‘Beginners’: Plummer’s late Oscar vehicle?

Posted by · 1:17 pm · June 9th, 2011

We may be almost halfway through the 2011 release schedule, and as usual, there’s been little in the theaters to trouble the Oscar-minded obsessives among us. That’s not to say the last six months have wanted for deserving work — in a perfect world, one where all good films are created equal, “Certified Copy” star Juliette Binoche would be tough to beat for Best Actress, while “Meek’s Cutoff” would be a slam-dunk Best Picture nominee, but we hardly need to go into the dully pragmatic reasons why those are mere pipe dreams.

Only two immediate post-Cannes releases, “The Tree of Life” and “Midnight in Paris,” have prompted some awards discussion with their critical provocation and surprising box office, respectively — but beyond a near-certain cinematography nod for the former and a possible writing nod for the latter, further prospects depend largely on the performance of autumn’s big-name prestige draws, as well as a few hot festival purchases from Cannes, Sundance and even Berlin.

Outside festival environs, Oscar-fancied performances have been particularly thin on the ground so far. Again, hardly unusual — but most years, some scrappy actor, usually from the independent fringes, clings doggedly on to a grassroots level of acclaim to survive all the way to nomination day. In recent years, it’s worked for Richard Jenkins, Julie Christie and the folks of “Winter’s Bone” — and this year, I feel comfortable betting on Christopher Plummer to follow the same path to a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and possible win) for his delicately affecting work as a late-blooming gay father in Mike Mills’s autobiographical indie “Beginners,” a Focus Features release that hit US theaters last Friday.

As I tweeted after seeing the film in London last week, I’m only half sold on the film itself, which dilutes an unconventional, maturely handled father-son drama, as Ewan McGregor’s ungrounded LA graphic artist learns to embrace his septuagenarian dad’s newly disclosed sexuality, with the unconscionably twee romance between McGregor and Mélanie Laurent’s wan über-kook. (A level of preciousness is to be expected from “Thumbsucker” director Mills — who is, after all, Mr. Miranda July — but the former component of the narrative comes is adorned with so much less visual and verbal affectation than the latter as to force a preference.)

The film’s creases, however, are largely ironed out by two highly intelligent, attuned performances from its male leads. McGregor is an actor who can oversell his geniality, but his rumpled, weary evocation of long-internalized loneliness here — following his tightly sewn, European Film Award-winning turn in “The Ghost Writer” — suggests a pleasingly low-key way into middle age for him. Better yet, he has a genuinely winning rapport with Plummer, who in turn dodges all the potentially hokey, over-anguished pitfalls of his character arc, his performance movingly balancing the joy of his late-life liberation with the quiet disappointment that he hasn’t long enough to enjoy it.

It says more about the demands the Academy usually makes of leading-role contenders than any sizeable difference between the performances that McGregor won’t come within a sniff of a nomination, while Plummer has been accruing buzz since the film bowed at Toronto last year. In truth, Plummer’s soft, subtle performance isn’t garden-variety Oscar catnip either — and hypothetical bravery points awarded by voters for “playing gay” hardly apply when the character appears so comfortable with the issue himself, one reason Mills’s film feels distinctly forward-looking. But it’s easily Plummer’s richest, most engaged characterization (not counting his lovely voice work in last year’s “My Dog Tulip”) since his brilliant supporting work in 1999’s “The Insider,” for which many expected an Oscar nomination that sadly did not materialize.

That in turn brings up the considerable IOU the actor holds from the Academy — one voters unsatisfactorily tried to repay nearly 18 months ago with his long-awaited first nomination, for his beige, beardy Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s dreary historical drama “The Last Station.” Plummer’s work in “Beginners” is to that performance what Tom Waits is to elevator music, so in principle, his second nod should be an easy get — unless, that is, the dry, controlled elegance of his best work is precisely what the Academy has never quite got about him.

It’s likely that many voters will recognize this 81 year-old veteran as a luminary without quite remembering what exact roles (beginning with his superb Commodus in “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which outdoes Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated take on the same role) they’re supposed to treasure him for — if he had deserved recognition for his most widely-seen role, in “The Sound of Music,” he’d have received it, after all. Happily, his performance in “Beginners” stands for itself rather than a vague collective memory of a career past. That, plus the fact that he’ll be visible later this year in the far flashier surrounds of David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” could see him challenge Jessica Tandy’s oldest-Oscar-victor record — a rash projection to make in the blindfolded heat of June, perhaps, but I’m certainly not the only one making it.

[Photo: Focus Features]

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22 responses so far

  • 1 6-09-2011 at 2:33 pm

    Dooby said...

    I totally agree, he has a big chance of a nomination (and win). The film has been charming the socks off of nearly anyone, and I thought it might be a sort of Kids are all Right type contender this year and get a best picture & screenplay nod and perhaps even a nom for laurent?
    (I know you weren’t particularily enthusiatic Guy but I read alot of reviews that were, I think it depends if the film is a big hit or not.)

  • 2 6-09-2011 at 3:01 pm

    Michael said...

    I can’t wait to see Beginners in theaters! I’ve been wanting to see it for months – the reviews have been extremely positive and the trailer looked amazing. I would be quite happy if Christopher Plummer were to be nominated again for such a dynamic-looking role. I’ve seen posters for it in my local “arthouse” theater for the past couple of weeks so I assume it will make it near me soon, so that I can catch up with everyone else in this discussion.

