Friday, January 23, 2009

"I HAVE SUCH DOUBTS"

It always works. Nothing perks up a slow morning like the Oscar nominations. Even in a year like this one, in which there are few surprise nominations or snubs. The biggest shocker is that Kate Winslet got nominated in the best actress rather than best supporting actress category for The Reader and was left out altogether for Revolutionary Road (although her costar Michael Shannon got a slightly eyebrow-raising best supporting actor nod for what my friend Mara describes as an "unintentionally hilarious" seven minutes of scenery-chewing screentime). That the Academy nominated Kate for best actress when she had been campaiged in the supporting category says a lot about her peers' estimation of her performance in the film. The statue is hers to lose.

So Meryl Streep may have to wait another year to finally score her second best actress Oscar (and third overall), which is too bad. I just finished watching Doubt, and I must say it's probably Meryl's best shot since A Cry In The Dark exactly 20 years ago. The movie itself is highly watchable, although well short of great. The performances are what elevate it. Meryl is her usual bad-ass self, with more than a few shades of Miranda Priestly, her The Devil Wears Prada alter ego. (There are subtle differences between a dragon lady magazine boss and a dragon lady school authority figure -- trust me, I know -- and Meryl nails each and every one.) Believe it or not, Streep's stern nun and Catholic school headmistress who is certain that Phillips Seymour Hoffman's priest and pastor has had improper relations with a black male student (the film is set in 1964 but makes racism less of an issue than you might expect) probably has the better sense of humor. She's scary, too: In several scenes, particularly when dressing down a student, or Hoffman, she is as frightening as Streep's version of "The Winner Takes It All" in Mamma Mia!

Despite a script full of zingers ("In ancient Sparta, important matters were decided by who shouted loudest; fortunately, we're not in ancient Sparta," Streep's Sister Aloysius says after Amy Adams's mousey Sister James finally -- and loudly -- stands up to her), the story itself is a tad musty, which makes the film's absence from the Best Picture category no big deal.

But, oh, what acting! Supporting actor nominee Hoffman makes the interesting and brave choice of playing it as if his character, Father Flynn, might actually be guilty. Supporting actress nominee Viola Davis is solid in her roughly 10 minutes of screen time, though not quite up to the hype she has received. Her mannerisms are a bit stagey, and I suspect the performance might not have been so noticed had it not been for those on-cue tears toward the end of her big scene with Streep. Note to aspiring Oscar nominees: When in doubt (pun intended), let the waterworks flow.

For me, supporting actress nominee Adams is the true revelation. Her character, the nun who first accuses Father Flynn of something, then believes his denial, then doesn't, then does again (or does she?), is the most fully drawn and the only one with a complete arc. You read it here first (or stop me if you think you've heard this one before), but don't be surprised if Adams pulls the biggest upset in the category since, well, last year, and takes home the prize.
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