59th ACADEMY AWARDS : ROLECALL : Rating the Best Actor Nominees

No fair movie was ever made great by mediocre acting, and many forgettable vehicles have been distinguished by the actor or actress who has found a memorable way to make us feel a little less lonely in the dark.

This year's Academy Awards crop is a sterling example--only three represent a serious or penetrating view of human experience. The rest are either genre pieces or premise movies that fizzle. The following, in no special order except for that of saving the best for last, is a critical rundown of these actors in their roles, or, to put it another way, an assessment of the hand we've been dealt this year.

Sir Laurence Olivier once defined mannerisms as the cushion by which an actor protects himself from self-consciousness, and cautioned that over a period of time an accumulation of 25 or 30 of them will seriously box an actor in. A paradox of Paul Newman's career is that, with a few luminous moments excepted (such as the schoolyard scene in "The Verdict," when his desperate character looked as though he would genuinely lose his mind if he didn't get an answer he needed), Newman has remained one of our most appealing stars long after becoming one of our most mannered actors.

I began believing him less after the scene in "The Hustler" when Newman's Eddie Felson returns to his hotel to find that his lover, played by Piper Laurie, has committed suicide, at which point he kneels keeningly over her body. It was a gesture earlier used by Marlon Brando over the fallen body of Anthony Quinn in "Viva Zapata," an invention so apt and moving at the time that no one else would be able to use it to similar effect again.

While it's true that great artists can also be unconscionable thieves, Newman has been borrowing from himself for so long now that he's operating under the law of diminishing returns (he's played that death scene the same way more than once, for example). Though he appears suspiciously distinguished-looking as Eddie Felson redux in "The Color of Money" (Eddie's lifelong curse is that his big-time talent is at odds with a small-time character), the early portion of the movie is sustained by Newman's exuberant, stylish confidence (and an old acting pro's lessons in the art for the young comer, Tom Cruise).

But he eventually runs out of tricks to animate Eddie. By the time he has his emotional breakdown scene in front of Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the sobbing and gesturing appears so calculated that you can't tell whether he's hustling them or hustling us with old personalized Newman shtick. As his performance hollows out, the last half of the movie seems largely an appreciation of how great he looks in eyeglasses. That at least is what we're left with--affectionate shots of one of the most engaging faces in the history of movies. But when Newman ends with the line "I'm back," the Fast Eddie shuffle has played itself out so long ago that one wonders, "Back where?"

The mystery of Cissy Spacek's nomination for best actress in "Crimes of the Heart" is how anyone could single out a performance that has been so keenly tuned into an ensemble effort that it can't be yanked out. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play has less comic vitality and whacked-out charm in its movie form, but it also has more psychological shading--at least in the performances of Henley's Mississippi Three Sisters. Jessica Lange is the pretty, tarty-looking Meg; Diane Keaton is the filmy spinster, Lenny; Spacek's Babe is the one in the middle who seems to regard them with a kind of mystified wonder at how the familial gene could be so radically spliced.

The appeal of Spacek's performance is in its artful deference. The camera catches her looking at her sisters as though the self-contained definition of their faces and forms and personalities contained a redemptive clue to the mystery of her own life, in which cause and effect are partially unhinged. Flashbacks are just as real to Babe as present action, and Spacek wraps every moment in the gauze of a dream-world normality--Babe shoots her husband without rancor and drinks lemonade afterward without guilt. Spacek uses a small, winsome, cat-like smile to describe a character who's been mysteriously numbed (there's no particular horror or embarrassment in her face when she's discovered in flagrante delicto with her young black lover). But this isn't a role that requires a great deal of range; the pleasure of this movie is in sneaking a look at the dynamics of three women alone together--to which Keaton and Lange contribute every bit as much as Spacek.

Vietnam has been termed America's first rock 'n' roll war, but no post-Vietnam acting performance in the movies integrated the spooked, jumpy rhythms of war-torn nerves until James Woods appeared as the Gonzo photographer Richard Boyle in "Salvador."

The jagged edges in Woods' scrambling performance form the cinematic equivalent of Michael Herr's book on Vietnam, "Dispatches," and are a reminder that while the open conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua aren't exact replicas of Vietnam, there are plenty of parallels in the juxtaposition of the horrible and the everyday, of banality and the shocking anarchy of blood.

