Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"
"Better than what?" one might wonder after seeing director Chris Weitz's tale of Carlos, a gardener and illegal alien in the Wild West town of Los Angeles. Carlos has a clear-eyed view of his condition, and it ain't pretty. Yet he loves America and wants his teenage son to love, and have, what's great about this country. The film could have been stunt-cast (imagine Tom Cruise with a Mexican accent), but instead the filmmakers went for authenticity. And authenticity they got—in nationality and in depth of portrayal—in Demián Bichir, a Mexican megastar of stage and screen.
Bichir turns Carlos into a modern-day pioneer, unyielding against adversity, but quietly so. This is no Shakespearean character railing before cataracts and hurricanes. Carlos is strapped to the top of a palm tree, hacking away at old fronds, when he espies his newly purchased truck being purloined by a fellow gardener. Carlos expertly shinnies down the tree, but he's too late. In a single moment, Bichir silently reveals Carlos' disgust at his fellow man and fear for his livelihood, tempered with a belief that a better life awaits.
The film reflects Bichir's upbringing. "My brothers and I, we grew up in…really difficult neighborhoods, and it was because of the arts, not only theater, that we got civilized," he told Back Stage. "So, when my friends would be doing nothing, I would go to the National Theatre Company and rehearse a serious play, for four hours, and then at night perform, and be responsible for something in my life." To create Carlos, the actor has said, he interviewed "a lot of paisanos working in gardens in Los Angeles." Those men should be proud of the quietly heroic portrait Bichir paints.
Demián Bichir was nominated for a SAG Award in 2009 as a member of the "Weeds" ensemble.
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
George Clooney's extensive roster of characters includes a soulless corporate downsizer ("Up in the Air"), a morally ambiguous attorney with a gambling problem ("Michael Clayton"), and a steely CIA operative ("Syriana"). In "The Descendants," tackling perhaps his most complex role to date, he plays a self-centered executive whose entire universe—and his sense of place in that universe—disintegrates after his wife has a horrific accident, leaving her in an irreversible coma. For the first time, he is forced to face the failure of his marriage and become a responsible and loving father to his two young daughters, a role that is initially incomprehensible to him.
But over the course of the film, Clooney creates, with subtlety and nuance, a man evolving intellectually, emotionally, and morally. By the end, he is a mature figure with a keen moral compass. He has morphed into not only a real dad but also a civic-minded individual who makes a choice because it's the right one, despite the financial sacrifice he must make. Still, at no time does Clooney's character lose his sense of humor. Indeed, it grows more defined. Part of what makes the actor's performance so notable is his ability to combine comedy and drama, sometimes within the same moment.
For this performance, George Clooney has won a National Board of Review Award and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He won SAG Awards in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 as a member of the "ER" ensemble and was nominated in 1995 as a member of the "ER" ensemble, in 1996 and 1997 individually for "ER," in 2006 for "Syriana" and as a member of the "Good Night, and Good Luck" ensemble, in 2008 for "Michael Clayton," and in 2010 for "Up in the Air." He is also nominated this year as a member of the ensemble of "The Descendants."
Leonardo DiCaprio, "J. Edgar"
Leonardo DiCaprio made the transition from juvenile heartthrob to serious actor when he tackled the reclusive, paranoid Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's masterful "The Aviator" and the sensitive husband in "Revolutionary Road." But he solidifies his heavyweight status with a stunningly detailed depiction of another neurotic, powerful historical figure in Clint Eastwood's time-tripping biopic "J. Edgar." As the driven head of the FBI, DiCaprio eradicates every trace of the baby-faced kid in "The Lagoon" and "Titanic" to create a complex portrait of a man obsessed with seeking out enemies, personal and national, real and imagined.
The role has all the earmarks of awards bait: straight actor playing a repressed gay man, tons of aging makeup, and the added bonus of cross-dressing. But DiCaprio goes beyond these potential showy flourishes. His Hoover is a tyrant, a crusader, and a lover (it's the love that dare not speak its name, but it's definitely there). In the scene in which his mother (a steel-spined Judi Dench) informs him that she'd rather have a dead son than one who's a "daffodil," Hoover's repressed passions eloquently play across DiCaprio's features. You can see dozens of emotions at war—adoration for his mother, respect for what he sees as his duty to keep his homosexuality secret, and the need to express his love for his close associate Clyde Tolson.
That's just one moment in the strongest performance of DiCaprio's career so far.
