We’re less than two weeks away from the Oscars, and that means it’s once again time for my favorite activity: griping about the past!
One of my biggest Oscar pet peeves is when actors who portray real-life roles garner more attention — for no good reason — than actors who portray fictional characters. The Academy has long been too pleased with big-named thespians who prove they can imitate recognizable figures. Sometimes the attention is justified (Sean Penn in Milk and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose come to mind), but often real-life roles become filler nominees in the supporting categories. Here are nine examples of Oscar-nominated performances that caught fire with the academy simply for being based on a known personality.
1. Jason Robards as Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard
Melvin and Howard is a movie that teaches you to appreciate its examination of a Utah man’s humdrum lower-middle-class existence, but there isn’t much to mine in Jason Robards’ two scenes as a bedraggled version of latter-day Howard Hughes, who accepts a ride from passing motorist Melvin (Paul Le Mat). This movie is simply not about Howard Hughes, even though Melvin makes a name for himself by claiming they had a connection. Robards’ performance has its funny moments, but it’s too insignificant a role to warrant more response than a light guffaw.
2. Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in The King’s Speech
I know full well that Helena Bonham Carter is one of the (perhaps underrated) greats of our time: She’s as much a commanding lead actress as she is a wacky supporting actress, and her grace and intelligence deepen all of her performances. But in The King’s Speech, HBC is just a doting and docile version of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother who comforts the nervous King George VI. I remember HBC giving him a hug at one point and thinking later that her role never got more difficult than that. Hmph!
3. Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn
Who will ever watch this movie again? It’s about a boring, privileged guy (Eddie Redmayne) who found himself hanging out with Marilyn Monroe for a couple days. That’s it. It’s a perfectly inessential biopic, and while Michelle Williams works her ass off to recreate Marilyn’s fragility and nerve, Kenneth Branagh merely sneers about her unprofessionalism as Laurence Olivier, who just happens to be Branagh’s own personal hero. That connection is cute, but there’s nothing particularly standout about Olivier as a character. He’s a cliched harried director here, not an Oscar-worthy artiste. Julia Ormond, on the other hand, is downright fabulous as the formidably fragile Vivien Leigh.
4. Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett in Julia
Poor Jason Robards. I don’t mean to drag the two-time Oscar winner through the mud here, but what purpose did Dashiell Hammett serve in Julia? Obviously the friendship between Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda, here) and Hammett is legendary, but the movie fails in shoehorning their fraternal romance into its true concern, Hellman’s relationship with and estrangement from her childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). Robards glowers well enough and offers a pithy line about how Hellman’s newest script isn’t good enough for her own standards, but he’s not essential to the story here. Oscar voters were clearly enamored of Hammett’s cool, writerly hermitage, not Robards’ dynamite performance.
5. Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in Capote
Capote was an enjoyable biopic thanks to a mesmerizingly perfect starring performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I would pay to hear him sneer “That’s not writing, it’s typing” about Jack Kerouac all day. While Capote’s friendship in the movie with Harper Lee is notable for its underplayed sense of solidarity, nothing about Catherine Keener’s performance as the To Kill a Mockingbird author really moves the plot along or even demands attention. Catherine Keener is an admirable actress (Loved her in Please Give and her Oscar-nominated performance in Being John Malkovich), but she’s not much more than a solemn confidante to our dynamic subject.
6. Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn (Bob Dylan) in I’m Not There
I’m Not There is the worst movie in this list, hands down. If you know anything about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There definitely teaches you nothing new. It reaffirms that information and adds an unnecessary layer of intrigue to the Bob Dylan timeline, and you’re left to wonder how the folk legend’s countless personas cohere. While Cate Blanchett gives the film’s showiest performance as Dylan (compared to Richard Gere and Christian Bale, anyway), her imitation is merely amusing, not revelatory. Was there anybody who doubted that Cate Blanchett could do anything? Because this performance is merely a party trick for a woman who routinely brings intelligence, gravitas, and boldness to the big screen. (I’m also not a fan of Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance as KATHAREHN HEP-BUHN!, but this nomination was a more puzzling situation.)
7. Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show
How did Paul Scofield, who plays a very small, jocular part as the literary father of scandalous game show champ Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), score a Best Supporting Actor nomination over Fiennes, who was believably brilliant, white-collar, morally confounded, nervous, contemptible, gorgeous, and altogether a more salient supporting character as the infamous Twenty-One contestant? Scofield’s not given enough to do to warrant an Oscar nomination. He doesn’t stand out from other esteemed father figures in movies aside from his famous name (Mark Van Doren was a noted poet) and intelligence.
8. Jon Voight as Howard Cosell in Ali
If you’re going to ham it up as a famous person with a nutty voice, at least do it well. In Ali, Jon Voight sends up Howard Cosell with a stiff impersonation and doesn’t even stick around long enough in the movie to get us used to his technique. He’s in this movie for such a shockingly small amount of time that you wonder if most of his scenes were simply cut from the film. Making matters worse, his makeup is horrifying.
9. Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side
It’s hard to include Best Actor/Best Actress-nominated performances on this list since they’re obviously essential to the plot of their films, but I’ll make an exception for Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the semi-tough-talking interior designer who adopts and raises a foster care boy who would eventually become a professional football player. Sandra Bullock’s Oscar campaign was such an unstoppable blitzkrieg, and the only reason she justified Oscar attention in the first place was by portraying a real-life woman and, I guess, seeming sincere about it. I love Sandy in Gravity, but this is one Best Actress win that will forever confound me.
Have any to add? Throw ’em down.