Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line

In discussing this year's Oscar races in the picture, director, and the acting categories, we may as well begin with the nominee area audiences had the least chance of catching, as it was the only major contender yet to get an area release: Duncan Tucker's Transamerica. (I recently saw the film in the Chicago area, and it opens this Friday at Davenport's Showcase 53)

Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a pre-operative transsexual embarking on a cross-country road trip with her son, and her performance borders on the amazing; it's one thing for an actress to willingly de-glamorize herself for a role, but it's quite another for an actress to credibly play someone born with the first name Stanley.

Yet it's still another for an actress to create a character who's so much more than a Bree/Stanley; Huffman's acting coup doesn't stop with merely "playing transsexual." In Huffman's interpretation, Bree doesn't want to be a woman so much as a girl. Awash in lavender and pink, she considers herself a lady-like and delicate thing, prone to uttering a world-weary "Quelle domage" at the slightest inconvenience, and watching the way her discomfort - sexual and otherwise - plays out in the slightest alteration of Huffman's facial expressions, or in her fussy, twitchy physicality, says more about Bree's character than Duncan Tucker's script possibly could. Huffman's work is, in my opinion, the most meticulously thought-out, subtly gut-wrenching portrayal by an actress in this year's Oscar race.

Considering her competition, will Huffman win Best Actress?

No. Reese Witherspoon will.

Considering her competition, does Huffman deserve to win Best Actress?

Nah. Reese Witherspoon does.

Despite the media conversation of how this year's major nominees are, as a whole, more cerebral and downbeat (and have made less money) than in previous Oscar races, what's interesting is that I'm sensing a genuine affection for the leading contenders in the major categories this year, and it's an affection that's shared by a lot of us in the audience.

Who, for instance, doesn't want to see Reese Witherspoon prevail as Best Actress? Okay, you can put your hands down - Witherspoon has spent far too much of the last few years appearing in a series of lame, formulaic entertainments. (Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?) Yet even those of us who have tired of Witherspoon in romantic-comedy mode were blown away by her work as June Carter; Witherspoon is such a naturally enjoyable presence that it's easy to forget what a fine actress she is, and Walk the Line was the reminder we all needed.

The thrill of this performance comes, though, not from watching the role being played well, but from watching it being played well by Reese Witherspoon. As with Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Witherspoon in Walk the Line is the merger of beloved performer and perfect role, one where everything mass audiences (and more than a few critics) love about her aligns spectacularly well with the conception of the character. The actress' star quality makes the acting feat all the more impressive; Witherspoon owns Walk the Line in a way that Felicity Huffman, extraordinary though she is, doesn't own Transamerica.

Among her other competitors, I'm not sensing much need to reward Charlize Theron for North Country or Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice, and while Judi Dench has plenty of supporters - oh, the flack I've taken for hating Mrs. Henderson Presents! - it won't much matter this year; in Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon gives the Reese Witherspoon performance we've all been waiting for.

The force of Witherspoon's contribution is, in many ways, similar to the impact of Philip Seymour Hoffman's work in Capote. Like Walk the Line, the film is nearly unimaginable without its star, yet the effect that Hoffman has on his film differs in one substantial respect: Witherspoon gives a star's performance, and Hoffman gives an actor's performance. He removes all traces of the "real" Philip Seymour Hoffman - the performer's Truman Capote is a jaw-droppingly complete act of transformation - yet, for those of us who continually find ourselves overwhelmed at the depths of Hoffman's talents, that's just what we want of him; it's a brilliantly detailed character-actor performance in leading-man form.

Hoffman's Best Actor competition includes Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, and David Strathairn in Good Night, & Good Luck., yet although they're all deserving nominees, his only serious rival is Brokeback Mountain's Heath Ledger, and I, for one, would be more than content if that upset occurred; Ledger's work might actually be more nuanced than Hoffman's, and the performance has considerably more emotional impact. But Ledger is still a relative newcomer to greatness - you feel he's only tapped the surface of his gifts - while Hoffman's Capote portrayal feels like the fulfillment of more than decade's worth of promise; you sense that Truman Capote might just be the greatest lead role that Hoffman will ever get onscreen. He'll receive the Best Actor trophy, and the win will be earned.

Like Hoffman, your affection for Rachel Weisz lies in her talent; she hasn't followed any sort of traditional "starlet" path, and even when she appears to be going for an easy paycheck (in the Mummy movies, for instance), she's always committed to her role and always sane - her focus and intelligence is soothing. Weisz is our new Michelle Pfeiffer - a fiercely beautiful actress who can play comedy and drama with equal finesse and doesn't feel any need to be likable, which is what many of us like about her. I'm not the biggest fan of The Constant Gardener, even after a repeat viewing on DVD (for a full appreciation of her performance, it might be necessary to give The Constant Gardener another look), but it's hard to argue that her probable Best Supporting Actress win won't be deserved; it's the actress' inscrutability in the role that makes the movie's emotional element (such as it is) work.