For this performance, Leonardo DiCaprio has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 1997 as a member of the "Marvin's Room" ensemble, in 1998 individually and as a member of the "Titanic" ensemble, in 2005 individually and as a member of the "Aviator" ensemble, and in 2007 for "Blood Diamond" and individually and as a member of the "Departed" ensemble.
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
French star Jean Dujardin, who until recently was virtually unknown in the U.S., is a charismatic presence in "The Artist," an original, lyrical, and at moments haunting valentine to American filmmaking traditions in general and silent films in particular. "The Artist" is a silent film and the perfect vehicle for the story being told.
Set in Hollywood in 1927, it recounts the troubled life of a flamboyant silent-film star, George Valentin (Dujardin), a matinee idol adored by millions. When talkies become the rage, he is incapable of adapting and becomes obsolete overnight. As he grows increasingly despairing, isolated, and unemployable, his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) dumps him, the stock market crashes, and he loses his home. Simultaneously, the star of his young protégé (Bérénice Bejo) is rising. Matters are complicated by the fact that he has fallen in love with her.
Dujardin is at once delightful, charming, and poignant in evoking Valentin's helplessness as he tries to contend with a world that has left him behind. Without his saying a word, his frustration and disbelief are evident. Dujardin pays homage to, and affectionately parodies, such actors as Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and perhaps William Powell, even as his Valentin goes from star to beaten man. With each blow, his self-esteem deflates; his ramrod-straight, shoulder-back posture slumps; his swaggering gait becomes a shuffle. But it's his evolving relationship with the young woman that's most striking. Initially he's slightly condescending—attracted to her though he may be—but in the end he's deeply grateful and moved by her love and determination to help him.
For this performance, Jean Dujardin has also been nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe Award.
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"
The transformation of "Moneyball," from Michael Lewis' landmark book about statistical analysis in professional baseball to a classic underdog film tale innovatively told, was a long and arduous one. As a producer, Brad Pitt played a central role in that transformation. But it's as an actor that he did the most to turn what could have been a jumbled mess of a film into an excellent big-screen experience.
As Billy Beane, the real-life washed-up ballplayer who went on to become the general manager of a washed-up major league franchise, Pitt is the beating heart of the movie. In any film, that's quite a burden for an actor. In "Moneyball," it's the kind that can only be borne by a top-flight professional fully committed to the work. Lewis' book is essentially about numbers and the men who crunch them. Pitt's job is to make us care about a number cruncher.
In the film, Beane is a little petulant, a little charming, a little cocky, and a little self-effacing. Pitt has proved he can be all those things, but here he resists the urge to go big with any one of them. The result is a beautiful and complex character, one so human that you find yourself rooting hard for him. Not just for his team to win, but for him to find peace, success, some modest form of happiness—all the things that we want for ourselves and our loved ones. In the hands of a lesser actor, Beane, and by extension "Moneyball," could have been grating or boring. Thanks to Pitt, it is none of those things.
For this performance, Brad Pitt has won a New York Film Critics Circle Award and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He won a SAG Award in 2010 as a member of the "Inglourious Basterds" ensemble and was nominated in 2007 as a member of the "Babel" ensemble and in 2009 individually and as a member of the "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" ensemble.
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
The annals of acting are replete with tales of actors cast mere hours before shooting began on their films. And, truth be told, many of those actors have expertly created their characters on the fly. But Glenn Close cleaved unto the role of Albert Nobbs almost 30 years ago, playing Albert in a theatricalization of George Moore's short story "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs" and determining to bring the story to the screen.
Albert is a woman forced by societal strictures to live life as a man. In 19th-century Ireland, she had two choices: the poorhouse or the reputable work of a butler. Disguising herself so fully that even she could lose track of her real self, Albert succeeded by completely disappearing into her role.
Oh, yes, so does Close. The externals are exquisitely crafted. Close stands and walks like a man. She deepens her voice—and assumes a London accent. Her face is implacable. But her eyes fully reflect the inner life of Albert: the life of service, the unavoidable attraction to money, and, in the course of this film, the fear of discovery.
Albert is a woman looking for courage. Close has courage to spare. This role she has cherished for three decades, representing women throughout history—and in the present—who have had to hide their true selves, finds the best possible champion in Close and her finest work.
For this performance, Glenn Close has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She won a SAG Award in 2005 for "The Lion in Winter" and was nominated in 1996 for "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," in 1998 for "In the Gloaming," and in 2008, 2010, and 2011 for "Damages."
