How Good Are They?

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Can 12 months have passed since the last encounter with our no-holds-barred acting coaches? Once again, they've immersed themselves in the Oscar-nominated performances, targeting the highs--and the unexpected lows. Dramatic choices? Disconcerting tics? For the fifth year running, Janet Alhanti, Howard Fine and Larry Moss weigh in.


Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove)

Fine: Bonham Carter falls into a common trap: after reading the script, she underlines what she perceives to be her big moments--underestimating the audience and robbing each scene of its dramatic impact. She asks her lover if he's in love with her rival and, knowing the answer, projects "victim" instead of "trepidation." In "A Room With a View," she was fresh and alive. Now, she's calculated and affected.

Moss: In past roles, Bonham Carter has been refined. Here, we see her driven and sexually voracious. The actress found part of herself that was duplicitous, manipulative and completely selfish. Though she's ruthless in not sugar-coating the part, we sympathize with the character who's so torrentially sad. This is Bonham Carter's best work, and her most surprising.

Julie Christie (Afterglow)

Alhanti: This is not the kind of role a lot of actresses would have taken because it's so passive. She plays a woman so removed from her situation that she's almost an observer of her life. There's a wonderful subtlety in Christie. Beauty doesn't interfere with credibility because she never plays the looks.

Fine: An incomplete, indulgent performance that lacks dimension and spontaneity. Working off herself rather than other actors, she's saying 'look at me.' A mother devastated by the departure of her child and by failed artistic aspirations, she never lets us inside. That reflects a certain kind of British training, acting from the outside in.

Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown)

Fine: Dench has an uncanny ability to humanize royalty. At the country house, her attempt to set the table conveys a frailty and desire to fit in. The actress never postures, never plays attitude. Dench could have settled for a queen who stopped feeling when her husband died rather than a real woman longing to live again. Her chemistry with Billy Connolly is electric.

Moss: Like Joan Plowright, Dench is one of the few contemporary actresses who can play historical figures with absolute accuracy. She gives us a woman straining against the constraints of her position--not unlike Princess Diana. While we always know she's the Queen, Dench projects subtle glints of color and a surprising girlishness at times.

Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets)

Alhanti: Hunt takes the movie out of the hands of the obsessive-compulsives and sets the terms of the action. She's able to keep a straight face with Nicholson which takes a lot of discipline. In this film and others, she plays a tough cookie--it's almost as though she's afraid to express love. If it's the roles she takes on and not Hunt herself, the actress should shuffle things up.

Fine: It's great to see a comic performance nominated. Because Hunt never plays for laughs, I really cared about her. She not only holds her own against Jack Nicholson but makes Greg Kinnear's performance seem better than it is. Though she's much younger than Nicholson, she comes off like an old soul. This is the first time we get to see her range on the big screen.

Kate Winslet (Titanic)

Alhanti: A very passive, stereotypical performance in which Winslet was too old for DiCaprio. Our first encounters with her are unappealing--there's an arrogance, a shallowness to her. I never saw something build that changed her from a victim. Scarlett O'Hara was very headstrong but since we saw her vulnerability from the start, she came off much more human.

Moss: There is something slightly awkward about the way that Winslet wears her costumes--which actually works in her favor since her character is trying to escape her corseted, desperate life. Winslet is like a piece of overripe fruit. Her voluptuous face and blazing eyes give the film some humanity. She carried the romance--bringing it true passion and depth. DiCaprio seemed all energy and force.


Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting)

Fine: Many young actors posture without letting their underbelly show. Damon lets us see beneath the mask of bravado. He also avoids the trap of suggesting his character doesn't care--if he has nothing at stake, the audience has no reason to feel. Damon did a great job making the transition from writer to actor. Writers are often the worst interpreters of their work.

Moss: A wonderfully warm, likable actor, Damon seems like he just walked off the street. This is a difficult, multilayered performance. The actor not only responds to what's going on in each scene but projects the rage, pain and confusion underneath. He has the same pugnacious, underdog quality that Jimmy Cagney had.

Robert Duvall (The Apostle)

Alhanti: Duvall is so one with the role, one asks where Sonny begins and Duvall ends. His creative freedom is truly a gift. I was struck by the actor's energy. His hands clap. There's a skip to his step. Duvall lets the idea take over. There's nothing intellectual or technical about the performance which, at times, seems almost improvised.

Fine: Someone needed to pull this performance back. Unfortunately, Duvall was also the director and didn't realize that too much of a good thing is too much. He starts out interesting but soon begins to grate. Though Duvall generally brings depth to his characters, that's not the case this time. Because he never lets anything affect or surprise his preacher, we never learn more than we know early on.

