Friday, February 11, 2005

Oscars '05: Imitation of life

The Oscars operate on momentum. When voting closes on Feb. 22, the likely winners the following Sunday will be those people and films that had the most buzz and the strongest word of mouth the instant ballots were due. Quality and deservability are usually second and third to momentum, though all three can coincide blissfully (the most recent example is Adrien Brody's win in 2003 for 'The Pianist').

Hollywood and the world believe Jamie Foxx to be deserving, to have the momentum, and to have given a quality performance in 'Ray,' which makes a Foxx victory on Feb. 27 the surest thing since Julia Roberts won best actress for 'Erin Brockovich' in 2001. But, like Roberts, Foxx is undeserving, though for different reasons.

What Foxx does in 'Ray' is amazing. He is Ray Charles. But that is precisely the problem. Foxx's work is deserving of praise, but it is not a performance. It is a precise and studied imitation, a parlor trick in the best sense of the word. He is deserving of accolades, but not an Oscar. Not when there are accomplished performances in his category.

There has been no real debate about this subject, yet 2004's releases -- under the umbrella term 'The Year of the Biopic' -- certainly prompt one. Which is better and harder to do: imitate a real-life person or create a character from thin air? Which is deserving of more praise and attention? Objectively, the answer is neither. Subjectively, I reserve more admiration for performance than imitation, or for those special instances when performance triumphs in a role that could easily have been imitation. Cate Blanchett is an example. Blanchett tackled the daunting task of playing Katharine Hepburn in 'The Aviator,' a choice she must have known would not provide for a middle ground. You'd either love her Hepburn, or revile it.

Reception for Blanchett's performance has fallen solidly in the former category. And I do use the word 'performance' deliberately. She took the celluloid Hepburn -- the Hepburn of the media, the clipped accent and forward manner -- and reinvented her. So what if Blanchett improvised and acted off a script that wasn't 100 percent accurate? After 'The Aviator,' we had gotten to know Hepburn as a character, not as a person lifted directly from life. Where 'Ray' pulled Charles from headlines and biographies, 'The Aviator' sewed a new Hepburn pattern that functions as texture, not truth. From texture comes performance. From truth comes imitation.

It's a silly argument, since watching movies is a subjective exercise. But I was 100 times more affected by Blanchett's Hepburn leaning despairingly outside Howard Hughes' screening room door than by Foxx's Charles having frenetic visions during heroin withdrawal. Why? What's more beautiful -- the blueprints used to build a house, or the house itself? Leonardo DiCaprio pulls off a similar feat. He looks nothing like Howard Hughes (just as Blanchett looks nothing like Hepburn), yet he makes the character his own instead of making his own the person. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney also transcend imitation as Alfred and Clara Kinsey, simply because their film allows for it. We see them not as icons going through well-publicized motions, but characters evolving before our eyes. 'Ray' allows only for Foxx's Charles to beat drugs, a battle that is surely courageous but not enough to constitute a good movie by itself. Johnny Depp, as real-life author J.M. Barrie in 'Finding Neverland,' also falls short, but for different reasons.

So there were those that fell under the weight of the biopic and those who transcended it. But the richest performances of the year were given by actors playing complete inventions. Annette Bening in 'Being Julia.' Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank in 'Million Dollar Baby.' The cast of 'Sideways.' In these films, in these performances, we see cinema come to life, rather than life come to cinema.

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