Viola Davis, "The Help"
When Viola Davis read Kathryn Stockett's popular novel "The Help," she knew she wanted to play Aibileen Clark, a maid working for a white family in Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights movement. In fact, Davis wanted to option the book to adapt it to film, but writer-director Tate Taylor beat her to it. Fortunately for Davis and for audiences, Taylor also had her in mind for the part.
To prepare for the role, Davis poured herself into research about that chapter in history. In addition to watching documentaries, she turned inward to find the soul of her character. "I always have a vision of a person in my head," she says, "and that person was my mother and my grandmother, who when they walk into a room, nobody would ever notice them—just, in the most beautiful way, ordinary. I felt like I had to start with that. I had their experiences in my head, stories my mother had told me about my grandmother being a maid and herself being a maid. And everything else I just had to make up, use my imagination in terms of filling her out."
Aibileen is the heart and the soul of the film and the book, and Davis brings to the role the emotional gravitas that makes this performance one of the best of 2011.
For this performance, Viola Davis has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She was nominated for SAG Awards in 2010 individually and as a member of the "Doubt" ensemble.
Tilda Swinton, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
For roles ranging from the White Witch in the three "Narnia" films to the wealthy, repressed wife who is awakened by a young lover in "I Am Love" to the savagely ambitious attorney in "Michael Clayton," Tilda Swinton has come to be known for her stunning versatility and striking appearance.
In "We Need to Talk About Kevin," she displays yet another facet as an anguished and conflicted mother realizing that her child (Ezra Miller) is evil. Without being heavy-handed, Swinton brings to life a woman who knows something is terribly wrong with her son, doesn't understand why, but clearly feels culpability and profound discomfort because she is unable to embrace him. Swinton creates a woman for whom not loving one's child is a taboo.
The film also deals with the impact of the malign child on her family and marriage, and nowhere is Swinton's performance more multileveled than in her character's ambivalent feelings for her husband (John C. Reilly), who is in complete denial that anything is wrong with their son. She also evokes a woman of artistic sensibility who never wanted to leave the city and live in the suburbs to accommodate her children. Her growing feelings of resentment at how her life has evolved are also palpable throughout.
For this performance, Tilda Swinton won a National Board of Review Award and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She was nominated for SAG Awards in 2003 as a member of the "Adaptation" ensemble, in 2008 for "Michael Clayton," and in 2009 as a member of the ensemble of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Meryl Streep is a sort of iron lady in her own right. She may not have the unwavering, controversial demeanor of Britain's only female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, whom she effortlessly portrays in Phyllida Lloyd's film. But she is unconquerable in the acting field. Who was the last 62-year-old woman to open a movie at the box office?
Well, if anyone can, it's Streep. Her strength as an actor is in her versatility and impeccable attention to detail. In "The Iron Lady," she captures Thatcher's idiosyncrasies with ease, from her subtle physicality to her uncanny accent. Though Streep stays true to Thatcher's stone-cold public persona, she also beautifully embodies some of the world leader's more vulnerable moments, creating a multifaceted portrayal. Streep also had to tackle the acting challenge of age makeup, as she portrays Thatcher from her early government days to her later years. Though the makeup is flawless, Streep almost doesn't need the façade to disappear into the character. She truly captures this woman's heart and becomes one with her in this performance.
In December, Streep received a Kennedy Center Honor, and in a tribute her "Falling in Love" and "Marvin's Room" co-star Robert De Niro praised her work. Making light of her many award nominations, he said, "One fact that's keeping Meryl's average down is that she has to compete with Meryl Streep."
For this performance, Meryl Streep won a New York Film Critics Circle Award and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She won SAG Awards in 2004 for "Angels in America" and in 2009 for "Doubt." She was nominated in 1995 for "The River Wild," in 1996 for "The Bridges of Madison County," in 1997 as a member of the "Marvin's Room" ensemble, in 1999 for "One True Thing," in 2000 for "Music of the Heart," in 2003 as a member of the "Adaptation" and "The Hours" ensembles, in 2007 for "The Devil Wears Prada," in 2009 as a member of the "Doubt" ensemble, and in 2010 for "Julie & Julia."
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"
Few roles are likely as daunting as Marilyn Monroe, but Michelle Williams is not an actor to shy away from a challenge. The highly versatile thespian is no stranger to difficult parts or to melting seamlessly into her characters, and her portrayal of Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn" is no exception. Despite a varied résumé that includes acclaimed performances in "Wendy and Lucy" and "Blue Valentine," Williams' work in this film, equal parts boldly magnetic and subtly troubled, may be her most daring yet.