Peter Fonda (Ulee's Gold)

Fine: In lesser hands, this might have been a stiff, rigid man but, like Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day," Fonda defines his character in terms of possibilities rather than limitations. We see a man longing to live rather than one who's already dead. I see a lot of Henry Fonda here, a sensitivity even when playing tough men. It takes age and wisdom to be able to expose inner feelings--I doubt Fonda could have done this before.

Moss: This is not a deeply demanding role since it only requires a few notes. But Fonda plays them beautifully. Like his father's best work, the actor simply "is." His stillness is the most powerful part of the performance. Fonda said he patterned the character--a man struggling to show love--on his father at the dinner table. Credit goes to [director] Victor Nunez: Fonda's inner life has never been mined this well.

Dustin Hoffman (Wag the Dog)

Fine: Hoffman is right on the edge of caricature here but succeeds masterfully. He doesn't just play his idea of ego but focuses on the desire for attention that propels such outrageous behavior. That understanding isn't a stretch for anyone in the business, but an actor has to be able to "own" who he really is. Because Hoffman never distances himself or judges the character, he avoids the pitfall of shtick.

Moss: Hoffman combines Hollywood slickness, hubris and infantalism and takes them to dizzying heights. He sits a little like a king, playing off the others as though they were his subjects. With deadpan delivery, he reveals those in show biz who pretend to be artists but are really hungry for power. Still, there's a human pulse underneath the hair spray--just like there was in "Tootsie."

Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets)

Alhanti: A very difficult role which, in Nicholson's hands, looks easy. He plays a romance writer, a lounge singer, a king of fetishes a hair from being legally institutionalized--and manages to do it all. Who but Nicholson could get away with being a racist, an animal mauler, a gay-basher, so blatantly unkind--and be a romantic lead, as well?

Moss: Few actors walk the line of comedy and tragedy like Nicholson. No one is as entertaining at being cruel at other people's expense. Yet we also feel his torture trying to reach out to people. This is a very chancy role: if he played it too zany, we wouldn't have believed the romance. Too dark and it would have pushed us away. Director Jim Brooks demanded great nuance from Nicholson--an actor who has phoned in a lot of roles.


Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential)

Alhanti: Basinger displays an intelligence not usually required of beautiful people. She never plays "tough" or "street-smart." This is as good as anything the actress has done--very underplayed. The tendency is to give it everything you've got: the secret is to hold back.

Fine: I'm glad Basinger avoided doing "Jessica Rabbit"--the trap most actresses fall into when playing this period. Instead of portraying her idea of a hooker or gangster's moll, she brings depth and moxie to the role. The actress gives us a woman who came to Hollywood to act and is trying to hold onto her dreams. Someone with her beauty understands what it's like to be judged from the outside.

Joan Cusack (In & Out)

Alhanti: Cusack is like Roz Russell, Eve Arden, the great comediennes of the '30s and '40s. As Kevin Kline's straight man, she displays a clumsy grace and isn't afraid to make a fool of herself. Cusack is endearing, familiar--you respect her despite the kookiness. She's one of those supporting actors that always comes through. Without her, the foundation would collapse.

Moss: Cusack has a wonderfully mobile clown face. She throws her body around, unafraid to be seen as truly aggressive. The actress is so successful in the role because we feel her sadness, just like we did with Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Cusack never comes off like a villain, though she wants what she wants--at any price.

Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting)

Alhanti: She seems older than the people she's thrown in with--and there's something arrogant and manipulative about her. Getting rejected by Damon seems more about winning than loss. Because we never get a sense of love, the audience doesn't identify. That phone call where she wipes away a tear really turned me off. Her character has never been a victim and doesn't wear it well.

Moss: Driver brings a mercurial, fresh and exotic presence which plays wonderfully against Damon's deceptively simple and direct Will. She's both cool and hot, wonderfully unpredictable. A smart actress always finds humor in the role, and Driver is wonderful at that. And there's a wonderful spontaneity to her--she's someone who likes to shock.

Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights)

Alhanti: This is as deep as Moore has gone. As a porn star, Moore starts out uncomplicated--then desperation and fragility set in. Conveying a sense of innocence in the midst of sex, drugs and a cold cruel world is no easy task. Nudity was not the challenge: If you've got a great body, it's not hard to display it. The hard part is exposing your insides.

