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Calendar Goes to The Oscars : What Sets the Best Apart from All the Rest . . . : Handicapping the winners: A review of the best actor/best actress nominees

George C. Scott once mentioned that having all the actor and actress nominees play the same role in an Oscar race would be the only way to determine who’d be best at it.

In principle, he’s right. Actors are only empowered to play parts in settings of larger intent. Does that mean Meryl Streep should be penalized because Fred Schepisi’s purpose in “A Cry in the Dark” was to expose an entire society swept up in a firestorm of vicious gossip while, in “Dangerous Liaisons,” director Stephen Frears and writer-producer Christopher Hampton focused more on individual character? Yes it does, unless there are enough Meryl militants out there to stuff the ballot boxes in favor of their diva.

That having been dutifully said, it’s time to shoulder our way in with the rest of the handicapping rabble for the only game in town this time of year.

Three things separate the great from the good in acting: technique (which is invisible when it’s really working), the capacity to project more than one quality or emotion at the same time, and the ability to convey thought. Dustin Hoffman shows the first in “Rain Man,” Jodie Foster the second in “The Accused,” and Glenn Close the third in “Dangerous Liaisons,” all to an extraordinary degree. That’s why they’re Oscar front-runners for best actor and actress.

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Hoffman made some shrewd moves before he ever stepped in front of “Rain Man’s” camera, but his most calculated was in re-conceiving some ideas about performance. Actors don’t always get stuck in habits that become mannerisms because they’re lazy; they can get tied up because they see a problem the same way over and over again. That’s why Paul Newman or Al Pacino, for example, tend to play grief or anger the same way in different movies--the emotional cue never changes.

For “Rain Man,” the story of an imported-car dealer named Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) who kidnaps his older brother (Hoffman), an autistic savant, in order to break into his $3-million trust, Hoffman studied a number of savants (people who have brilliant mental capacities in tandem with their retardation). He needed to come up with a behavioral pattern that was both true to his subject yet busy enough to hold an impenetrable character in living space.

In effect, it meant re-thinking every normal acting response, the vocabulary of gesture one builds up over the years, and finding a plausible way to keep an audience engaged with a fundamentally disconnected character. The savant challenges our notions of personality. His compulsive repetitions are an answer to terror, and whether or not the disorder is purely biological, he reminds us that our notion of reality is at bottom no more than an agreement.

“Rain Man” isn’t interested in any philosophical speculations on the notion of personality. Basically, as Martin Brest said (he’s one of the directors who preceded Barry Levinson on the job), it’s more “a story of two schmucks driving West” that comes to a predictable if ambiguous end.

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Hoffman’s folded-in, metronomic performance braced the movie’s over-easy emotions. Every device he used--the tight bird-like walk, the explosive panics, the zonked-out face with its stone blank eyes that only flickered when counting, the “uh-oh” two-note expression of dismay when something threatened an inviolate routine--added expressive notes to busy the surface of a character so intractable that he was hardly a character at all. Nor was he a hopeless case. We saw that someone locked so deep into a black hole of solitude could now and then generate a gleam of new light.

That, and the absolute rigor of Hoffman’s performance were what gave “Rain Man” its edge. One of the movie’s big scenes is when Charlie gets himself and his brother duded up to make a run at the Las Vegas tables, where they win $80,000. One of Hoffman’s earlier models for his role, a Salt Lake City man of exceptional gifts (even for a savant), was once invited to gamble in Reno and refused, saying he thought gambling was immoral. To portray a moral dimension at play beneath the light and shadow of such an ungraspable character--that would have been the real challenge. The movie took the easy way out, but Hoffman still gave a great technical performance.

“Dangerous Liaisons” begins and ends with a close-up on a face--that of Glenn Close’s Marquise de Merteuil--and therein lies the tale. The setting is the ancient regime at its most sumptuous and overripe, and the face the marquise first contemplates for us in her mirror is poised, pampered, ironic, and immensely pleased with itself.

The marquise is a consummate sexual tactician who, spurned by her lover, enlists the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a rake of no small talents himself (he looks at women like a lepidopterist fingering his pin), to exact an exquisitely plotted revenge--Valmont will deflower the lover’s convent-bred fiancee.