The film focuses on the period in 1956 when the American screen icon went to England to shoot "The Prince and the Showgirl" with British star Sir Laurence Olivier (a dead-on Kenneth Branagh, also SAG-nominated for his performance). It's a tough shoot, mostly stemming from the caprices of the mercurial and magnetic Monroe. The charming star befriends a young man working on the set (Eddie Redmayne), winning his affection and giving him a glimpse of the person behind the name "Marilyn Monroe."
Williams is magical onscreen, capturing the essence and presence of a woman so ingrained in our culture that we may feel we already know her. Whether performing a classic Monroe dance number or quietly confiding the star's painful childhood, Williams glides from glamour to vulnerability with believable and captivating ease. Her performance combines the iconic persona with a constant underpinning of reality, leading to a multifaceted portrayal that is as recognizable as it is multidimensional and fascinating.
For this performance, Michelle Williams has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and a Film Independent Spirit Award. She was nominated for SAG Awards in 2003 as a member of the ensemble of "The Station Agent" and in 2006 individually and as a member of the "Brokeback Mountain" ensemble.
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh, "My Week With Marilyn"
Considering the numerous and long-standing comparisons made between Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier, it feels only fitting that the versatile and renowned British actor should bring his artistic predecessor to life onscreen. Furthermore, given Branagh's lengthy and excellent career, it's little surprise that the man who has embodied characters ranging from Hamlet to Gilderoy Lockhart (in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") should do such a pitch-perfect job with Olivier.
In "My Week With Marilyn," Olivier finds little but headaches after Marilyn Monroe (a glowing Michelle Williams, also nominated for a SAG Award) comes to England to star with him in the ironically lighthearted film "The Prince and the Showgirl." The production is fraught with difficulty, as Olivier's classical approach clashes head-on with the newer, Method tactics of the capricious and oft-delicate Monroe. Olivier gets some reprieve after his leading lady questionably befriends a lesser member of the production staff, but he must acknowledge that as difficult as she is to work with, she may be a star well worth the trouble.
Branagh pinpoints the iconic Olivier and delivers a performance that sheds equal light on his talent and his intensity. Swiftly moving from funny to ferocious, Olivier is full of life and an admirable match for Monroe. His exasperation with her process creates electricity between the two, and even as the conflict between old and new, English and American, causes his irritation to bubble over, it is captivating. Branagh's own talents are displayed full-force as he creates a character both true to a familiar image and illustrative of what lies beneath.
For this performance, Kenneth Branagh is also nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 1996 for "Othello" and in 2006 for "Warm Springs."
Armie Hammer, "J. Edgar"
Leonardo DiCaprio may have the plum title role in director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black's biopic "J. Edgar," but the film relies on Armie Hammer—as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's inseparable right-hand man and likely longtime lover, Clyde Tolson—for its subtext and its soul. The love that dare not speak its name suffuses scene after scene between the two men, ever present in Hammer's adoring eyes, whether they're shining out of an impossibly handsome and youthful face or penetrating a somewhat artificial, eight-hour old-age makeup job.
Hammer is equally adept at capturing Tolson's unthinking acceptance of his privileged place in an America still ruled by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, which explains his conservatism and conventionality and provides the necessary frisson of tension between those values and his forbidden feelings for Hoover that drive the film. That tension explodes only once, in the film's centerpiece scene, in which the two men give voice for the one and only time to the true nature of their relationship, after Hoover floats the idea of acquiring a Mrs. Hoover. In the hotel suite they share, Hammer's Tolson goes from zero to 60 in the face of such imminent betrayal, full of deeply wounded loyalty, savage need, and naked desperation. The shocking violence that results feels horribly human and absolutely right, even though the scene is, of necessity, a speculation.
It's also terribly moving, thoroughly conveying the wasteful and warping damage that society has done through its blind bigotry against two formidable men who might have left a very different legacy if allowed to be who they were.
Armie Hammer was nominated for a SAG Award in 2011 as a member of the ensemble of "The Social Network."
Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
The role of Peter Brand in "Moneyball" is deceptively important. At first glance, Brand serves mainly to move the plot along: to introduce Brad Pitt's Billy Beane to the underground geek world of baseball sabermetrics, then to serve as his guiding voice, comic foil, and sounding board. But just as Pitt must make the audience connect with a privileged dude who has one of the coolest jobs in the world—general manager of a major league ballclub, a dream gig for millions, even if that club is the Oakland Athletics—Hill must bring life to a guy whose distinguishing characteristics are a love of stats and a tendency to be very quiet in group settings. "Superbad" this is not.