Woods' character is a contemporary equivalent of the civilian war junkie whose nose twitches for the smell of cordite; that's where the action is, and he'll do anything to get a piece of it and sell it for a photographic souvenir to a news editor back home. Like the movie itself, the performance never settles. Woods' Boyle is almost always on the hustle for money and equipment (this isn't a character who questions anything--there's no time). But there's a comic innocence in him, too, as we see in a confessional scene where a priest casually absolves his sins, after which Woods, for once taken aback, says: "If I'd known this I'd have come sooner" (this scene is reported to have been improvised).

Another mark of superior performance is in how well Woods holds his character together through some corny philosophizing and after some crucial parts have dropped out of the transmission of "Salvador's" script. Woods is required to play changes that haven't been written in, from reveler to devoted family man, for example, and from opportunist to American patriot--difficult things to do in our Manichean age of cynicism and the factional Crusade. That he plausibly succeeds is no small task.

What would "Mona Lisa" be without Bob Hoskins? Director and co-writer Neil Jordan (with David Leland) certainly has an informed eye on London's demimonde and its pimps, hustlers, junkies and the heart-rendingly pathetic young hookers of Kings Cross, whose hard faces are lit as if by the fires of hell.

Michael Caine once again gives a masterful performance as a sleazy underworld king-pin--his florid face is bloated with corruption and the expression in his eyes is as flat and dead as a lizard's--and 20-year-old Cathy Tyson makes a shrewd and elegant screen debut as the call girl Simone, whom Hoskins is hired to chauffeur and protect.

But Hoskins is that rarety in films, an actor who has become a leading man through strength of character (which is different than wilfullness). His twerpy gait and his diffidence at the beginning of the movie is a trick to distract us from what is underneath a character with a volcanic temperament. Physically, Hoskins is of a piece; he uses his fireplug body unusually well in a medium that tends to focus on the face.

The character of Georgie is not on the surface an emotionally complicated man. But Hoskins convincingly plays Georgie's transitions, the edginess of his shifting loyalties (Georgie is a born soldier), his confusion, his humor and his capacity for tenderness as well as violence. It's an amazingly rounded performance of a character who lives close to the skin.

For a moment I disagreed with "Mona Lisa's" ending, thinking that Georgie had been so mired in his ruinous and impossible devotion to Simone that he would never recover. But then I realized that wouldn't be Georgie's fate; defeat wasn't consistent with the character Hoskins played , even though he knew, as he relays at the end, how he'd been trapped and may in some way never get over Simone. But he'd seen enough evil all along to realize that the good is where you find and cultivate it, like a small garden.

Bob Hoskins is the biggest little man on screen since Edward G. Robinson.

The evil beasties that leap screamingly out of the shadows of "Aliens' " planet Acheron and attach themselves to their hapless victims with toothsome mucilaginous glee generate enough terror-voltage to jump-start a victim of cardiac arrest.

Without the humanizing presence of Sigourney Weaver, however, "Aliens" would drift out of the realm of the terrific into the mere phantasmal. This post-feminist sci-fi horror movie could be subtitled "Battle of the Intergalactic Moms," but the strong aristocratic line of Weaver's shoulders; her neat, purposeful features; her economy of movement; and a mouth that conveys reproach, judgment and maternal warmth all combine to make her presence much more than that of a space-age Valkyrie. She lends the technological harshness of the movie's environment a female softness, and she adds to her character's tireless (and implausible) resourcefulness a big, mothering presence. It's that primal tug that makes us vulnerable to "Aliens' " effects.

To put Dexter Gordon in the running for best actor is to confuse performance with idiosyncrasy.

In " 'Round Midnight" Gordon is a character, all right, take it or leave it. His slow, splay-legged, ambling, 6-foot-5 frame, his wasted Miles Davis voice, the calculated, seductive smile (reminiscent of James Earl Jones' fool-whitey smile in "The Great White Hope"), form the distinctive screen presence of someone who has worn through his life to a point where he doesn't have to account to anybody for anything. Gordon is reported to have been in less than the best of health over the past few years; whether or not that's true, there's nothing in his performance to indicate his deep fatigue is feigned. His music is tired as well--dry, laconic and listless (if you hear the Gordon of the '60s you'll pick up the difference in an instant).

