Has there ever been a more impressive list of nominees than the five men who are up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards? When the least accomplished one of the bunch is one of the biggest stars on the planet, you know you’ve got a murderers’ row of talent that has rarely been eclipsed in the history of this shindig.
It’s interesting, too, because any one of these guys could win this award in any given year, especially since none of them have been nominated in years. The sentimental factor would be strong in general, but when all of them are so revered, and all of them so long overdue for recognition, it all tends to cancel each other out. Instead, they’ll all have to settle for competing on the merits of their individual performances. Which is a real bitch.
Okay, the nominees:
Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins for The Two Popes
Al Pacino for The Irishman
Joe Pesci for The Irishman
Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.
Look at that list. Four of those five guys have all been leading men for decades, and the fifth is one of the finest actors to ever appear on screen, even if he was never a conventional leading man himself. Seriously, what a spectacular list of actors. Maybe the best such group ever.
But there can only be one winner, so let’s get into it. It has been 19 years since Hanks was last nominated, for his role in Cast Away in 2001. There are a few different times he could have been recognized in the years since, but this is the first time he’s actually gotten the nod, which is sort of nuts. The thing about Hanks is that he makes it look so easy, I think that actually works against him when it comes to awards. How hard can he really be working? they ask. And yet, he’s doing it as hard and as well as anyone, for years and years. It’s about time he finally got the kudos he’s deserved for so long — and make no mistake, I’m not weeping for Tom Hanks. The guy has won two Oscars already — but it’s a real shame it happened to be this year when he has no chance whatsoever of actually winning.
Neither, for that matter, do Hopkins or Pacino. It’s been 21 years since Sir Anthony has had an Oscar nod (Supporting Actor for Amistad in 1998), and 27 for Pacino (when he was nominated for Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross and won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman), and both of them turned in some of their very best work in years for their respective movies. Hopkins, as Pope Benedict XVI, is funny and charming as the retiring pontiff, and the chemistry he shares with co-star Jonathan Pryce (also nominated, for Best Actor, but we’ll get to him in a couple of days) is genuinely winning. Same with Pacino, who is the best he’s been in … jeez, I don’t even know. His performance as Jimmy Hoffa is big, but not as big as it could be, and I suppose that’s really something to celebrate. The thing is, though, he’s overshadowed in his own movie by another actor who hasn’t appeared on the big screen in almost 10 years.
Joe Pesci, who was last nominated 29 years ago for the Supporting Actor Oscar he won for Goodfellas, is something of a marvel. The guy comes out of nowhere, becomes a big star, makes a ton of money, and then decides, meh, he’s had enough, and he moves to the coast with his younger wife and tells everyone to go screw. Then his old pals Marty Scorsese and Bob DeNiro come calling and bug him, FOR YEARS, to join them in this hit man movie, and finally he relents and signs up for it. But there’s a problem. His thing is, he goes big. He’s voluminous, he’s larger than life, he’s The Guy, but so is Pacino, and if the two are facing off against each other in the movie, how the hell is that gonna play, for Christ’s sakes? But then his buddy Marty tells him, No, Joey, that’s just it. You don’t go big. You go small. Smaller than you’ve ever gone. You get quieter, and quieter, and then so quiet that all you have is menace, and it’ll work.
And, of course, it does. I’m now going to relate an anecdote that I think is okay to tell, and that I’m not betraying any confidences here. My good friend Stephanie Kurtzuba plays DeNiro’s wife in the movie, and she’s terrific. After I saw it, we talked about it, and we were both raving about Pesci. There’s a scene towards the end, and I won’t get specific to avoid spoilers, where Pesci gives a speech to DeNiro about the way things are, and about how a particular character has to die, and that’s all there is to it. Steph was in the room when they shot that scene, and as soon as it was done, she turned to the woman playing Pesci’s wife and said, “Holy shit, Joe Pesci has absolutely killed someone before.” That’s how realistic, how chilling, how devastating that performance was, that a trained, brilliant actor could only believe that another actor could pull off that performance if it was real. Now that’s acting.
Pesci’s performance is a tour de force, and within five minutes of him appearing on the screen, any film fan worth his or her salt immediately said, “Jesus, I have missed him.” He’s just so good, so real, so menacing and quiet and devastating and dangerous, it’s one of those performances you return to and then just shake your head and wonder how it happened.
But the thing is, Pesci isn’t going to win this award. I’m going to say something now that might be controversial, and which might engender lots of disagreement, but that’s never stopped me before, so here goes: I happen to believe, and have for quite some time, that Brad Pitt is a fantastic actor. He’s unfairly known as a pretty boy, but the thing is, the guy brings it, every single time. He takes risks, he does things you wouldn’t expect, and he does it with an almost effortless charm that belies how much work he’s really putting in. He’s sort of like Hanks that way, and I think it’s generally worked against him over the years. He has been nominated for several acting Oscars, the last time eight years ago as Best Actor in Moneyball, and several more times as a producer. He even won an Oscar for producing 12 Years a Slave six years back. He has a great reputation as a wonderful guy and an all-around mensch, but I don’t know if enough people respect his acting chops.
After what we saw in OUATIH, though, it would be hard to argue that any further. I have some major issues with the film, as I have already discussed in this space over the last week-plus, but Pitt’s performance is, for me, the high point of a movie that has a few of them. The 20-or-so-minute sequence in the middle of the film, starting when he picks up Margaret Qualley’s Manson Family member, takes her to the Spahn Movie Ranch, and then comes face to face with an army of Family members, is the best thing in the movie — indeed, is one of the best sequences in Quentin Tarantino’s career — and it is completely carried by Pitt, from start to finish. Without his charisma, the way he owns the screen and swaggers through it with an incredible confidence, that scene doesn’t work. There aren’t a ton of guys who could have pulled that off, and as soon as I saw it, I said to myself, “Holy shit, Brad Pitt is gonna win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year.” The funny thing is, even after I saw all the other performances this year, I didn’t change my mind. Some will say Pesci’s work in The Irishman is better, and I don’t know that I can argue the point, other than to say it’s awfully close, and it’t like comparing two different kinds of fruit. Neither actor could have pulled off what the other did in their respective movies, but I think Pitt wins the tiebreaker because people love him and this role showed off something in him we hadn’t seen before, a quiet grace that, like wisdom, we like to think comes with age, but more often than not, it doesn’t.
WHO SHOULD WIN: Brad Pitt, by the tiniest of hairs over Joe Pesci
WHO WILL WIN: Brad Pitt
Neil Turitz is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and the creator of Six Word Reviews. He has been working in and writing about Hollywood for over two decades, even though he lives in New York.