Anyone who was surprised by Hill's turn in "Moneyball" missed 2010's "Cyrus," a dark comedy in which Hill, as the title character, moves gracefully back and forth between spoiled brat and wounded child in need of protection from the world. The guy's chops have been evident to anyone paying attention. This is just a case of the right actor in the right role at the right moment.
Playing Beane, Pitt rightly never forgets that his character is an ex-jock. Brand, a nerd for life, is the other side of that coin, but Hill plays him in a similar way. No matter how much success he finds alongside Beane, no matter how well he acclimates to life as a boss in a big-league clubhouse, he is an outsider. That's why the audience embraces him—because we are, like Brand, outsiders invited in for a look around.
For this performance, Jonah Hill has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Nick Nolte turned 70 this year, which might surprise people for a variety of reasons. To gaze upon his craggy, careworn visage is to know the truth of Camus' famous line "After a certain age, every man is responsible for his own face."
In "Warrior," Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, the estranged alcoholic father of brothers Tommy and Brendan, played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton respectively. In the opening scene, Tommy shows up on Paddy's doorstep, fresh from a tour in Iraq and keen to confront him about his past. The viewer understands quickly that Paddy has much to atone for. Each cutting remark, each slight Tommy directs toward his father lands on Nolte's face like a slap, and he accepts each with only minimal complaint. Like the Cybelene priests who whipped themselves bloody, Paddy accepts each barb as a necessary penance for his past sins.
Later, when Tommy's rebuffs and insults finally drive Paddy back to the bottle, Nolte turns in one of the most heart-rending scenes in cinema this year, tearfully pleading with Captain Ahab to "stop the ship" as he leads the Pequod into ever more remote waters in search of the white whale (Paddy has been listening to "Moby Dick" on tape throughout the film). "Warrior" director Gavin O'Connor referred to Nolte as a "national treasure," and it's easy to see why after watching this performance.
Nick Nolte was nominated for SAG Awards in 1999 for "Affliction" and in 2005 as a member of the ensemble of "Hotel Rwanda."
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Mike Mills' nonlinear, autobiographical indie film, whose story plays out simultaneously in three time frames while employing minimal dialogue and lots of visual subtext, definitely needed something to anchor it. Mills found that something in Christopher Plummer's stellar work as Hal, a 75-year-old man who comes out as gay to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), after the death of his longtime spouse (and Oliver's mother) from cancer. Hal plunges into a celebration of his sexuality and finds a lover, only to suddenly also face cancer, which cuts his newfound happiness and freedom mercilessly short.
Mills is more interested in the unmarried Oliver's difficulties with emotional commitment and how they are affected by his relationships with his father and late mother than he is in Hal's story, but Plummer's vivid portrait—joyous, unsentimental, rigorously honest, completely devoid of self-pity—commands attention even when he is not onscreen. A great stage actor of bravura technique thoroughly at home in Shakespearean and other classical roles, Plummer is also a master of the kind of emotional minimalism that the camera requires, conveying his character as much through facial expression and physicality as through spoken lines.
As he told Back Stage in a recent interview, "Movies are great when the writer knows how not to write and lets silence take over. Movies really should have as little dialogue as possible." For Plummer, silence has been golden.
For this performance, Christopher Plummer won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, a National Board of Review Award, and a Gotham Award as a member of the film's ensemble. He is also nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe Award. He was nominated for SAG Awards in 2002 as a member of the ensemble of "A Beautiful Mind," in 2006 for "Our Fathers," and in 2010 for "The Last Station."
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo, "The Artist"
Despite being the wife of director Michel Hazanavicius, Bérénice Bejo was an inspired choice to play the youthful and spirited love interest in "The Artist," a black-and-white silent film set in the era of black-and-white silent films. The Argentine-born French actor is the fully realized embodiment of Peppy Miller, an eager starlet whose ambition is to be in pictures. At the outset, Peppy is wonderfully naive, trusting, and adoring, especially in relationship to matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). But as her fortunes change and she becomes a star, she matures and, instead of growing aloof and self-satisfied, becomes compassionate, empathic, and wise beyond her years.
