Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote)
The Nominees: Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Straithern (Good Night and Good Luck)
Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain)
My Nominees: Nicholas Cage (Lord of War), Steve Carrell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man), Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardner), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), David Straithern (Good Night and Good Luck)
My two favorite performances of the year both ended up in the Best Actor race and both got nominations for playing gay men. The other was Heath Ledger for playing a quiet, broody cowboy in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Both characters are gay but the approach is completely different. Hoffman as Truman Capote is (and was) an openly gay extrovert while Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is an introvert who tries to keep his passions hidden. Both men are beset by the limitations of the intolerance of the times. Both stories take place in the 1960s at a time when such a lifestyle was such an outrage it didn't just bring scorn but the possibility of death.
I was equally impressed by both but for my award I have to go with Ledger because I think his character travels further, emotionally. We meet Ennis in 1963, taking a job as a sheep rancher in Montana where he meets Jack Twist. They seem to have very little in common, but they make small talk, tend the sheep and run through the mundane course of their work. Then one very cold night they end up in the same tent for warmth and something unexpected happens, a passion ignites and they find themselves having sex almost as a reflex. They fall secretly in love but we can see in Ennis that this is a discovery that scares him to the very core of his being.
His inner conflict is spelled out early in the film when he tells Jack a story from his childhood, about two elderly men who shared a house together. It was speculated that the two men were carrying on a homosexual relationship and were murdered for it. Ennis' father took his two young sons to see the old man's dead body, possibly as a warning. "They were the joke of the town, even though they were pretty tough old birds." Ennis says, "My dad, he made sure me and my brother saw it. For all I know, he did it." He knows that the relationship between he and Jack is unexceptable but he also understands that it is not something that either can control. Ennis is a little more cautious and Jack is a little more open about his feelings. Ennis warns Jack, "Bottom line is... we're around each other an'... this thing, it grabs hold of us again... at the wrong place... at the wrong time... and we're dead."
They leave Brokeback Mountain after the season, each get married and have children but something about that summer won't leave them. Ennis is contacted by Jack and gets an invitation to take a fishing trip. This is the story he will tell his wife (Michelle Williams) for years to come. But it's really just a chance to get together and it goes on for year after year after year.
The key to Ledger's performance is the way he has of keeping his feelings inward. There's a particular way he carries himself with his head down and his voice a low sort of grumble. When he speaks, often his lips barely move as if he is afraid that anyone but who he is speaking to will hear him. The very essence of his being suggests a man who realizes that the limitations put on men can be a casualty. Any expession of emotion or love that breaks the mold of the Marlboro man image is a cause for violent aggression.
To understand what Ennis gives up for Jack, take a look at the ending in which his life has worn away to a small existance. Both men found the love of their lives but they live in a time when it was not permissable to express it, it took lies, whispers and closed, dark rooms to be able to have a moment together. Years later, when they meet for the last time, Ennis finally comes to terms with what he has sacrificed for tiny pieces of time. What is so sad about Ennis is that he becomes a victim of the times in which he lives. He is a man so bottled up with emotion but so afraid to let them show.
Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)
The Nominees: Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents . . . ), Felicity Huffman (TransAmerica), Kiera Knightly (Pride & Prejudice), Charlize Therone (North Country)
Julianne Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio)
My Nominees: Felicity Huffman (TransAmerica), Scarlett Johannson (Match Point), Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale), Ellen Page (Hard Candy), Charlize Theron (North Country)
This was not only Witherspoon's first Oscar but her first nomination, and I do hope that she has more to come. Julianne Moore, on the other hand, has become an Oscar regular. Nominated by the Academy four times, two of those nominations came for playing intelligent but stifled housewives in the 1950s. This seems to be an area of expertise for Moore and in my favorite performance of 2005, she played the role to perfection in Jane Anderson’s little-seen The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.
Based on a true story, Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, whom we meet somewhere in the mid-1950s, a busy housewife with 10 children. We can see that she possesses unusual coping skills and an uncanny talent for words. She is a whiz at those early television jingle and slogan contests that corporations would set up to get their latest jingles. It took a certain skill with words and lyrics to win these contests. Armed with word power, a plucky attitude and some luck, Evelyn keeps winning money and is able to furnish the house with appliances, food, toys and luxuries that the Ryans wouldn't otherwise be able to afford.
