If the Oscars this year taught us anything, it's American actors can't hold a prayer to their foreign rivals. Every winter, the Oscars hand out golden statues to four actors that they believe is deserving of the highest praise. This time around, not a single one of those four Oscar winners were born in the United States.
Tilda Swinton, who won for Best Supporting Actress, was born in London. Javier Bardem, who won for Best Supporting Actor, was born on the Canary Islands in Spain. Marion Cotillard, who won for Best Actress, was born in Paris and Daniel Day-Lewis, who won for Best Actor, was also born in London.
It seems very strange, but oddly enough, the very first man to win the Oscar for Best Actor was not an American. Emil Jannings, who took away that prize in 1928, was born in Canada. The second woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in 1929 was Mary Pickford, who was also born in Canada.
Most Oscar-winning actors, over the Academy's 80 years, have been from the United States, but a very talented handful have been foreigners, ranging from Ingrid Bergman who came from Sweden, Olivia de Havilland who was born in Tokyo, Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Belgium, and Charlize Theron, who was born in South Africa. The British invasion has been a constant. From Julie Christie to Sir Laurence Olivier, England has always provided a good crop of actors who have vied for the gold.
Best Supporting Actress
Tilda Swinton won for her role in Michael Clayton. While the favorite going into the awards was for another British actress, Cate Blanchett, for her gender-bending role in I'm Not There, playing Bob Dylan, I must admit, I actually agree with the Academy's choice here.
Swinton played Karen Crowder, the chief counsel for a chemical company named U/North, a company being sued in a class action lawsuit. She's a woman who is a nervous wreck in her alone times whether it's before giving a TV interview or whether it's before a presentation in front of a ton of board members, but she always has to appear confident and tough in everyone's eyes, even though she's far from that, and I think Swinton balances that assuredness and anxiety very well. When she sweats or when her heart starts beating fast, you in the audience start to sweat and have your heart beat faster as well. She's brilliant.
Best Supporting Actor
The Spanish actor Javier Bardem won for Best Supporting Actor. He was the first Spaniard to do so. Puerto Rican and Mexican-Americans have won that prize before, but Bardem is the first man born in Spain to take home the Oscar, and it was well deserved. I can't bash him. My only problem is that his performance for the most part was only one note. He played a single-minded, highly focused, bounty hunter. He was a perfect villain, perfectly maniacal, but that's all he was. You never really got anything more out of his role, which served the purpose, but didn't really compare when you match it up to some of his other fellow nominees.
For example, Casey Affleck was nominated for his part in the lush, meditative western The Assassination of Jesse James. Affleck plays Robert Ford, the man who eventually murders the real-life outlaw. Ford is a wannabe sidekick who has books under his bed of Jesse James, stashed away like porn magazines. When in his presence, Bob Ford studies Jesse James, looks on him almost with desire. In his alone times, Bob Ford tries to emulate Jesse, but in almost every encounter, he's a coward, not really assertive, always ingratiating, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, until a series of events changes the way Ford sees Jesse, and really everything you feel about Jesse James comes from Affleck's eyes.
Brad Pitt who plays the titular Jesse James is of course handsome, well-dressed all in black, mannerly. He's the devil may care, slightly scruffy yet still charming and totally winning, but once Bob Ford changes, you start to see what he sees, that Jesse James while deniable does have just under the surface a snake that could strike you dead in an instant without warning. Bob Ford is scared of this man.
And, you feel it, especially in the scenes toward the end of the second act. There's one in particular where Bob Ford is having dinner with Jesse James and there's a secret hanging over Bob's head that you can tell he doesn't want revealed to Jesse. The tension in the dialogue and in the faces of each of the actors is so well done, especially in Affleck's face, that it has you on edge of your seat.
Affleck's role is also so pronounced that if you removed his character, the movie would not exist. There would be no point to it. If nothing else, that is a mark of good supporting actor, and Affleck is the man who should have won.
As with Javier Bardem, Daniel Day-Lewis' win for his performance in There Will Be Blood was a foregone conclusion. Everybody and their mother knew that he was going to take home that Oscar, and he did. There was absolutely no question, and for once, I agree.