All this might not be so ponderous if director Bertrand Tavernier (with co-writer David Rayfield) had come up with a dramatic character who has something to play against, instead of presenting us with an obsessive devotional tribute to the myth of the misunderstood artist, the American jazz musician on whom expatriation has conferred living sainthood. Critic Pauline Kael was right when she said beware the French when they decide to adopt an American artist.

In Francis Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married," Kathleen Turner portrays a 43-year-old who's hurled back 25 years in time and gets to live one of life's unplayable fantasies: "What would you change if you had a chance to start out all over again?"

Turner adroitly manages an improbable balance: She has to play a high school teen-ager without sacrificing her acquired knowledge. The expressive lightness of Turner's arms, her pert, overeager smile, and her convulsive self-consciousness as young Peggy Sue show us how the world of the teen-ager is just as self-defined, passing on from generation to generation like an unbreakable bubble, as is the self-preoccupied world of younger children. And her performance is lit with the tender pleasure of being able to revisit old times and people either dead now or metamorphosed into adulthood.

The movie doesn't give her much support, however. The characters that surround her are one-dimensional types rather than dramatic complements. And adolescents do feel the shadows of adulthood and the outside world crowding their lives. By 1960, for example, the fear of Cold War nuclear technology had long ago seeped into everyday life (remember bomb shelters?). There's a difference between innocence and willful naivete; into the breach falls a very good Turner performance.

Hollywood traditionally gives high marks for lower-depths roles, symbolically canonized by Susan Hayward's drunken collapse into a cluster of garbage cans in "I'll Cry Tomorrow," which may be why Jane Fonda is up for best actress in the forgettable thriller "The Morning After."

Fonda plays Alex, an alcoholic actress long in the tooth (Fonda gives a cunning reading to the line "They were grooming me to be the new Vera Miles") in a role custom-built for the amiably crusty Sheree North. Fonda's driving performance gives the movie its charge, and is expertly assembled through a number of meticulous details: a hard whiskey voice, a strung-out Phyllis Diller look, anxiety in the eyes, a biting of the lip to convey uncertain hope.

But occasionally, in the classic set of that Fonda jaw, and in her careful diction, you caught a glimpse of the innate professional polish of a seasoned actress at work. I admired her technique to the same degree I disbelieved her character.

William Hurt is such a pure actor that he still has no signatory style. Marlee Matlin is new to us. That absence of audience identification (there's no such thing as a Hurt-type role) is one of the things that gets them off to such a vivid start in Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God." We can believe they are who they're playing.

Two magnificent performances take it from there. Hurt's James Leeds, the academically much-traveled specialist hired to teach in a school for the hearing-impaired, is a cocky newcomer with his own ideas of how to teach kids. Matlin's Sarah, a former student who now works as a school janitor, is a fiercely temperamental loner.

The performances of Hurt and Matlin sidestep the unavoidably conventional story line of woo'ed-won-lost-and-won again as well as the overearnestness of the "problem" play. It doesn't hurt that Matlin is a sharply intelligent, sensual pre-Raphaelite beauty whose actual hearing impairment has led her to develop a mime's facility for the irreducible gesture, the language within language. Nothing is out of her range; her expression has a transparent, lyrical purity one can only find in great acting, or in children.

Sarah is intractably self-contained. Hurt masks Leeds' mounting dismay with goof-ball humor; but you can see the confusion and frustration in him, the forced introspection. This movie is about a lot more than bridging the gap between someone who can hear and someone who can't. It touches on the dangerous necessity of self-surrender in love, unavoidable human separateness, and in the pool scenes, an almost mythic regard for what the body communicates all by itself.

Hurt and Matlin are with the intricacies and tacit deliberations of this story all along the way. Toward the end, after a separation, they spot each other at a party. Never in the movies has a look across a crowded room been fraught with more significance.

Who will win? The Oscars are a horse race you never handicap with certainty--you can't factor in the weight of clubhouse sentiment. For my money, it's Hoskins and Hurt in a photo finish, and Matlin home free.

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