    On a side note, I wanted to let you know Guy that I finally was able to see The Double Hour in theaters, and I really enjoyed it. I though it meandered a little bit towards the end after the awesome “twist” occurred, but overall I had a fun time with the film. I still have no idea why that film took over a year to get an extremely limited domestic release, but I am just glad I finally caught up with it. Thanks for all your festival coverage Guy – I hear about many films I probably wouldn’t otherwise know about from you, and most of the time they turn out to be extremely awesome!

  • 3 6-09-2011 at 3:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Dooby: It’s not a ‘Kids Are All Right” kind of a deal — too scattered and too low-temperature for major recognition. (It certainly won’t be a hit.) Plummer is its only shot, but it’s a good shot nonetheless.

    Michael: So happy you found The Double Hour — which I completely agree sags a bit in the telling — and even happier that my writing is of use to you that way. (I still need to wrap my Cannes coverage — better late than never!)

  • 4 6-09-2011 at 3:54 pm

    Maxim said...

    Midnight in Paris will do very well on the Awards Circuit and that goes beyond just Oscars.

  • 5 6-09-2011 at 4:24 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I didn’t have time to read the article (will later), but I can’t wait to see this film. I might be the only person on earth who adores “Thumbsucker” so I hope this one delivers. Will see next week!

  • 6 6-09-2011 at 5:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Maxim: Okay, it could go to a Golden Globe comedy/musical nod too. Seriously, how far can it go? It’s not going to be a force in the critics’ awards, no actor is likely to be singled out for attention (though I do like Corey Stoll’s work a great deal) … what are you referring to, exactly?

  • 7 6-09-2011 at 8:42 pm

    Fitz said...

    Like Guy I’m not seeing a whole lot of awards play for ‘Paris’ outisde of cinematography.

  • 8 6-09-2011 at 9:43 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s, but I don’t see this movie receiving awards. It is only the second Woody Allen movie since the mid-1970s that I have no desire to see a second time. (“Sweet and Lowdown” is the other one. Sean Penn in a comedy–yuck.)

  • 9 6-10-2011 at 12:03 am

    Brian Duffield said...

    I think MIDNIGHT is the type of film that winds up on all kinds of NBR lists, scores the Globe nom (maybe even for Wilson, since they’re starfuckers), the WGA nom and a Pic/Script nom at the big show.

  • 10 6-10-2011 at 1:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Anyway, about Plummer…

  • 11 6-10-2011 at 5:03 am

    m1 said...

    I think that Plummer, McGregor, and Laurent will all be nominated, as well as the film’s script.

    Does Cotillard have a shot at supporting actress? I feel that she will get in.

  • 12 6-10-2011 at 6:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    For ‘Midnight in Paris’? Not a chance, though she’s pleasant enough in it. People are hardly singling her out at this stage — why would they do so six months down the line?

    I suppose an original screenplay nomination for ‘Beginners’ is feasible if people really take to the film and it sticks, but three acting nominations? With respect, I think you’re overestimating its durability. (On another note, I’m eager for a fan of the performance to tell me what Laurent is doing that’s so special here, aside from being twinkly and gorgeous. I just don’t get it.)

  • 13 6-10-2011 at 7:28 am

    Adam K. said...

    Cotillard has been very good of late at spicing up the kind of otherwise generic “exotic girlfriend/wife” roles that would never have been considered award-worthy otherwise. And they’re still not really award-worthy with her in them, but they’re certainly better for her presence.

  • 14 6-10-2011 at 9:34 am

    mark said...

    hi,shouldn’t plummer have won or been nominated in 1999 for the insider.

  • 15 6-10-2011 at 9:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I certainly agree that he deserved a nomination, and I say as much in the article above. (See the third-from-last paragraph.)

    Had he been nominated, I think he could even have spoiled that soft second win for Michael Caine.

  • 16 6-11-2011 at 7:11 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    I don’t think that Christopher Plummer will win the Oscar next year for Supporting Actor! Because right now we have no clearly front runner! It also could be Viggo Mortensen, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christoph Waltz, Kenneth Branagh, Brad Pitt, John Hawkes, Jim Broadbendt, Ben Kingsley, Geoffrey Rush, John C. Reiley, Gerret Hedlund, …. the list goes on and on… So…

  • 17 6-11-2011 at 7:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest he’s a “frontrunner” — obviously, at this early stage, no such thing exists.

  • 18 6-11-2011 at 8:12 am

    SC said...

    I’m a big fan of Plummer’s (his Tolstoy was great). From the moment I saw this trailer, all I could think of was “Alright, I’m overdue, playing gay, and I have a terminal illness: hand over the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and nobody gets hurt.”

  • 19 6-12-2011 at 9:06 am

    matsunaga said...

    SG: If there’s a LIKE button here, then I’ll push it right away after reading your post!!! LoL!

    I agree, I also find him really good in Doctor Parnassus…

  • 20 6-13-2011 at 4:59 am

    Sophie said...

    Trust me: he will be nominated unless Academy is homophobic. I even think he’s a lock, maybe the first in this category.

  • 21 6-14-2011 at 3:14 pm

    daveylow said...

    I liked Beginners quite a bit when I saw it last September. Plummer is very good in the film but I don’t think it’s the type of performance that stands out at awards time. If the film had come out in the fall, I think the screenplay would have been recognized in the original screenplay category. The movie uses autobiographical elements in delightful ways.

  • 22 6-22-2011 at 12:49 pm

    Anita said...

    I like the nod to Jenkins and I’m hoping Plummer will follow the same path to a nomination and, dare I dream it, a win? Beginners was the last thing I saw at TIFF and, while I wasn’t crazy about the McGregor-Laurent arc, I was deeply moved by the McGregor-Plummer relationship. It’s a beautiful, affecting performance by Plummer and I do hope he’s duly recognized for it at last.