MICHELLE WILLIAMS IN ‘WENDY AND LUCY,’ A PERFORMANCE FAR SUPERIOR TO
HEATH LEDGER IN ‘THE DARK KNIGHT
Heath Ledger is a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year for THE DARK KNIGHT, having made the most sure-fire Award-grabbing career move of them all – dying. Oscar dearly loves tragedy, as witness its traditional Best Picture preference for heavy, often downright lachrymose drama over scintillating comedy. HIS GIRL FRIDAY and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, two of the most undeniably perfect, enduringly influential cinema classics weren’t even nominated in the year of their release (1940), Cary Grant never won an acting award and Ginger Rogers won hers for, not one of her sparkling working girl farces, but for the sudsy KITTY FOYLE. In Academy terms, comedy is easy…dying is hard (and Oscar-worthy).
The Oscars haven’t had such a juicy opportunity for surefire bathos since Peter Finch died of a heart attack before winning his Best Actor Award for the insanely prescient NETWORK in 1976. His widow, Eletha, a black woman, accepted it tearfully for him and I clearly recall how her utterly real, deeply human, unfashionably garbed presence startlingly cut like a laser through through the evening’s glitz.
When this year’s Best Supporting Actor award is announced, it will be a race in the Kodak Center to see which grandstanding celebrity leaps to their feet first for the inevitable, heartfelt standing ovation. And whoever accepts for Ledger will be properly tearful, proud and slightly abashed, creating the perfect teary-yet-warm-and-fuzzy moment amidst all the ravening egomania, borrowed bling and red carpet madness.
Just one thing – Ledger doesn’t deserve it.
In the best Lon Chaney tradition, he purposely made himself up to look and act as leeringly grotesque as possible, engendering much tongue-clucking over how dangerously intimate was his identification with his Joker character. You can call it Method madness, or whatever you want, just don’t call it good acting. (And that crazy makeup really wasn’t all that original – take a look at THE CROW (1994) some time and the look of Brandon Lee – designed by Lance Anderson – who, like Ledger, tragically died before the film’s release.) After the initial shock value of seeing him in character, his performance was one monotonous repetition of salaciously horrid lip-licking and maniacal vocal tricks. He emerged as the true muse of Christopher Nolan’s dankly depressing, ridiculously dark, gratuitously violent imagining of the once-gallant Batman myth, and it says sadly much about the debased taste of moviegoers who lapped this toxic guff up and made it such a b.o. blockbuster.
THE LATE BRANDON LEE, IN ‘THE CROW’ (1994) – DOES ANYTHING LOOK FAMILIAR?
Did parents really take the little ones to see this, expecting a fun comic book fantasy? Did the climactic scenes with Ledger holding a gun to the skull of a child actor not produce screaming nightmares later at home that night? I, for one, cannot shake off the utterly absurd, over-the-top makeup job on Aaron Eckhardt as Two-Face, a real career killer courtesy of the cosmetician. And what was up with that risibly sepulchral voice Christian Bale felt it necessary to employ? Did Nolan not have a single redeeming mental impulse telling him “This is just too much”?
Obviously not, and his rock-bottom taste level is woefully on a par with that of the modern world at large these days. But he’s laughing all the way to some soon-to-be-shut bank these days and the Academy will, for the second year in a row blow it, Supporting Actor-wise. Javier Bardem’s winning turn in last year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is in the same “he’s so scary and creepy, he must be acting!” tradition as Ledger. (They made themselves ugly – no greater dedication to their craft, right?) Bardem swept every imaginable award in this category as well, leaving Tom Wilkinson who was really brilliant as a schizophrenic in MICHAEL CLAYTON completely overlooked, proof once more that, aesthetically, the Oscars mean very. very little.
Ironically, Ledger’s ex, Michelle Williams, gave a far superior performance in a much more demanding and difficult performance this year in WENDY AND LUCY. As a homeless slacker trying to make her way across country to the promise of some fishy job in Alaska, accompanied by her dog, she had a wrongheaded purity and emotional transparency which, at times, evoked no less than Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. And, in their eternally flubbing way, the Academy ignored her for a nomination, preferring – in the requisite “crazy lady” category of Best Actress – the strained, thin, calculated neuroticism of Anne Hathway (if only her talent was as big as her eyes) in Jonathan Demme’s smarmily p.c. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. (I especially loathed the beginning of that film, set at an engagement party, for its creepy self-congratulatory flavor and its oh-so carefully cast Benetton-ad ethnic assemblage of guests, intimately cackling away at their private jokes. Sitting in the theater, watching this, felt no different from being an unfamiliar guest at some family shindig, forcing your smile and bonhomie-filled laughter, but really feeling the outsider and rather an asshole. This feeling I don’t need from movies.)
How fickle is the mass media, anyway, with its post-humous glorification of Ledger, aligning him with that other dead-too-soon star, James Dean. Dean “brilliantly” made only three movies, in which his iconoclastic talent sparkled. Ledger made quite a few more, some of them definite clunkers. His bruised macho gruffness was effective in, and the best thing about, the dull BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (the straightest gay movie ever made), and I found him even more affecting as a suicidal young cop in MONSTER’S BALL, but to celebrate him as one of the greatest actors in cinema seems a little much.
By the way, does anybody remember River Phoenix?