VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actor

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actor

Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington earns his sixth career nomination as drunk airline pilot Whip Whitaker in Flight. Washington’s best moment is the film’s best moment: a riveting sequence where his plane is in free fall. Washington pilots the scene, cutting through the hysterics with a commanding cool. The rest of the film shows his character’s slow descent into alcoholic self-destruction, a chance for Washington to play ugly anti-hero. But there are few surprises to his portrayal of a self-hating drunk.

Daniel Day Lewis is also a two-time winner, and he’s the favorite to win another as the title role in Lincoln. It’s a complete performance, fully studied in physical manner, every gesture carefully considered and invested with charismatic warmth. But there’s something kind of self-contained about it, to a lesser degree than Denzel Washington’s. All the same, the kind of performance that you feel obligated to revere, like staring at an animatronic version of the Lincoln memorial.

The contender most likely upset Day Lewis is Hugh Jackman. His appearance in Les Miz is one of the best things about the film—he does the best job of selling the movie’s live performance concept. Even when his singing is off, it seems work, as a way of expressing his character’s conflicted moral state. And while the film is aimed to squeeze every teardrop out of its material, Jackman doesn’t dwell on the melodrama. He portrays a man’s journey to salvation with a survivalist urgency and vigor.

But I’m most impressed by two performances that aren’t favorites to win, even though both actors are in nearly every scene of their films, and convey a risk-taking vulnerability that deserves recognition.

Bradley Cooper surprised a lot of people with a breakthrough performance as Pat, a man fighting bipolar disorder inSilver Linings Playbook. Cooper runs his character through a gauntlet of manias and rages. With a simple shift of his voice, or a darting eye movement, he flips the switch to show his character’s mind jumping off the tracks. but he never overplays these emotions, giving room to reveal the comic absurdity of his condition. And for all his antic outward energy, he also does a lot of taking in. Over the course of this movie, he has to interact and respond to a dozen different characters with their own issues and button-pushing tendencies. There are moments where Pat’s reactions show an ability to see outside himself, which takes his character and Cooper’s performance to another dimension.

Finally there’s Joaquin Phoenix, who lays it on the line as Freddy Quell in The Master. This is a film whose success or failure mostly hinges on the credibility of its lead, whose self-destructive impulses lead to displays of outrageous, alienating behavior. The key question is whether Phoenix is just chewing scenery, or is really tapping into a genuine sense of torment.

Some of his acting choices tread close to gimmickry, his body bent in anguish, his mouth twisted like Popeye the Sailor. But over time, Phoenix reveals what’s behind his grotesque appearance. The crucial scene is his initial psychological processing. Here he his challenged to confront his inner demons and the result is one of the most riveting scenes of the year.

This truly is acting that feels alive like nothing else. It’s here that Phoenix’s character reveals his conscience. And from this point on, Phoenix takes us through a turbulent journey of a soul awaking to recognize itself. The Master is a wild, unresolved movie that at times loses control in its probing of a group movement. But what stays true throughout is Joaquin Phoenix, a performance totally committed to its character in all its ugliness and wonder.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Chief Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.




Long awaited at the Lido, after a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse between the Festival and Harvey Weinstein’s marketing machine, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has finally been shown.

This is an elusive film, destined to stand out due to its surrounding circumstances. First, the anticipation, five years after 2007's There Will Be Blood; then the will-they-or-won’t-they dance with the Festival before it was announced (separate from other announcements) in the Competition line-up. In the meantime, The Master started popping up at surprise screenings in the United States before turning up in its full 70mm glory—an atypical approach, as was that of Samsara—at the actual Festival.

Expectations were sky-high, like nothing else around here in the past few years. And yet the film itself doesn’t, on its surface, justify that kind of momentum, because it tells the story of a man who is unable to find a sense of purpose. A WWII veteran clumsily forced back into society, Freddie Quell struggles to keep a job, drinks heavy cocktails (which include solvents, pills, and any kind of alcohol he can find), and is prone to angry outbursts. The Navy is not entirely to blame, though, since flashbacks show him in a similar predicament while on duty on the Pacific front. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix’s body and Anderson’s composition make it clear that Freddie and the space he inhabits will always be painfully at odds.

His meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-professed uber-thinker with a group of followers and a desire to find solutions to the world’s problems, quickly ignites another one of the director's trademark relationships involving fatherhood issues, conflicting trajectories, and opposing Weltanschauung. Only this time the dynamic appears to be more subtle. It’s quite obvious why Freddie would jump at the opportunity to follow such a master; Dodd’s grand delusions and clarity of intentions provide Freddie with the purpose he has been desperately seeking. More intriguing is Dodd’s fascination with the man who has entered his life: at first it’s mutual intoxication, as the two swap promises in exchange for the ‘good stuff’ that Freddie’s talent can provide. But Freddie is also an ever-regenerating blank slate onto which Dodd can project his quest, a renewable source of infatuation. A scene showing the two men hugging, shot from the side, demonstrates their dynamic perfectly: as Hoffman’s rotund form lunges into the space of the Other, Phoenix’s torso creates an emptiness to accommodate him.

The subtle dynamic between the two central characters informs the style and the pace of the whole film, making it hard to grasp. The core tension is generated by verbal repeition, as in the "applications" and exercises Dodd subjects his “guinea pig and protegé” to. Anderson replicates this with his use of depth in his shots, locating Phoenix behind elements in the foreground, placing him at odds with gorgeous backgrounds—courtesy of the film’s 70mm crispness and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography—and generally stripping The Master of structural drive, an element which was crucial to There Will Be Blood. A fitting change, considering that Freddie Quell is the polar opposite of Daniel Plainview. The former is desperate to find a place, even though he doesn’t know how. The latter will stop at nothing to make his place, knowing all too well where to drill and what to hit. Plainview exuded directness, from the center of Anderson’s symmetry. Quell pathologically refuses progress (yet, sooner or later, everybody has to “pick a spot”…) and seems always well-positioned to disrupt those symmetries, starting with the twisted mess that Phoenix turned his face into for the role. Despite the enormous performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite the fact that the story is essentially about two men, Anderson cannot help focusing the film on its central character. There Will Be Blood was a radical departure in Anderson’s career; The Master displays similar scope and weight but has a more ambiguous texture.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.