nominations for Best Actor. And it's happened at other times too.

In 1972, the character of Michael Corleone, the character that clearly carries the arc of the entire story on his shoulders, the character that dominates the film, the character that undergoes significant change from beginning to end, was considered a supporting part by the Academy and Al Pacino received a Supporting Actor nomination. The character of Vito Corleone, the character that can not only be seen in opposition to Michael but as a catalyst for his change (his helplessness in the hospital affords Michael the first opportunity to show his nerves of steel that will eventually take him to the pinnacle of power), a character clearly presented as secondary to Michael, dramatically speaking, was considered the lead by the Academy and Marlon Brando was nominated for, and won, Best Actor.

One other notable occurrence would come in the same year that Amadeus itself swept the Oscars in which another nominee, The Killing Fields, had it's lead and supporting characters flip-flopped in the nomination process with Sam Waterston getting the Best Actor nomination and Haing S. Ngor getting the Supporting Actor nomination.

Which takes us to this years Oscar eligibles for Best Supporting Actor. As I look at polls and critics awards it is becoming clear that there are two front runners for this award, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight and Eddie Marsan for Happy Go Lucky. The most recent one announced, The National Society of Film Critics, gave the Supporting award to Marsan with Ledger in second. The one just before that, a Village Voice polling of critics, went the other way with Ledger getting the nod and Marsan coming in second.

Marsan winning the National Society of Film Critics award makes me happy for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it lets me know that I wasn't alone in being wowed by his performance. Long before his explosion at the climax, which most people will see as the centerpiece of his performance, Marsan was making quite an impression. After just a couple of scenes of his character Scott's pedantic obsessions with driving my wife and I both turned to each other (I think it was after one of his early frustrations with Poppy where he struggles with the seat belt) and said, "damn he's good in this." But I'm also happy because the character of Scott, the driving instructor, is indeed the supporting part, the Antagonist that works in opposition to Poppy and, like Vito Corleone, acts as a catalyst for change in her (we can assume).

Heath Ledger's character of the Joker on the other hand could be seen to be the Protagonist of The Dark Knight. Like Amadeus and Othello, most people will assume that "Title Role" equals "Lead Role" However, the story of The Dark Knight is, to this viewers mind, the story of the Joker. The Joker sets things in motion and Batman reacts. Batman is the Joker's Antagonist but there's more to it than that. In fact, I would break down The Dark Knight this way:

Joker/Batman - Protagonist/Antagonist
Batman/Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face - Protagonist/Antagonist
Harvey Dent/Joker - Protagonist/Antagonist

In other words, each of the three characters is both a Protagonist and an Antagonist throughout the film. Since the Supporting category is so poorly defined anyway and most Academy voters simply go with screen time (of which Ledger has a great deal) I say nominate Heath Ledger for Best Actor for The Dark Knight, not Best Supporting Actor.

Of course, I know that will never happen but I think it would be the proper category for his nomination. And I want Eddie Marsan to win Best Supporting Actor, an award I think he richly deserves. I understand the sentiment behind a posthumous award and I know how important it would be to the family and friends of Heath Ledger, and how emotional. But I also know that Eddie Marsan is alive and may not get another role like this for some time and Heath Ledger, wherever he is according to whatever you believe in, doesn't care one way or the other.

But apart from the classification of Supporting/Lead there's another reason I want Marsan to win. The character itself, Scott, is more richly written and developed than that of the Joker. Now I know, the award is about the performance not how well the character is written but still, it irks me just a little bit, that a character like Scott, who without giving us many historical details of his life somehow lets the viewer in on everything about him, will be pushed aside for a character like the Joker, who speaks in teenage profundities throughout the film. Heath Ledger does a great job with what he's given but there just aren't many places to go with the character of the Joker.

Finally, my own personal choice for Marsan is also influenced by the movies themselves. Happy Go Lucky took me by surprise. As I watched it I thought it was good. But as I thought back on it and discussed it with fellow bloggers it continued to make more of an impression on me. It's not easy to do a slice-of-life, plotless movie with an always perky lead character but Mike Leigh did it and did it well (and looking back on Sally Hawkins performance, maintaining that chipperness throughout the movie and then not missing a beat at the end when she has to combine revulsion, terror and sympathy into one bag for her final scene with Scott, I have to hope for her to win Best Actress as well).

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, not only disappointed but quite frankly, slightly annoyed. As I watched one scene after another use the Sledgehammer School of Artistic Expression in which pious platitudes and teenage level profundities pass for dialogue I was, I must admit, a bit shocked. I don't know the last movie I've seen that contained as many "Oh Brother" moments for me as The Dark Knight: The prisoner throwing the detonator off the boat to show us the moral righteousness of humanity (oh brother), the line, "I'm an agent of chaos" (oh brother), every time Batman and Dent discuss anything (oh brother) and that ending, that ending! Here is the last line, spoken by Gary Oldman (very good in the movie) to his son who has asked why Batman is running: "Because we have to chase him." He then continues with what should be described as one of the most heavy-handed lines in movie, theatre, television or high school production history: "Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him (pause for effect) because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight." It's exactly the type of line Ben Stiller would do in a parody trailer for a fictitious action movie. And so as to that last line, with all my heart, Oh Brother!

Had I heard nothing beforehand about The Dark Knight I would have thought it an average movie. That is how I think of it now. I find parts of it good, parts bad and much in between that simply feel average. The camera work is uninspired, the editing fairly sloppy and the characters one-dimensional speaking in platitudes to fool us into thinking they're three-dimensional. Nothing wrong with that, not every movie's a masterpiece. And so I choose to think of The Dark Knight as that summer movie I saw that was okay and had some good parts and try to forget how many people there were over the age of seventeen that were impressed by it. And I am impressed with Heath Ledger for what I think is a marvelous performance, given very little to work with.

But as Best Actor, not Supporting. Marsan is the winner there and deserves it. Nominate Ledger for the lead category. Give him the award if you like, just don't cheat Marsan out of what is rightfully his. It's something I believe in. It's an idea I can get behind. It's time to petition the Academy voters to put these two actors in the categories they deserve, lead and supporting. Heath Ledger as nominee for Best Actor, Eddie Marsan as nominee, and winner, for Best Supporting Actor. That's an idea that has my full and unconditional support.