The Year of the Underdog: Best Actors 2006
Anyone recall who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1993? Was it Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven); Robert Downey Jr (Chaplin); Denzel Washington (Malcolm X); Stephen Rea (The Crying Game); or Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman)?
I'll give you a clue. This year's favourite for the prize was fifth billed in the same film - though at the time he was just plain old Philip S Hoffman.
'Scent of a Woman really was my breakthrough,' Hoffman has said. 'I was working in the prepared foods section of a deli when I was cast in that movie, and I've never had a non-acting job since.'
Hoffman has won two TONY awards on Broadway and appeared in more than 30 films over the last 15 years - but you can count his starring roles on the fingers of one hand. State and Main; Love Liza; Flawless; Owning Mahoney… not bad movies, exactly, but none of them worthy of his talents.
Physically pudgy, with pallid skin that looks like it's allergic to the sunshine, Hoffman simply isn't considered attractive enough to play the romantic lead. But the fact he's usually been stuck in smaller, supporting roles hasn't prevented him from stealing scenes in a series of important films: as the prissy personal assistant, Brandt, he's arguably the best thing in The Big Lebowski; he was the cameraman who plants a smacker on Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; a sad-sack abusive caller in Happiness; the male nurse, Phil, in Magnolia; and the suspicious Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr Ripley - a tiny role that made an indelible impression.
Add up the screen time for those parts combined and it would still come in shy of 90 minutes, but there was enough here to convince quite a few of us that Mr Hoffman is the most exciting actor in America right now. It comes as something of a shock to realise he's never even been nominated for an Oscar before.
But that's the story of this year's Best Actor race. It's the year of the underdog. You have to look to the Best Supporting Actor category to find the movie stars (George Clooney, Bill Hurt, Matt Dillon). David Strathairn? Terrence Howard? These guys aren't household names in their own postal districts.
Of the five Best Actor nominees, only the youngest, Heath Ledger, is an established leading man with conventional good looks, and he's up there for playing a gay cowboy (brilliantly so). Whatever you think of his work in A Knight's Tale or The Four Feathers (personally I think he often tries too hard), it's fair to say that a year ago, no one would have predicted an Oscar in his immediate future. In Brokeback Mountain Ledger is entirely credible across a 30 year time-span, and he makes the cautious, taciturn, conflicted Ennis Del Mar one of cinema's most unlikely tragic lovers.
Joaquin Phoenix has a supporting nomination to his name for Gladiator, which is as close to the statuary as any of them has got before now. In another year his doggedly honest portrait of Johnny Cash might have been the front-runner for the Oscar (despite a relatively untaxing role his costar, Reece Witherspoon seems to have Best Actress in the bag). This year he's no more than a dark horse.
Strathairn's performance is fully deserving of his nomination. He's never been a showy actor, and the restraint and intelligence he brings to Edward R Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck is entirely appropriate. But at the same time the film's relatively narrow approach doesn't allow for much stretching.
That leaves Terrence Howard, one of the revelations of 2005. Born in 1969, he's been around just as long as Philip Seymour Hoffman. Charismatic and good looking, he would seem perfect leading man material - but it's never happened until now. You might have noticed him in passing in The Best Man or Big Momma's House, but the only time he really got to sink his teeth into a dramatic role was in Hart's War, where he stands trial for the killing of a fellow POW.
As the Memphis pimp who longs to be a rapper in Hustle and Flow, Howard makes you see beyond the stereotypes and care about a character that could easily have come across as a cartoon figure. It's his natural sensitivity that grabs you. He's equally impressive in Crash, playing Thandie Newton's husband. Even though he doesn't stand a chance of taking home the Oscar, Howard's already looking like one of the year's big winners: I don't see him playing third fiddle to Martin Lawrence again in a hurry.
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