As talkies take over and George finds himself unemployable and impoverished, Peppy is desperate to help him but knows she must do it discreetly. When he is forced to auction off his belongings, she gives her servants the funds to purchase them at the highest possible bid. She's thrilled to be storing his prized possessions and even more satisfied in having shielded his feelings. In her evolving relationship with George, she is every bit the morale booster, cheering him on and encouraging him as she tries to land him auditions. At one point, she even attempts to blackmail a studio head (John Goodman) on George's behalf, and she finally becomes his career savior when she partners with him in a dance number.
The film's dramatic elements notwithstanding, Bejo is a fine comic actor, capturing the style, tone, and rhythm of silent films.
For this performance, Bérénice Bejo has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She is also nominated for a SAG Award as a member of the ensemble of "The Artist."
Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
In 2011, it was Jessica Chastain's world and the rest of us were just living in it. She gave outstanding performances in no fewer than six films, creating distinct and memorable women in each. The childlike mother in "The Tree of Life" was nothing like the Mossad agent in "The Debt." She also brought to life a tough-as-nails detective in "Texas Killing Fields," a concerned wife in "Take Shelter," and a conflicted military spouse in Ralph Fiennes' updating of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."
But she is nominated for a SAG Award for her funny and touching portrait of the socially inept, slightly trashy, but ultimately adorable newlywed Celia Foote in the hit adaptation of "The Help." In a cast of powerful performers such as Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Allison Janney, Chastain manages to hold her own and even steal a few scenes.
When the snooty ladies of her small Southern town coldly reject Celia's attempts to join their select circle, Chastain skillfully imparts the character's hurt feelings and the brave front she puts up to hide them. Celia could have easily been played as a comic caricature of a dumb blond, but Chastain gives her a loving heart and a fiery spirit.
For this performance, Jessica Chastain won a New York Film Critics Circle Award (she was also cited for her work in "Take Shelter" and "The Tree of Life") and a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award (for all six of her 2011 films) and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She is also nominated for a SAG Award as a member of the ensemble of "The Help."
Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"
At this point last year, Melissa McCarthy's brand-new CBS sitcom, "Mike & Molly," was just finishing its initial 13-episode run (it had been picked up for a full season in October) and "Bridesmaids" was still five months from being released in theaters. If you'd never heard of her, you wouldn't have been alone. But this year, if you don't know who Melissa McCarthy is, you are very lonely indeed.
To call her performance in "Bridesmaids" a breakout would be selling her short. She plays Megan, the crass, brassy, soon-to-be sister-in-law of Maya Rudolph's Lillian. Plying her trade among a formidable lineup of comedic talent—including Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Ellie Kemper—McCarthy manages to turn in the film's most unforgettable performance. In one scene, she shamelessly throws herself at a fellow airline passenger (played by her real-life husband, Ben Falcone), tossing out lines that would make a stripper clutch her pearls. And few sights were funnier or more charming last year than McCarthy giddily driving off with a van full of puppies.
But perhaps her most memorable scene takes place in the bathroom of a bridal salon, where, after an ill-advised, pre-fitting meal, the entire bridal party runs into some intestinal issues, at which point Megan seeks release atop the only unoccupied piece of porcelain: the sink. Probably a first for the SAG Awards: a nomination based at least in part on how hilariously an actor can fake an attack of explosive diarrhea, but well-deserved all the same.
For this performance, Melissa McCarthy is also nominated for a SAG Award as a member of the "Bridesmaids" ensemble.
Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
In filmdom, the hero often needs a strong shoulder to lean on. In the case of Glenn Close's near-to-her-heart project "Albert Nobbs," Albert's bosom buddy is Hubert. And, we're sorry to spoil the surprise, but Hubert is played with great cheer, wisdom, and skilled physicality by Janet McTeer.
The British actor can regally play a monarch (Mary Stuart on Broadway), a chancellor of the exchequer ("The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard"), and an Austenian matriarch ("Sense and Sensibility"). But here she turns her ample talents to limning a low-status woman forced by 19th-century Irish culture to live as a man. Not content merely to deepen her voice, assume a plodding walk, and sit with splayed legs, McTeer delves into the inner life of a woman handyman who turns a quick paint job into a relatively lucrative gig at the hotel where Nobbs (Close) works as a butler. Forced to share a bed one night, the two women discover each other's secret identity—Albert feeling terror-struck, Hubert thoroughly relishing the chance to open Albert to new possibilities.
The role is splashier than Close's, but the work is as detailed, charming, and heart-rending. Hubert has grown content with her outer shell and with finding companionship in another woman after having been brutalized by her husband, reflected in McTeer's imperceptible prosthetic "broken" nose. McTeer is vibrant in her every scene, creating a powerful presence much needed at this frightening time of Albert's life. And though Hubert is blue-collar, McTeer is once again a magnificent queen.
