EBFS (like Wolfe and Steinbeck) is a sucker for the flawed American male. We are therefore anticipating great things from Michael Shannon in Take Shelter out this week. Shannon plays a blue collar worker cursed with visions of an apocalyptic event who develops a sort of Noah complex. This got EBFS thinking of our favourite male leads of the last twenty years or so. To qualify, the role had to be American (and flawed), had to be in drama (out and out comedy is too nuanced, requiring a different set of skills, like not being Sean Penn) and had to be neither Michael Douglas nor Edward Norton who play nothing but the flawed American male. This means no place for the Narrator in Fight Club or Gordon Gekkon but well, it’s our list.
Also ineligible were Oscar Bait like Rainman and whatever that guy in Beautiful Mind was. First because they are slightly more than flawed and secondly (mainly) because they are really annoying. So no As Good As It Gets either and I think we can all be grateful for that. So on we go to…….
Russel Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider.
Mchael Mann’s bluest film, just beating Heat and Collateral, is essentially a two header with Pacino trying to get Crowe to go public with his knowledge of the immoral practices of big tobacco. Crowe plays Wigand, a paunchy, middle aged, greying, scientist who’s thrown away his ideals to take money from the most unethical of employers.Crowe achieves this by putting on weight, wearing a wig (close to cheating, “Just act old” as George Roy Hill said) and speaking softly. His promise displayed in L.A. Confidential comes beautifully to fruition here, whilst Bud White was a one dimensional, repressed thug, Wigand is a classic contempary male figure. He’s torn between doing what’s right and providing for his family. Crowe cuts a forlorn, nervous figure, shuffling with his weight, both physical and of his situation. Crowe is helped by Pacino in full on scenery eating, fear of god, pants soiling mode. This makes Wigand seem normal and damaged, all Crowe’s little nuances and tics fade into the background of an almost operatic performance from Pacino. Crowe makes an overlong film full of potentially boring situations fly by by injecting the audience with that most rare commodity, giving a shit. Crowe was beaten by Spacey in American Beauty for the Oscar.
Ryan Nelson as Dan Dunne in Half Nelson.
Half Nelson might be the best American Indie of the 00’s (not the noughties, ever) and it contains at it’s core a delicate, real, sad/funny performance from Ryan Gosling. Gosling is aided by a brilliant screenplay that shoulders a lot of the emotional heft of the story through superb structure and clever visual explanations. Watch the opening scene where Gosling’s alarm goes off and he’s still awake in the lounge and witness a great picture;thousand words thing going on. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, an unconventional teacher who also has an unhealthy cocaine habit, he befriends one of his pupils (Shareeka Epps) and their relationship is complicated by their mutual connection to a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie). Gosling, a naturalistic actor if ever there was one, underplays Dunne to superb effect. He’s less noticeable than the excellent score by Broken Social Scene and the Jerky, bad documentary camera work used. This works brilliantly, making the film seem like a window into reality. For the record, Gosling lost the Oscar to Forrest Whitaker shouting with an accent as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
This is the most unnappealing and yet fascinating of performances. High pitched, overly nuanced, self concious and creepy, Robert Ford just wants to be loved. Giving away the end of the film in the title seldom works but Andrew Dominik’s revisionist western keeps going and going until it becomes interesting all over again. Casey Affleck might yet become the most difficult of stars and his style may quickly fall into repetative parody but here he’s fresh, unique and brilliant. The very opposite of Gosling’s subtle turn, Robert Ford dominates every scene he’s in through sheer weasling, snivelling, pathetic adoration. Brad Pitt and Jeremy Renner’s admirable turns barely register in the memory. All that’s left in the mind’s eye are Affleck’s pale teeth, milky eyes and juddering delivery of line after line of almost prose like dialogue. Affleck didn’t even register on the Academy’s radar and wasn’t even nominated. He now makes unintelligible, joke films about fellow actors. Do you see what you’ve done Academy members?
So there you go. Three searing, very different performances of American men by very different actors in very different films. Michael Shannon has a lot to live up to.
Just so you know, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Morgan Freeman in Seven (acting without moving) and John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank were very high up in our considerations and will, we’re sure, be gutted on missing out on a brief profiling here.