Monday, February 2, 2009

CROSSING OVER


Last night I watched two Oscar-nominated films that revolve around the very same theme: illegal immigration. In one, Frozen River, a woman (best actress candidate Melissa Leo) turns to smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada to New York in order to support her two sons. In the other, The Visitor, a broken-down recent widower (best actor contender Richard Jenkins, best known as the late patriarch in the HBO series Six Feet Under) recovers his soul after befriending an illegal alien he finds squatting in his New York City apartment. Neither lead has a snowball's chance in hell of winning, but it's nice to see that actors can still court Oscar by delivering subtle, contained performances free of baity gestures.

Richard Jenkins's turn is particularly haunting for its spareness and attention to minute details. It's like watching a minimalist near-empty apartment slowly become filled with beautiful furniture. The character's story arc reminds me of the ones experienced by Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood in About Schmidt and Gran Torino, respectively. The Visitor is considerably more modest as is Jenkins's performance, which makes his one moment of emotional abandon near the end all the more unexpected and effective.

The one flaw with the film is the, well, flawless portrayal of the illegal immigrants that his character befriends. It's not the fault of the actors, who are uniformly excellent, but the script. The characters are by no means two-dimensional, but they are so well-behaved that they come across as being almost saintly.

The aliens in Frozen River are pushed farther into the background, but as I watched both films, I wondered if they'd have the same effect on me if I were not a legal alien in Argentina. As I watched the behavior of the police and various legal figures in The Visitor (the cops in Frozen River are more sympathetic), I experienced twinges of recognition. I've criticized BA's police system of being corrupt and ineffective and rightly so, but sometimes I get so caught up in the misdeeds of Argentines that I forget how beastly people in the United States can be. At the end of the day, I suppose, nastiness is a human condition that knows no geographical or cultural boundaries.

The most interesting thing about the films is that the lead actors, particularly Jenkins, were nominated at all over much bigger stars (sorry, Clint!). I'd been predicting nominations for both since mid-2008, but part of me secretly suspected that bigger names would end up shutting them out. Former All My Children star Melissa Leo (along with Julianne Moore and Tommy Lee Jones) is one of only a handful of former daytime soap actors to score Oscar nominations. If her role had been played by Kate Winslet, Winslet's win would not only be even more of a foregone conclusion but probably more deserved than it is now (sorry to fans of The Reader).

At least we can always look forward to Leo's look-I'm-actually-beautiful get up at the Oscars. (For your comparison enjoyment, see the photo of her above at the Golden Globes and the photo of her in Frozen River.) Hey, looking good is the best revenge, but for shoo-in losers on Oscar night, it's an excellent consolation prize.
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