For this performance, Janet McTeer has also been nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe Award. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2000 for "Tumbleweeds."
Octavia Spencer, "The Help"
If there is a feel-good story this awards season, it would have to be Octavia Spencer, who, until getting cast as the strong-willed Minny Jackson in the film adaptation of "The Help," was Hollywood's best-kept secret and a gem in smaller supporting parts. Spencer has long been a scene stealer ("Bad Santa," anyone?), but here she takes it up a notch and has some of the best moments in the film, opposite Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Sissy Spacek.
In one of the funniest scenes, Minny delivers a special homemade pie to the despicable Hilly Holbrook (Howard), the employer who unfairly fired her. It's a great moment in the book but an even better one onscreen, thanks to Spencer's deadpan delivery. Though a gifted comedic actor, Spencer proves to be much more in this film, as the scenes depicting Minny's difficult home life are likewise superbly played.
Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the novel "The Help," and Tate Taylor, who wrote and directed the film, were personal friends of Spencer before this project came her way. Some have even speculated that Minny is based on Spencer, something the actor denies. "That would be a disservice to Kathryn, who built this amazing character," she told Back Stage. But Spencer and Minny have things in common, she added. "I say it jokingly, but it's true: Minny is short and round; I am short and round. Minny speaks her mind all the time; I don't have a problem speaking my mind." Regardless, this role fits Spencer like a glove and has catapulted her to the next level in her career.
For this performance, Octavia Spencer has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. She is also nominated for a SAG Award as a member of the ensemble of "The Help."
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
In "The Artist," an imaginative silent film about the world of silent films and their decline as talkies become the trend, the ensemble acting is unforgettable. The actors work together beautifully to create just the right mix of melodrama, romance, and comedy, which meshes brilliantly with the silent-film conventions. The performances, especially from leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, are uncanny and nuanced. Without dialogue that can be heard—though we see the actors talking—two layers of acting are in operation: the theatrically heightened performances of actors playing actors in front of the camera and the more realistic scenes in which actors play actors interacting among themselves. But the latter sections still subtly suggest silent-film conventions.
As the silent-film star Valentin, Dujardin is sensitive and appealing as his character contends with a Hollywood that has abandoned him for actors who can talk. Bejo is splendid as a young actor on the make who's happily floored by her burgeoning career, wealth, and status but who cannot ignore the plight of her beloved mentor. Playing a bombastic producer, John Goodman is spot-on, as is James Cromwell as Valentin's loyal driver, whose stiff reserve belies genuine affection for his employer. Penelope Ann Miller is convincing as the star's beleaguered wife, who comes to understand that she's redundant in her marriage and refuses to tolerate it any further. The interactions among all the characters are touchingly and comically vivid and alive.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are also individually nominated.
Who says women aren't funny? The diversely talented cast of "Bridesmaids" certainly put that misogynistic rumor to bed with its $288 million international box office gross, replacing "Sex and the City" as the top R-rated female comedy of all time. But don't let the title fool you. The film doesn't resort to romantic-comedy clichés, and producer Judd Apatow (of "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" fame) infuses just as much gross-out humor as he does with the boys. "Saturday Night Live" star Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the screenplay, leads the ensemble as lost 30-something Annie, who hits bottom after her cake business goes bankrupt. When her childhood best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be her maid of honor, Annie is joined by a ragtag gang of misfit bridesmaids on a series of pre-wedding misadventures.
The chemistry of this talented cast makes the movie's humor work so well. Rose Byrne makes spoiled rich socialite Helen entirely detestable yet also relatable. Ellie Kemper is bright-eyed as the naive newlywed Becca, and Wendi McLendon-Covey is hilarious as Rita, the sex-crazed mother of three boys. Rudolph is surprisingly subtle as Lillian and shares a great onscreen connection with Wiig. Melissa McCarthy delivers the performance of a lifetime as Megan, the groom's vulgar and lovable sister, and she steals every scene she's in. Jill Clayburgh provides wonderfully dry humor as Annie's mom. Adding a little testosterone to the mix, Chris O'Dowd delivers a breakthrough performance as the charming Officer Rhodes, who pursues Annie despite her insecurities, and Matt Lucas is entertaining as her boundaries-challenged British roommate.
Ultimately, this brilliant cast takes a group of contrasting characters and accentuates their best and worst characteristics to create one of the funniest movies of the year.
