February 11, 2006

The Best Actor Oscar Race

The frontrunners appear to be Philip Seymour Hoffman for portraying the world's gayest gay in "Capote " and Heath Ledger for portraying the world's straightest gay in "Brokeback Mountain." (One of the oddities of contemporary movies is that only straight actors, like Hoffman and Ledger, or Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," are allowed to play gays.)

Joaquin Phoenix is likely the other main contender, for playing Johnnie Cash in "Walk the Line," who, amazing as it may seem to Oscar voters, was not gay. (The other nominees are David Strathairn as the self-righteous Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck" and Terrence Howard as an unbelievably soft, sodden pimp in "Hustle and Flow.")

Ledger is just about the only thing the drab, dreary "Brokeback Mountain" has going for it, but he and his deep, deep voice are most impressive. (He's also good doing a George Sanders impersonation in the silly but likable "Casanova.")

"Walk the Line" is a better movie than "Brokeback." For example, Reese Witherspoon is infinitely superior in "Walk" to Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback," where he often looks like a member of a country music boy band for teenyboppers. At other times, Gyllenhaal looks like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman wearing a cowboy hat. That he got a best Supporting Actor nomination for "Brokeback" is just a Culture War political gesture on the part of Hollywood. The only one of "Brokeback's" eight nominations that it actually deserves is Ledger's.

If you look at the top three love story movies on the American Film Institute's list -- "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," and "West Side Story" -- you'll notice a common denominator. There's a lot else going on besides the romance: WWII, the Civil War, and an ethnic gang war." But there's nothing else going on in "Brokeback." It's just two not very intelligent guys talking about their relationship. You don't learning anything about their jobs or anything else. It's a chick flick of the dullest kind.

Even the vaunted cinematography is weak. The camera gets pointed at a lot of potentially beautiful mountain scenery, but they must have lacked the budget to wait around for the sun to come out.

"Brokeback Mountain" works on two levels, both bogus. It's a heterosexual liberal's fantasy that homosexuals are just like heterosexuals except for sexual orientation. In reality, the odds that Gyllenhaal's character, who is of average to above-average masculinity, and Ledger's character, who is out at the far right edge of the masculinity bell curve with John Wayne, would both be homosexual is one in a million.

And it's a gay's fantasy that somewhere out there is an ultra-masculine cowboy who will fall head over heels in love with me and pine away for me his whole life. It's a silly, silly movie, and I suspect the people making it deep down recognized that fact, so they made it slooooow and serious to cover up its essential campiness.

Unfortunately, the prosaic "Walk the Line" suffers from Phoenix lacking Cash's mythic resonance. Phoenix is a fine actor, but his voice isn't pitched low enough to play Johnnie Cash. I'm sorry, but when the actor rumbles, "Hello, I'm Johnnie Cash," it has to be be a thrilling moment, but Phoenix just doesn't have the pipes for it.

So, who should have played Johnnie Cash? The man with the deep voice, Heath Ledger. He's much fairer than Cash, who often fooled people into believing he was part American Indian, but they can do more with makeup than they can with vocal timbre. Ledger doesn't look like Cash, although he has enough of his size to be satisfactory, but then Phoenix doesn't look much like Cash either.

I don't know if Ledger can sing, but it was pointless to have Phoenix sing Cash's songs in "Walk the Line" when he could have just lip-synced them like Jessica Lange did Patsy Cline's songs in the excellent biopic "Sweet Dreams." They must have insisted on Phoenix singing rather than lip-syncing because otherwise there would have been an obvious disconnect between his singing and speaking voices. But that just meant that the songs lack Cash's famous sound.

And, switching roles with Phoenix would have gotten Ledger out of "Brokeback."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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