Are there competitors I'd rather see win? Nearly all of them, actually. (Not, however, Frances McDormand in North Country.) I adore Amy Adams' moony sweetness in Junebug, and Catherine Keener's dry serenity in Capote, and Michelle Williams' tortured heartbreak in Brokeback Mountain. But Weisz's role had a dramatic heft, a necessity, that the other contenders can't match, and as the years progress, she might even prove necessary to movies themselves; cinema needs all the smart, beautiful, and, above all, adventurous performers it can get. We might never completely warm to Rachel Weisz, but even at this early stage in her career, she demands, and earns, respect.

Weisz's opposite in huggability is George Clooney - every liberal's teddy bear - and, this year, he had the respect angle covered, too, Oscar-nominated for his supporting turn in Syriana and for directing and co-writing Good Night, & Good Luck. As with Reese Witherspoon in the Best Actress race, a win for Clooney in the Best Supporting Actor category feels like the right acknowledgment at the right time - if not now, when? - and even though I thought all four of the actor's co-nominees (Matt Dillon for Crash, Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man, Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain, and William Hurt for A History of Violence) gave better performances, I'm hoping for - and expecting - a Clooney victory.

"But shouldn't the Oscars be awarded to the best performances?" you might ask. Theoretically, yes. But in terms of performance, "best" is a hopelessly subjective term. (One person's Brando is another's incoherent mumbler; one person's Sandler is another's deeply unfunny, mannered SNL performer whose career longevity is rather baffling.) And when it comes to Oscars, performance quality is often trumped - and often deservedly trumped - by elements that have little to do with acting. Clooney is good in Syriana, but he'll receive the 2005 Supporting Actor Oscar for a host of other reasons - his longevity, his modesty, his humor, his (yes) politics, and above all, his talent, which, at this point, seems to be growing annually. He'll win because, this year at least, people really want him to.

Which brings us to what will probably be the evening's biggest, and most deserving, victor: Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. If you like movies, chances are you've really, really liked at least one of Lee's films; hell, in the last decade alone we've been given Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that's not including his early, Asian-language works or (ugh) Hulk. But despite appearing alongside a better-than-usual Best Director lineup (Clooney, Paul Haggis for Crash, Bennett Miller for Capote, and Steven Spielberg for Munich) that, unusually enough, happens to coincide with the Best Picture lineup, Lee seems to be the helmer that people are truly hoping will prevail here - for his spectacular career, for his directorial grace, and, most especially, for pulling off Brokeback Mountain so spectacularly well.

I love all of 2005's Best Picture nominees. And what I love about them is that, despite their ostensibly incendiary subject matter - race relations, homosexuality, religious retribution, McCarthy - they're not hysterical; even Crash, the most vociferous of the lot, and Good Night, & Good Luck., with its marvelously textured chatter, are filled with melancholy and longing. This year's slate of Best Picture possibilities is a quieter-than-usual group; the films are about recognizable humans, and humans take the time to breathe. Any one of the Best Picture nominees would be a deserving selection, but Brokeback Mountain is the obvious front-runner, has been for quite a while, and most importantly - in keeping with this year's unofficial theme - absolutely deserves to be.

Before it was released, the film was referred to as "the gay cowboy movie," a simplification that stuck. Then critics saw it, liked it, and said that it was now uncool to call it "the gay cowboy movie," as that description didn't pay proper tribute to Lee's accomplishment; like Felicity Huffman's work as Bree, Brokeback Mountain was about more than its label, and critics wanted to impress on upon straight audiences that, believe it or not, they very well might enjoy the film, too. Considering its considerable box-office intake thus far, straight audiences are enjoying the film (or at least paying money to see it, which is just as important). But make no mistake: Brokeback Mountain is a "gay cowboy movie," an exquisite one, and what's most heartening is that audiences - and Oscar voters - seem more than fine with that.

Brokeback Mountain feels revolutionary, and I'm hardly alone in thinking this; I have both gay and straight friends who agree with me that, weeks after seeing it, the movie is still haunting them. (This must be what pre-teen girls felt like after watching Titanic.) What people are responding to in the film, I think, goes beyond the elements that usually accompany a sure-fire Best Picture winner - the epic feel, the technical acumen, the emotionalism, all of which Brokeback Mountain has in spades. They're responding to the film's honesty, and for many audience members who have never seen its kind of honesty on-screen before, its impact is shattering. The film is an official cultural milestone, and not least for its importance in the world of gay cinema; as Nathan Lee eloquently phrased it in Film Comment magazine, Brokeback Mountain, for the millions of homosexual audience members who've seen it, is "in no uncertain terms, the epic romantic tragedy straight people have taken for granted all their lives."

At this moment in time in 2006, the cultural significance of that can't be discounted, and rewarding cultural significance, as much as individual merit, is what the Oscars are for. A lot of people in Hollywood - and a lot of us out here - seem to really want Brokeback Mountain to win, just as they want wins for Clooney, and Hoffman, and Reese Witherspoon. This might be the rare Oscar year when the "want"s and the "get"s turn out to be one and the same.

For Mike Schulz's Oscar predictions in all categories, and a full list of the 2005 Academy Award nominees, visit (

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