A couple of best-actor nominees, in two very different places in their careers, after the jump.
"The Wrestler." Oscar nominations include Mickey Rourke for best actor. Field conditions: 1 p.m. show at a Regal cinema. Stuff I watched before the movie: "King," the National Guard "Warrior" commercial/music video, Coke Zero, Sprint turn-off-your-phone spot, Metropolitan Opera, "A Powerful Noise Live," trailers for "Terminator Salvation," "I Love You, Man," and "Watchmen." Could I also add that every one made me want to see the movie?
"The Visitor." Richard Jenkins, best actor nominee. Field conditions: Watched the DVD at home.
Mickey Rourke was one of the hot guys in Hollywood for some time, turning in effective performances in movies like "Diner" and "Barfly," but personal and professional eccentricities sent him off the mainstream radar. Every now and then I would see him in a small role in a movie, like "The Rainmaker," and remember that he had real presence, or -- in more recent times -- come across a photo of him and think, "Good grief, what happened to his face?" Used to beautiful. Now, not even close.
I don't think there has ever been a time when Richard Jenkins was the It guy. He was someone you would spot in a movie or TV show -- notably "Six Feet Under" -- giving a solid performance, perfectly in character, funny when required, serious ditto, always human, never hitting a false note. (See his supporting role in "Shall We Dance" for all of the above.) He has had a career, and should have one as long as life allows. No off-camera melodrama that I know of, just steady work.
And now we come to the Oscars, where the different paths by Rourke and Jenkins have taken them to the same place -- the nominations for best actor, alongside Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Frank Langella. Of course, even in the same place they're different, Rourke the comeback kid who is a lot of people's favorite to win, Jenkins the admirable guy in the little indie film who is expected to enjoy his nomination and then go on his way.
On the other hand, both have gotten here by carrying movies that, in other hands and under other conditions, would probably appear to be slight efforts.
The Wrestler," with Rourke as an '80s wrestling star who has fallen on hard times, is -- aside from its considerable grit and gore -- a movie you have seen before, yet another tale of a loser trying to figure out what to do when he can no longer do the thing that defines him; yet another saga of a man who is realizing that his personal is wanting; yet another film where you will at times wince at the sheer corniness of it. (A scene in an abandoned casino comes to mind.) The acting around Rourke is uneven; Marisa Tomei, also Oscar-nominated, is her usual capable self but not extraordinary (not even as suddenly delightful as she was in "My Cousin Vinny," which won her a much-debated supporting-actress Oscar). Evan Rachel Wood, as Rourke's daughter, is terrible in her first big scene and unremarkable at best after that.
Yet, in the middle of it, is Rourke. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, his face is a mess, with a seeming look of bad plastic surgery, and a battered aspect, which fit a character whose vanity is undimmed by age and abuse. (Even when he is behind on his rent, he makes sure to hit the tanning booth.) But in that face are Rourke's eyes, as expressive, vulnerable, loving and sad as ever, making scenes work, making you care about Randy and how lost he is, still playing an ancient Nintendo game because he is a character in it, still peddling old VHS tapes of his matches in a DVD age. The script does not always make it easy for Rourke, but he keeps showing his A game in his performance. I still lean toward Sean Penn for best actor (and would not regret Frank Langella winning, either) but a win by Rourke would not be a grave miscalculation. And he would probably get one of the biggest ovations an Oscar ceremony has ever had.
The question, then, will be what he does next. According to IMDB, he has several other movies lined up, including "Iron Man 2," but Rourke has let success get away before and I wouldn't be surprised if he did again. Unlike Randy, who longs for the crowd's applause, Rourke has gone his own way regardless of the professional consequences. But every now and then, I suspect, he'll show up somewhere onscreen and we'll go, "Yeah, yeah. Mickey Rourke."
As I've already indicated, I expect Richard Jenkins to avoid the errors Rourke has made. He's a consummate pro, and he seems to go comfortably where the work is. "The Visitor," where he plays Walter, a widowed college professor who has lost a grip on his life, is sporadically interesting because it has an array of unusual characters who enter Walter's life. But it's also on old ground -- Dennis Quaid in "Smart People" not long ago played a character with many of the same flourishes as Walter -- and as it goes along takes us to a thoroughly expected place. Even the closing shot feels familiar.
Yet, here too is an actor who knows how to deliver the goods. Jenkins is especially good as Walter's longing rises to the surface, all "please don't hurt me" in his expressions, open yet terrified of being open. It's a very good performance. But it doesn't startle or dazzle much because Jenkins makes it look so easy, and because the audience is comfortable with him; it knows there will be no trip-ups. I had a similar feeling about Viola Davis in "Doubt"; here was an actress going right up against Meryl Streep, but I've seen enough of Davis's work to expect her to go right up against Streep. And, again, even if the Oscar isn't on Jenkins's shelf come Monday (and I'd give it to any of the other four nominees before him, because I am as much prey to screen dazzle as anyone), I'll see him in other things and be content -- because I won't be surprise to see him be good.