Despite all the flaws I found with the film overall, what saves it is the amazing and enthralling acting Daniel Day brings to the table, who by my estimation gets better and better with every role he takes. He's the kind of actor, like Denzel Washington, who elevates the material simply because he's the one doing it. When he's on screen, you don't want to take your eyes off him. You're always interested by what he's saying and how he's saying it, what he's doing and how he's doing it.
Even though I wish writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson would have focused on other things, Daniel Day-Lewis and his character of Daniel Plainview is in every scene, and I wasn't sorry because of it. There really isn't a moment when Day-Lewis is not on screen. He carries this film and carries it well, and I was grateful for that.
What particularly stuck with me is the relationship that Plainview has with his son. After his son gets injured in an oil gusher that shoots black rain out the ground like water out a geyser, mimicking Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, but set aflame, Plainview smiles about it. It's horrifying, but Plainview dismisses his son and looks on at the gusher with glee. He cradles his son in his arms later, kisses his boy, and flies off the handle if anybody talks badly of him, but at the same token, Plainview abandons his boy.
You wonder why, but by the end, you're satisfied as Daniel Day-Lewis truly locks down a complex character and nails it. Plainview is like the oil for which he mines. He's very slick and thick, bubbling under the surface and capable of combusting. He's dark, smooth and flows viscously from moment to moment. This Oscar was well deserved!
The odds were Julie Christie would have won this category. She has been an industry favorite for 40 years, having won her first Oscar back in 1960. The screenplay for the movie that she was in got nominated as well. The only problem was that her film was a small independent feature that got released early last year. Many Oscar voters probably overlooked it, even in the screeners that they all received. Many people were enamored with Ellen Page, the young actress who starred in Juno, the teen pregnancy comedy that swept the nation this winter. Her performance really amounted to cute charm.
Page's role nowhere near had the depth and the range of Marion Cotillard, who bested them both and won this year for her performance, as the real life French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. There have been a lot of biographical films about musicians and singers, and most of them follow a pretty, predictable formula.
La Vie En Rose seems to follow many of those same formulas, but what makes it grand, and what makes it stand out, is Cotillard's performance, which picks up on Piaf's life in Paris in 1935 and follows her until her death in 1963. What you see is Cotillard's evolution on screen of 30 years and she makes it absolutely believable.
During the height of her success, you see extravagant scenes of Piaf having lush excursions, dinner parties or nights out on the town where she's surrounded by friends or those she employed or simply those who fawn over her. And, through it all, she's loud and brash, personable, but occasionally rude and direct, speaking her mind without filter, like a little sparrow that could not be contained, but it's at times off-putting as you see later in her life she's more guarded. Yet, Cotillard is able to show us both sides of her so well.
Cotillard like Piaf is a diamond in the rough that rises to shine brightly after emerging from dirt and obscurity. She embraces and relishes in her fame, with her short black hair, big eyes popping out her small, apple head and when she speaks or sings, her lips puff, as if they're making an effort to push out the sounds. There's determination within her, a passion that you can feel radiating from the screen. It's almost a strength that she commands. Often, it's her commanding a room, whichever room she steps in. Even up to the point when Piaf collapses, succumbing to poor health, she's still ever the diva, even as the feathers of our little sparrow start to wilt.
Cotillard lip-syncs to Piaf's songs on the movie's soundtrack, she's absolutely mesmerizing, as you become enthralled by Cotillard's body language, even as the last half hour of the film shows such a decline of body and spirit. You see this woman desperately try to hold onto her dream. It's heart breaking but as Piaf says she lived with no regrets. She flew free. She bloomed.
Now, Cotillard is not the first French actress to win the Oscar. Simone Signoret is a French actress who won the Oscar in 1959 for her role in Room at the Top, a X-rated film that was one of the first to usher in the British New Wave, which grappled with realistic and gritty subjects; in this case sexual affairs.
The only difference here is that Signoret spoke English in that movie made 50 years ago. In La Vie En Rose, Cotillard speaks nothing but French, except in one or two scenes when she struggles to say a line or two in English.
Acting performances that have not been in English, but mostly in a foreign language, do get nominated, but rarely do they win. The exceptions have been Sophia Loren's Best Actress in 1961 for the film Two Women, as well as Roberto Benigni's win in 1997 for his film Life is Beautiful, both of which were movies done all in Italian.