Melissa McCarthy is also individually nominated.
"The Descendants" is a family drama with comic elements that gives most of its actors, even those in small roles, the chance to shine. Some have limited screen time—sometimes only one or two scenes—but the acting is so three-dimensional, the scenes have impact. At the center of the Alexander Payne film is George Clooney as a complex man who finds himself responsible for two young daughters after his wife endures a terrible accident and is placed on life support. Clooney's self-absorbed executive is a layered figure who is forced by circumstances to become a responsible and loving father. In addition, he grows civic-minded for the first time in his life. It's a sophisticated bit of acting.
Almost as memorable is Shailene Woodley, playing an enraged teenage daughter whose ambivalent feelings toward her parents—especially her dying mother—are powerful. It is a breakthrough performance for a young actor who until recently had been identified with a family TV series, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, and Nick Krause are also standouts: Forster as the dying woman's father, who holds his son-in-law responsible yet knows he has to control his emotions; Lillard as a sleazy but guilt-ridden philanderer; Greer as the betrayed wife who abhors the dying woman and tries desperately to pretend she doesn't; Bridges as a greedy hillbilly; and Krause, at once repulsive and fetching as the ever-present, none-too-bright teenage boyfriend. The actors are splendid in merging dramatic and comic emotions that turn on a dime.
The ensemble received a Gotham Award nomination, and George Clooney is also individually nominated for a SAG Award.
When Kathryn Stockett wrote her first novel, "The Help," she gave a great gift to the women who would eventually play her characters in the Tate Taylor–directed film adaptation. Set in Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it tells the fictional, moving, sometimes funny story of an aspiring white writer named Skeeter, who sets out to document the lives of African-American maids in her community, setting off a firestorm of controversy and dialogue.
At the heart of "The Help" is Aibileen Clark, the narrator and the first black maid to agree to help Skeeter. Viola Davis shines as Aibileen, bringing strength, dignity, and emotional depth to the character. Emma Stone, though not the actor most fans of the book would have envisioned as Skeeter (based on Stockett's physical description of her), does immense justice to her role. Rounding out the outstanding cast are the scene-stealing Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's friend and fellow maid, the headstrong Minny Jackson; Jessica Chastain as the beautiful, ostracized outsider Celia Foote; Bryce Dallas Howard in a comedic turn as vindictive, racist snob Hilly Holbrook; Sissy Spacek as Hilly's aging mother; Ahna O'Reilly as Aibileen's boss and Skeeter's old friend, Elizabeth Leefolt; and Allison Janney as Skeeter's pesky but loving mom. Though there are men in supporting roles, the women of "The Help" are the driving force.
Though the set could have turned into a battle of egos, Davis told Back Stage that it was anything but that: "It was one of those dream situations," says Davis. "Usually [other actors] don't want to encourage you to do your best work, because they feel it is a reflection of what they're not doing or their failure. [But on 'The Help'] my excellence was their excellence."
Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Octavia Spencer are also individually nominated.
"Midnight in Paris"
One of the hallmarks of Woody Allen's films has been the precision of their casting. Allen and his longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor, always find the right actor to mine the maximum comedy and drama from the auteur's sometimes zany, sometimes achingly real creations. As a result, actors from big-name stars to reliable character performers clamor to be in Allen's movies. In his latest, "Midnight in Paris," a clever time-travel fantasy, the writer-director has crafted a galaxy of outlandish characters, which a magnificent and diverse cast infuse with equal parts lunacy and humanity.
The center of this wacky solar system is Owen Wilson's screenwriter Gil, who longs to relive the glamour of the French capital in its 1920s heyday. When Allen doesn't play the protagonist, the lead actor has the challenge of not sounding like a Woody stand-in, and Wilson manages to avoid this pitfall and lend his unique puppy-dog, surfer-dude sensibility to the idealistic hero. Rachel McAdams is deliciously nasty as Gil's materialistic fiancée, Inez, and Marion Cotillard is sweetly seductive as an elusive figure from the past. There are also surprises, with the usually sympathetic and smooth Michael Sheen as a pompous know-it-all and French first lady Carla Bruni as a tour guide.
But the crowning glory of "Midnight in Paris" is the colorful parade of personalities from the Roaring '20s. Kathy Bates makes a no-nonsense Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll a virile and rugged young Ernest Hemingway, Tom Hiddleston a charming and dissolute F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alison Pill a bubbly and volatile Zelda Fitzgerald, and Adrien Brody an eccentric and playful Salvador Dalí.