When Jamie Foxx was handed the best actor Academy Award on Sunday for his channeling of the late, great Ray Charles, it ended one of the longer Oscar chat-ups in memory -- it seemed as if Foxx’s pitch and tone were being hailed as trophy-worthy while the film was still being shot.
The performance had plenty going for it, and not just because it was bound to tap sentiment raised by the soul man’s recent death. There was, for instance, Foxx’s personal touch of sealing his eyes shut for 14-hour days on the set. Those sorts of De Niro-esque tortures can reek of silly stunt if a film falls flat, but “Ray” and Foxx kept it real.
In accepting the award Sunday, Foxx continued his tribute to the late soul man, who died in June at age 73.
“Thank you, Ray Charles, for living,” a jubilant Foxx said in accepting the statuette.
Foxx, who has been ubiquitous on television and interviews doing his Charles impression, smiled and said, “I guess we’re gonna do it again,” before launching into the call-and-response section of the Charles classic “What’d I Say.”
Even before he broke into song, the reading of Foxx’s name brought the crowd to its feet, a nod to academy voters’ emotional attachment to his performance.
Foxx had also been nominated for best supporting actor for his turn in “Collateral” as an ascetic taxi driver who picks up a fare that turns out to be a glib, metrosexual angel of death in the form of a hit man played by Tom Cruise. The award went to Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby,” but Foxx showed a supple versatility in the film, which came out two months before “Ray” and only further stoked its microwave-fast Oscar heat.
Jamie and “Ray” started early on the buzz front, but as far as meeting his character, Foxx was tardy. One of Foxx’s main entourage members said the first meeting between the two at Charles’ studio started on a sour note. “Jamie was late and then got there and asked if he could grab something to eat before the meeting started. Ray was not happy.”
Another person who was there that day remembered it the same way, but Foxx would hear nothing of it when asked about it on a return trip to the studio. “That didn’t happen. I wasn’t late. I was on time.”
Either way, he was prepared. Foxx had been raised in church choirs, classically trained as a pianist and then spent sparring time in comedy clubs, where a gift for mimicry is as important as quick jabs are in boxing. One story is now part of the lore of the film: Charles did a sort of keyboard call-and-response with Foxx during that first meeting. The audition went well until Charles took Foxx off-road with some Thelonious Monk that caused the young actor to seize up. The Monk jazz math was strange stuff to the classical student, but he went round and round until he got it.
“I can play, but still ... we went back and forth that day,” Foxx said as he revisited the studio last year. “It was mind-blowing. It was spiritual. I remember I hit a wrong note and he stopped and he said, ‘Now-uh, why did you go and do that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He laughed and said, ‘The notes are right there, right underneath your fingers. You just got to take a second and find them.’ And I knew he was talking about more than music.”
On Sunday, Foxx attended the ceremony with his young daughter and gave a tearful ode to his late grandmother, Estelle. He cited her as his first acting coach when she told him, “Stand up straight and act like you got some sense.”
The actor is 37 now, but at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where he also took the prize for “Ray,” he talked about his publicist trying to calm down his wild ways and excesses. It was, perhaps, only the sound of more hoof work when some risque images of the actor made it onto the Internet and Foxx gossip circulated the Hollywood scene.
Charles himself, as “Ray” memorably documented, was willing to get high and get down as often as his fame would permit. “I asked him if there were a lot of women back then,” Foxx told The Times. “He made a face and said, ‘Sure, ain’t there women now?’ ”
The answers appear to be yes, and yes. Foxx has been unrepentant, but also coolly detached -- his demeanor has embodied a classic Hollywood actor’s credo: If I don’t do these things, who will?
The man who was once best known for “Booty Call” now has a scrapbook performance that may linger as the career-defining role, the way Ben Kingsley will forever be “Gandhi” to the masses, no matter how many times he goes countertype as a “Sexy Beast.”
Onstage Sunday night, Foxx seemed to hear the history in his head and, like Ray Charles himself, it was a tune that was hard to resist.