Evelyn is very clever and it helps to keep her large family afloat in the midst of the dark menace the occupies her home in the shape of her husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson), a pathetic drunk who comes home from work, drinks, curses and is prone to bursts of violence. He never strikes Evelyn or the children but she is able to keep herself and her children together by keeping them out of the way. She uses to the contest to keep a steady cashflow coming into the home as Kelly drinks his paychecks away. There is an effective scene early on in which her daughter tells her mother that she needs her notebook from the kitchen and we see Evelyn duck and dodge around Kelly's tantrum - sparked by a baseball game on the radio - to retrieve it.
Inside Kelly, we can see that he isn't a horrible human being, he just wallows in self-pity. He is so self-centered that when money comes up short and they are on the brink of starvation and even homelessness, he's still making excuses. There's a crushing moment when Evelyn practically begs the milkman for help and then Kelly, in a rage, accidentally knocks her down, smashing the bottles of milk. Director Jane Anderson uses a motif of milk as the nurishment provided by the mother and this scene brings about a symbolic moment when we see the mother's blood and the mother's milk as they mix together on the floor and it spills into the heat register. Afterwards, in a rare moment alone as he tries to help get milk out of her girdle he tells her "I just want you to be happy" to which she informs him "I don't need you to make me happy, I just need you to leave me alone when I am."
Kelly harbors a deep resentment that he can't take care of his family as well as Evelyn can. When she wins a contest that includes a house full of appliances that includes a large freezer, Kelly sees it as a constant reminder of his failure as a man. We sense right away that she stands at the head of the household and that he respresents not so much a husband but rather Evelyn's 11th child and the only time he is ever able to put himself in his husband role is in the bedroom (which explains why they have 10 children). Meanwhile, Evelyn wrangles the kids and faces every crises with a broad smile, her chin held up and a kind of Zen philosophy.
Her goal in life, we come to understand, is to get her chicks to leave the nest without bearing the scars of Kelly's childish rage. The Ryans are Catholics so Evelyn's options of divorce are out and she realizes that simply packing up and leaving wouldn't change their circumstances. She has fleeting moments when someone might help but when the police are called, it's apparent that they are the husband's buddies, they have a soda with Kelly and then leave with a polite nod. A priest comes calling and Evelyn reaches out for help but he encourages her to stick it out.
What becomes clear is that most of the adults surrounding Evelyn are men, female friends are hard to come by especially when you have 10 kids to look after. When a fellow contest winner (Laura Dern) writes her and tells her about a club called The Affadaisies, a chirpy group of housewives who share her talent for contests, Evelyn takes the first trip in her life and we see her interacting with women her own age with a value system very close to her own. She also comes to realize that the era of these wit and skill contests are quickly coming to an end because the corporations are finding them too hard to manage. In the years that follow they will be replaced by drawings and cash sweepstakes that require no mindpower at all.
The third act of the film is where Moore's performance shines best. Returning home from her trip she lives in the inevitability that her days of having a lifeline with the contests are numbered and it is right about this moment that she gets a call from the morgage company and learns that Kelly took out a second mortgage three years ago and didn't tell anyone. Now it's due and if it's not paid in two days then they will lose their home. The family lays all it's hopes on a Dr. Pepper contest with a cash value that will save their house. In a crushing scene, alone in her bedroom, she finally comes apart as she realizes that in a year there won't be any contests and that her slender lifeline has drawn to an end. The sad realization sets in that this intelligent resourceful woman with uncanny coping skills has reached the end of her rope.
The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio is based on a memoir written by the Ryan's daughter Terry "Tuff" Ryan who marvels that, despite Kelly, Evelyn managed to raise 10 children and all turned out okay and none were seriously effected by Kelly's childish example. Moore gives us moments that are wordless but amazingly effective. We can see that Evelyn is a prisoner of her time, when a woman had very little control over her own life. Had she lived a few years in the future she could have been a novelist, a journalist, an advertising executive or running her own company, she has that kind of mind. The fact that she managed to raise almost a dozen children and an insufferable husband was one of the most inspiring people you are ever likely to meet.
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