Fine: Although Moore has a lovely, sensitive quality, this performance does not succeed. Unlike co-star Mark Wahlberg she wasn't able to create enough contrast between the bad porno actress and her work in the real-life sequences. In both, she was spacey, detached, giving bad line readings. The nomination should have gone to Heather Graham, the Roller Girl, who had more range and depth. Moore lost her way in this role.

Gloria Stuart (Titanic)

Alhanti: Stuart conveys a great sense of confidence. When the crew starts talking, she takes charge and holds center stage. Still, there was too much contrast between her and Winslet's young Rose. Winslet's character is rambunctiuous, stubborn, sophisticated. Stuart is an earthy pioneer woman--a Georgia O'Keefe. Though I loved her, "Titanic" would have been better served with a Gloria Swanson-Sunset Blvd. type.

Moss: When you're 87 years old, what you "are" speaks so loudly it's hard to hear what you're saying. And Stuart has obviously lived a very rich life. Her face is luminescent--she plays the part like she has a joyful secret. The actress was destined to play this role which is integral to film's success.


Robert Forster (Jackie Brown)

Fine: It's good to see a role that's not outwardly flashy nominated. Forster does an excellent job of making a regular Joe interesting. Forster has the same solid quality as Tommy Lee Jones--as well as the same sense of danger. I also loved the way he played with Pam Grier. It's all in his reaction to her--not in the lines.

Moss: [Quentin] Tarentino did for Forster what he did for [John] Travolta: exposing the quality actor inside. The actor plays with surprising confidence considering he hasn't been on the scene for awhile. It's hard to act a sense of decency, but the actor's much-deserved Oscar nod stems from his ability to convey true goodness. There's no vanity to his acting. What you see is what you get.

Anthony Hopkins (Amistad)

Alhanti: The trap would have been to overplay but, as John Quincy Adams, Hopkins' most dramatic moments were done very simply. Another actor might have built them into a crescendo but Hopkins was content with small notes. The actor also has a marvelous physicality. His hand mannerisms conveyed great delicacy. And as the part unfolded, he actually seemed to get younger--he was more spritely thrown into the fray.

Fine: If [co-star] Matthew McConaughey was all glasses, squints and befuddled faces, Hopkins never had a dishonest moment--he doesn't play the externals. His John Quincy Adams is complex: he doesn't suffer fools easily yet is deeply affected by the human condition. Hopkins has more going on with a glance than most actors do in a monologue. He knows who he is as a human being and has the technique to personalize his roles.

Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets)

Fine: Basically, Kinnear has two attitudes: "Poor me," and, later, "I've learned and grown." There's nothing spontaneous--and everything is always about him. When Nicholson brings him soup, the actor focuses on his own depression rather than on the surprising event. I don't know why he was nominated--and why "Mrs. Brown's" Billy Connolly or "L.A. Confidential's" Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce weren't.

Moss: Thankfully, Kinnear has lost that smart-ass quality that stopped him from showing his ability. He plays this gay artist in an uncliched manner using mannerisms that are effeminate but not commented on to get a laugh. Kinnear is really raw in this movie, showing a vulnerability his past work didn't prepare us for.

Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights)

Alhanti Nothing about Reynolds is pushy. He draws the audience to him. As an actor he's always evaluating, taking everything in. His walk is that of a once powerful man still cocky but tired. The actor may be drawing from experience: He, too, is still in there--bloody but unbowed.

Fine: This is a deep and wonderfully affecting performance, one capturing the sarcastic, driven, sensitive and bitter aspects of a man who is both master and prisoner of his own world. Reynolds infuses the part with his life experience so the acting becomes invisible. Early on, vanity was essential to Reynolds' work. Here, he allows himself to be seen in an unflattering light. He's becoming a character actor and it will end up being his strength.

Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting)

Alhanti: It's hard to take Robin Williams seriously. He gives us facts, but very little feeling. His stand-up works its way into dramatic roles such as when he imitates the ballgame. Here, as in "Awakenings" and "Dead Poets Society," Williams plays sweet, endearing, weary, philosophical. The more he tends to work that way, the more likely he becomes that.

Moss: Williams infuses this shattered man with real, unsentimental warmth and leans on his comic gift with surprising economy. Williams is a much better dramatic actor than people give him credit for. As a "star," he also grounds the project, lending legitimacy to the "unknowns."


Janet Alhanti has coached Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr. and Meatloaf. Howard Fine's students have included Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer and Alison Elliott. Larry Moss has worked with Jason Alexander, Helen Hunt and Sharon Lawrence.

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