The marquise possesses the kind of monumental pride in which every pain and slight she’s ever suffered has been permanently chipped. “Liaisons” openly gives us her rationale when she tells Valmont: “I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own. I learned detachment. I became a virtuoso of deceit. In the end I distilled everything to one principle: Win or die.” She consoles the fallen virgin with a bit of incalculable bitterness drawn like a smelling salt from her silken past: “You’ll find the shame is like the pain. You only feel it once.”

There is no point at which Close is out of touch with the marquise’s capacity for feline Mandarin intrigue, even while the messy implications of love and death swell around her like a bloodstain on a carpet. We see it in the way she plays Valmont, turning ever so slightly away from his profferred kiss, bemusedly trailing innuendo and seductive promise behind her like the smell of perfume. The angle of her jaw is majestically uptilted. Her fond eyes don’t miss a trick.

At a vocal recital she catches the way Valmont looks at Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman who had interested him at first only as a challenge. In an instant she understands how much he loves her. When the marquise offers her cheek for a genteel kiss, a small adjustment in the eyes tells us how much she loves him, or wants to possess him, which may in her mind amount to the same thing.

On the surface, Close’s performance is suavely in keeping with “Dangerous Liaison’s” elegant ambiance and literate dialogue. But most of what we see going on inside of the marquise is owed to her wordless expressiveness. And she gets to play the sine qua non of any best-actress performance, the enraged trashing of a dressing room. When, at the end, she angrily strips her face of not only its makeup but its affectation, we see the sour, pulpy mask of a harridan. In an instant she’s transformed into a ruin.

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That Malkovich, who is every bit her equal in this movie, wasn’t nominated for anything, is one of the more egregious examples of the academy’s capacity for dumb logic, which in this case is no logic at all.

Jodie Foster single-handedly raises “The Accused” from a movie-of-the-week banality into something far more compelling--at least for as long as she’s on the screen. She plays Sarah, a young fast-food waitress in a Pacific Northwest town who’s spinning her wheels toward a dead-end life, a crusty, hard-drinking woman who may not have made it out of high school and for whom any amenity, and any degree of real affection, is taken in meager scraps. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke in her lank hair.

That she’s a bit of a hard case makes her a dubious witness for her own defense after she’s been gang-raped in a roadside saloon. The rapists have been arrested, but the law has nodded to their plea bargains and turned indifferent toward her.

Foster gives us three Sarahs: a raucous, sensual good-time girl before the rape; a frightened, wounded, combative animal afterwards for as long as the state keeps her filed away; and finally, a woman who’s been struggling for a kind of decency all along and sees the effort redeemed.

Foster’s Sarah is a woman who’s out for revenge not just for revenge’s sake (which a lesser artist would have been satisfied doing) but because the rape, and her treatment at the hands of all those people who were supposed to aid her and prosecute her case--in a word, society--threaten to trash her fragile self-esteem. The case brings into focus something she’s been trying to clarify for a long time--she doesn’t want to be any kind of victim.

Foster’s defensively hunched shoulders, her defiant, embittered mouth, her startled, almost feral eyes are only some of the many tense and articulate expressions she brings to a character capable of great rage and a guarded tenderness. And there isn’t an ounce of self-pity in the performance.

In one scene she’s seated at a small table with the district attorney (Kelly McGillis) who has been handling her case. All she has to offer in her gratitude is a home-made horoscope chart, which she believes in but knows the attorney thinks is ridiculous. As she offers it her body tightens, anticipating a rebuke, and her face looks hopeful, eager, taut and defensive all at once. A very young person’s naked face peering through a crust. It’s an eloquent expression of someone risking a wound in the desire for a trust, and you understand why McGillis won’t turn her away. That would be criminal.

This is the year of the performer inasmuch as most of the nominees have turned in truly first-rate work, but for a variety of reasons the rest of the pack will probably follow in the vote.

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Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” Sigourney Weaver in “Gorillas in the Mist” and Meryl Streep in “A Cry in the Dark” face a common dilemma: Each of these movies is about real people. Perhaps from fear of lawsuits, or of offending relatives, or, for that matter, the living subject, true-story movies tend to return shallow characters. It’s as though history offers a sparse backlight where fiction frees the artist to jiggle what spotlights he needs to probe the heart of a matter.

