Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Support of Greatness

The film industry has an annual cycle of life, one which it fits to a “T” year in and year out. Each May, the major summer blockbuster movies start to trickle out. Superhero flix, alien invasion motion-pictures, and big budget remakes all hit theaters from May to August, dominating the box office. The autumn months see the release of holiday movies, horror films, and the DVDs of all those major cinematic adventures from a few months earlier. As late December rolls around, the Oscar-hopeful films come out, slowing building up credibility and screenings over the next couple months.

When the Academy Awards finally air in late-February/early-March, the awareness of those Oscar films reaches maximum capacity among the general public, followed by all of them being released for in-home enjoyment during March and April. As warmer breezes and longer days become more common place in late April, the cycle starts over again. It’s as reliable as the tilt of the earth’s axis.

What makes those Oscar films unique within the repetitive sequence is the fact that they usually garner the most interest from casual movie watchers after they are released on DVD and Blu-ray. This has been changing slightly in recent years, but for the most part, the Academy Awards ceremony itself dramatically sparks the interest in its winners and nominees. Everyone knows about the new Spiderman and Harry Potter films, despite the fact they are a good 3 or 4 months from being released in theaters. However, most people just found out about films like Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, and The King’s Speech. Unless you are a pseudo (or actual) film critic, you hadn’t paid much attention to the “Academy” pictures…until, probably, now. And if there is one thing you need to experience from this year’s Oscar flix before the summer box office, it is the incredibly impressive work done by this season’s Supporting Actors, a collection that runs deeper than the hole in Charlie Sheen’s head.

The Oscar category for Best Supporting Actor has five spots, and this year, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch. Christian Bale took home the gold statue for his portrayal of crack-addicted boxer Dicky Eklund, brother to Mark Wahlberg’s lead character Micky Ward in The Fighter. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for his work in The King’s Speech, as were Jeremy Renner (The Town), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right). The handful of actors were each phenomenal in their performances, but Bale certainly deserved to come out on top. And despite playing the part of a drugged-out, degenerate, Irish wannabe-boxer, he came away looking like Michael Jordan.

 As if you didn’t know, Michael Jordan was and remains the greatest basketball player to walk the earth, dominating the NBA with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. He racked up 6 championships, 5 MVPs, and about 50,000 “holy crap, did you just see that” games/plays. But what often gets overshadowed by his personal greatness and success is the manner in which MJ completely eclipsed every other great player during his era. It wasn’t as if Jordan was competing against a bunch of stiffs, but he sure made it seem that way. He completely controlled the league for over a decade. Every now and then, the media and fans of the game would grow restless and try to pump another star player up to MJ’s level, but it wasn’t long before Michael inevitably put everyone back in their place. And in some strange and unforeseen way, the Oscar’s 2010 Best Supporting Actor race unfolded in quite the same fashion.

Christian Bale fits the MJ bill. His part in The Fighter was transcendent in that he embraced his character (in both mannerism and appearance) and yet was still able to add the drama and intensity a movie role requires. His physical transformation and dedication to the part left you (as a viewer) forgetting that this was one of the biggest movie stars in today’s society. You didn’t think you were watching Batman or the guy from the new Terminator; instead, you became engrossed in the character, which is arguably the most difficult thing for a big-time actor to pull off.

For instance, while watching The Fighter, I was always cognizant of the fact that I was watching Mark Wahlberg. The same can be said of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, and even Jesse Eisenberg in the same movie, although to a slightly lesser extent. I thought all three of those actors were very good in their respective roles, but they were unable to pull off what Bale did, which is a complete meshing of himself with the character. And on top of all that, he played the part immaculately. After seeing the film, I really enjoyed it overall, and yet found myself focusing mainly on Bale. He had achieved greatness, if only for 115 minutes.

Make no mistake, Bale wasn’t up against a bunch of schmucks, either. He didn’t reach the top only by default. Sure, his performance was impressive, but his fellow Supporting Actors turned in performances that were exemplary in their own right. If Bale is Michael Jordan, then Geoffrey Rush is Karl Malone, a clearly great second choice that will never get the recognition he deserves, always falling in Bale’s (or MJ’s) shadow. Jeremy Renner is Charles Barkley, in terms of how both unpredictable and uninhibited Renner was (after watching The Town, my girlfriend said she was afraid Renner’s character was going to shoot someone every time he was on screen), but also because of the failure to come out on top during their respective eras. John Hawkes was the Hakeem Olajuwon of this scenario, with a performance in Winter’s Bone that was masterfully understated and yet essential to the film. And finally, Mark Ruffalo is Patrick Ewing, yet another great player who could never dominate the NBA’s Eastern Conference thanks to Jordan’s Bulls.

(Also, if Bale = MJ, then in some weird way, Wahlberg = Scottie Pippen, despite having the lead role, while Melissa Leo = Dennis Rodman and Amy Adams = Steve Kerr. Oh, and Dicky Ekland’s portly, cracked-out buddy = Jason Caffey).

Malone, Barkley, Olajuwon, and Ewing are all fantastic players, and will go down as some of the best at their positions and in their time. Each of the four had double-digit All-Star appearances.  All four were named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. And yet, none of them can hold a candle to Jordan’s legacy. In fact, people got so bored with Jordan’s greatness that voters named Barkley MVP in ’93 and Malone in ’98, despite stellar seasons from MJ both times. And how did His Airness respond? Well, in the years of their respective MVPs, Jordan destroyed Barkley’s Suns and Malone’s Jazz in the NBA Finals each time, grabbing a pair of Finals MVPs in the process. Or in other words, he told the MVP voters to suck it. Regardless of what was going on around him, Michael was always the best – just like Bale was last year.

Overall, Christian Bale is not Michael Jordan. His record and legacy can’t stack up as a cross-cultural reference to MJ’s, at least for the time being (and probably ever). But as a standalone performance in The Fighter, Bale’s work was reminiscent of Jordan’s greatness, just as Rush, Renner, Hawkes, and Ruffalo were evocative of the other NBA stars of the ‘90s, always a step lower than Michael. All four were great, but not like Bale was great in The Fighter. Kudos to the Academy voters for not getting bored with Bale’s amazing work and giving him the credit he deserved. And kudos to Bale for turning in a historically impressive performance, during a year when extraordinary supporting actors were anything but lacking.

It’s tough to matchup with Michael Jordan’s legacy, whether you played in the NBA during the same era or were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2010 Oscars. But for one individual moment, acting as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, Bale reached MJ-Level, leaving a trail of amazing performances by his peers merely cast in his shadow.

I never thought I would one day compare the portrayal of a gaunt, crack smoking, delusional, futile boxer to that of Michael Jeffrey Jordan and his enormous legacy. It’s amazing what greatness can do.

Thanks for reading

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