From 'Win Win' to 'Bridesmaids,' surprises in the precursor landscape

Posted by · 8:29 am · December 13th, 2011

Amidst the recent slew of regional critics awards lists there have been the predictable pre-Oscar nominations and wins peppered with a few unconventional and often well-deserved selections. One or two of the honors felt particularly surprising, though.

The nomination that struck me as the most unusual was Houston submitting Alex Shaffer in the Supporting Actor category for his work in “Win Win” vs. one or a few of the other actors in the film. I am an admirer of Tom McCarthy”s understated (for lack of a better word) dramedy and applaud Houston for including the film in its Best Picture contenders. McCarthy is also rightly in the race for a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Oscars.

I spoke the writer/director last week and will be releasing a full interview with him this week. For now I will say that I was in absolute agreement with McCarthy when he said that the performances in this film are easy to overlook because they are “very subtle” and take place in “un-extraordinary settings.” I also grant that in a year with several strong candidates in the Best Actor field, the Indiana critics made a bold and legitimate selection with Paul Giamatti for his role in the film. “I might not know everything,” McCarthy said during our interview, “but I know acting and those performances are authentic and so deeply felt. There are very few people who could pull that couple off as genuinely as they (Giamatti and Amy Ryan) did.” It would be lovely to see Ryan receive her own share of critical recognition for her work in the film as well, work that was nuanced, layered and a joy to watch.

In the supporting actor category, however, one would have imagined that Bobby Canavale would be the critical choice from the film (as great as Jeffrey Tambor is, he simply does not have enough to do).  “He really doesn”t miss,” McCarthy said of Canavale. “I think sometimes comedy gets a little overlooked but Bobby is someone who shouldn”t be.” We agree that comedy does deserve its due. Indeed, that has been a frequent topic in our recent interviews, first with McCarthy and then Judy Greer for “The Descendents.” I cannot say for certain that I would have pulled out Canavale’s performance in this year”s supporting actor field, but if there were to be a supporting actor nominee from “Win Win,” I would have thought it would be him.

While high school wrestling star, and first-time actor Alex Shaffer did an extraordinary job of holding his own with some formidably talented and seasoned actors, the strength of his performance is likely in large part due to the talent of the ensemble.

“He is as good the actors he”s working with,” he said of Shaffer”s work on the film.  “And it takes special actors to be that generous and that open. This is Alex”s first movie and we worked very hard to find exactly the right kid to plug into that. Once in awhile an actor meets a role and I believe that this was an example. That said, it was a lot of work to get him there and fortunately we found a kid with a ridiculous work ethic because he was such a star athlete. That discipline is instinct. He doesn”t question it. That applies to what we were doing. But it”s really a testament to the people he was working with. Great actors understand that acting is a team sport. Because it”s about giving and receiving, hearing and responding.”

It is a pleasure to see this, and other smaller films receive recognition, but it may have made more sense to shine the light on Giamatti and/or Ryan. They have a better shot at the Oscar race, in any event

From one McCarthy to another:

As much as I am in favor of comedic recognition, and as much as I loved “Bridesmaids” (which I unabashedly did), Melissa McCarthy”s win for Best Supporting Actress in both New York (Online) and Boston also took me aback. I was thrilled to see the film on AFI’s top 10 list and McCarthy for many was a standout. I count myself among those who walked away from the theater just a little bit in love with her. There are of course comedic performances, scripts and films that outshine the dramatic, but I remain unconvinced that is the case in this field, however.

Carey Mulligan”s performance in “Shame” or Jessica Chastain”s in “The Help” each felt like worthier selections this year. Both were essential pillars in their respective films. Mulligan was the catalyst for the journey that Fassbenber”s character takes in “Shame.” Chastain has been one of the true treasures of this year and “The Help” afforded her an incredible range to demonstrate her talent.

Having said that, I am, as always, on team comedy and genuinely respect what McCarthy did in her film.

For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.

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