Or else character is incidental to another concern. In his sunken-chested pedagogical shuffle (reminiscent of a younger Andres Segovia), alert humor, and heavy man-with-a-mission single-mindedness, Olmos’ portrayal of Jaime Escalante is vivid and supple (Escalante is the math teacher who taught calculus to Garfield High students when nobody thought it could be done). And he plays the best heart attack scene since Oscar Werner crumpled to the deck in “Ship of Fools” (Olmos’ body seizes up in sections as its center collapses). But “Stand and Deliver” is a heroic civics lesson movie in which roles are conceived as symbols, either of uplift or of uplift’s Lex Luthor detractors.

So, in its way, is “Gorillas in the Mist,” the movie about how Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey saved the day for the Central African mountain gorilla at the expense of her life. Sigourney’s scenes with the gorillas have an engaging, almost rapt intimacy, and her great physical presence always holds the eye. Statuesque might be a better word, as it implies the absence of a psychological interior that extends beyond compulsion and becomes shrouded here in the incense of movie martyrdom.

Streep has never been subtler and more complete than she is in her role as Lindy Chamberlain in “A Cry in the Dark,” the story of the Australian mother and wife of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister whose 9-week-old baby was carried away by a dingo while they were on a camping trip. The 1980 incident became a phenomenal magnet for Australia’s tabloid-fed blood-lust for gossip, the kind of tragedy that in this country could be blown into an instant media conflagration too if conditions were right, say on a slow news day.

Streep’s Chamberlain is an even-tempered, good-natured, somewhat dowdy woman of remarkable patience and reserve who digs into a prideful and angry silence as the lynch-mob frenzy gathers around her. As the outcry over her case guaranteed a murder charge and conviction, you began to think of Meursault in Camus’ “The Stranger,” whose pride was in resisting “the imprecations of the mob.”

Unfortunately (for the performance), “A Cry in the Dark’s” preoccupation is with the question of how an ostensibly civilized modern society can become so ravenous and unhinged, and how ordinary lives can be ruined by mercilessly capricious news media. We’re deprived of the one or two scenes, after she’s been forsaken by everyone (including her husband), that could have left us alone with her for a few memorable minutes. Maybe their absence is director and co-writer Fred Schepisi’s way of saying enough is enough. A note at the end tells us she was finally acquitted in September of 1987 and that the Chamberlains are still in the process of restoring their lives.

Of the remaining performances, Max von Sydow offers a quietly heart-rending portrayal of a timorous, self-effacing widower who emigrates to Denmark with his young son in “Pelle the Conqueror.” Von Sydow is a stable hand on an awful brutish estate aptly named Stone Farm. What his son Pelle will one day conquer is the New World--America. Von Sydow’s performance is the opposite of sentimental and declamatory, but the muck on his diffident ruddy face does nothing to obscure the glow of tribute to parents who drove themselves to death for the future of their children. “Pelle the Conqueror” is a rough Millet-like pastorale. The academy almost never awards a performance that lacks a Big Scene.

Tom Hanks’ faun-like head and his rare penchant for slapstick serve him well in “Big.” He abandons himself to the world of childhood with amazing dexterity, showing us a kid’s floppy coordination, his capacity for boneless languor, his goofy, enthusiastic outbursts and his wariness in the face of adults. “Big” is well acted by everyone in it, but the shotgun marriage between naturalism and the Peter Pan principle doesn’t quite take. No chance. Besides, Hanks’ role in “Punchline” showed a potential for genius, which means he’ll be up again sometime.

Gene Hackman’s prophetic grin through the early part of “Mississippi Burning” almost insures that at some point his good ‘ol boy mask will be ripped off and Popeye the Avenger will once again emerge. Hackman is one of our great actors and is as thoughtful as he can be here, but he has little to work with in this self-righteous movie, with its distorted view of the civil rights movement and its leering fixation on violence.

Melanie Griffith is the one performer whose nomination, for “Working Girl,” is based on pure likability. With a wispy nymphet voice and sleepy demeanor, she plays the role like an afterthought. She’s this year’s Sally Field, without the spunk.

Who’ll win? If you haven’t already guessed, the bet here is on Hoffman and Close.


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