Oscar scouting report, best supporting actor: Nolte, Branagh, von Sydow, Hill, Plummer

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Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners. ()
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For Oscar season, Capital will evaluate the nominees in each category. This week: Best Supporting Actor.

Nick Nolte: Paddy Conlon in Warrior

Nick Nolte is a tough guy, and has cornered the market in playing tortured characters with a searing authenticity and power. Not even his personal demons have brought him down. That's how tough he is. Nolte has been nominated for Oscars three times, as Best Actor in 1991 for Prince of Tides, Best Actor for 1997's Affliction, and now Best Supporting for his role in Gavin O'Connor's Warrior, the story of a family shattered by violence and alcoholism.

Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, an on-the-wagon alcoholic and former boxer with two estranged sons, played by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. Both of them were wrestling champs. One is a troubled, silent outcast, the other is a science teacher with a wife and kids. Both have cut ties with their father.

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Nolte manages to be both pathetic and heroic in the role, sometimes in the same moment, a feat not to be attempted by amateurs. Paddy Conlon knows he cannot undo the past and he knows that his sons have good reason to hate him. But he just keeps on loving them. Even when they reject him, Nolte takes it with a quick nod, a silent acknowledgement that seems to say, Yup. That's their right to do that. I deserve that.

Nolte is so big, so intimidating, that to see him vulnerable has always been a startling and painful experience, one of his aces in the hole as an actor. Nobody is more vulnerable than Nick Nolte. There are big gestures in Warrior, and a heartwrenching scene when he falls off the wagon. But when I think of the performance, I think of his quick little nods to himself in the face of constant rejection: It's OK, I deserve that. But I can still love them. I can still love them.

Kenneth Branagh as "Lawrence Olivier" in My Week with Marilyn

When Kenneth Branagh first burst onto the international scene with Henry V in 1989, he was often compared to Lawrence Olivier. They were both actors as well as directors, and both had brought Henry V to the screen in unforgettable and distinct performances. Branagh was nominated for both Best Actor as well as Best Director for Henry V. There is, then, a beautiful symmetry in Branagh actually playing Sir Lawrence himself in this year's My Week with Marilyn.

My Week with Marilyn is the story of the tempestuous 1956 shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Lawrence Olivier (who also directed) and a troubled Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams, in another Oscar-nominated performance). Branagh plays Olivier as a man comfortable in his status, an excellent collaborator, and yet also yearning for the kind of movie magic that Monroe was able to bring (when she could make it to the set).

Branagh is polite and gracious with the nervous starlet, but his patience soon wears thin as she begins to arrive hours late or refuses to show up at all. While the sympathies of My Week with Marilyn are clearly tipped toward Monroe, it is impossible not to feel for Olivier, who is reduced to screaming, spluttering rages every time she flubs a line or behaves selfishly.

There is one moment when he watches Monroe play a delightful scene in The Prince and the Showgirl, where she dances around by herself in an empty room, and he watches what Monroe is able to do when she actually showed up to work, and the awe and emotion is clear on his face. He can do many things, and he knows that. But he cannot do what she does. Perhaps he had hoped that some of the magic would rub off.

Max von Sydow as "The Renter" in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Max von Sydow, veteran of over 50 years of films, doesn't say one word in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (a film I refer to as Extremely Annoying & Incredibly Manipulative). He communicates only by written notes and holding up his hands to show the words "Yes" and "No" written on the palms.

He plays "The Renter," a mysterious man who rents a room in young Oskar Schell's grandmother's New York apartment. (The grandmother is played by the great Zoe Caldwell.) The Renter is rarely seen at first, but eventually Oskar (Thomas Horn) ropes him into a scheme to find the person who might know something about the key left behind in his father's belongings. Oskar's father was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11. The Renter is a frail old man who, seemingly because he has nothing better to do, follows Oskar on his weekend jaunts around the city, knocking on doors.

The thing about Max von Sydow is that he would be riveting in a vacuum-cleaner commercial. His craggy face is expressive, sometimes stern, sometimes splitting apart with emotion. He could have played the Renter in a maudlin and cuddly way, and there are times when the film aches for him to go in that direction, but von Sydow's Renter is too stern for that, and too damaged. It saves the performance and nearly saves the film. Nearly.

The Seventh Seal in 1957, starring Max von Sydow as a wandering knight full of existential dread in the time of the Black Plague, catapulted Ingmar Bergman's reputation into the stratosphere and launched Max von Sydow's career. He has never been far from view. His face tells a million stories.

Jonah Hill as "Peter Brand" in Moneyball

This is the sort of nomination that I find most satisfying. Dramatic actors often reveal their ambition for the gold statue in unattractive ways in the kinds of roles they choose. Ambition is fine, but when you sense an "Oscar-grab" at work in a career, it's a turn-off. Just do your work, and hope it reaches an audience.

But an actor like Jonah Hill, who got his start as a member of Judd Apatow's not-so-merry band of socially delayed lunatics, would never assume that he would one day be an Oscar nominee. That would just not be in the cards for an actor like him. He wasn't on that path. He appears in comedies, first of all, and while he always makes an impression (he had probably one minute of screentime in 40-Year-Old Virgin and is completely memorable), you don't sense that he is trying to be something he is not. And so there is a relaxation to his work.

That worked very strongly in his favor in Moneyball, a film I loved. As Peter Brand, the stats-nerd who helps Brad Pitt's Billy Beane pitch his "Moneyball" idea to the old-timers, Jonah Hill is unsmiling, blunt and reliable. He trusts the numbers. The sentimental aspect of baseball is not his thing at all.

Hill has a way of staring around him, trying to figure things out in the moment, that is compulsively watchable. His dialogue is technical and difficult, and I would never for one second think that he was not that guy. The Oscars often get bogged down in politics, and theoretical arguments over whose turn it is to win, and who got robbed. All of that is irrelevant. Jonah Hill did superb work in Moneyball and it's a nomination that really means something. 

Christopher Plummer as "Hal Fields" in Beginners

It seems strange that Christopher Plummer, in such a long and illustrious career, has only been nominated for two Oscars, with both nominations coming in the last five years. He has been working steadily since the 1950s. To those who grew up with him as Captain von Trapp in the yearly showing of The Sound of Music on TV, his continued presence in interesting and challenging films is a blessing. And unlike Robert De Niro, who has grown more calcified with every year, unwilling to take risks, Christopher Plummer continues to bring it, in role after role after role.

One of the most exciting moments in the entirety of The Insider, an excellent film, in which Plummer plays 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace, is when he turns on a younger associate who dares to call him "Mike" and says with an aggressive shark's smile, "Try Mr. Wallace." It is a beat-down more frightening than an assault with a deadly weapon.

In Beginners, Plummer plays Hal Fields, an elderly, dying man who comes out of the closet following the death of his wife of 40 years. His performance is so central to the film that it feels like it should be in the Best Actor category. There is nothing "supporting" about his performance.

Beginners is a lovely and unusual piece of work (Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent are very touching), and Christopher Plummer makes Hal Fields understandable and human. He does not condescend. He does not "comment" on the character. There is a moment when he calls his grown son at 3 in the morning to report back on his night out at a gay club. "They were playing such loud music ... I don't even know what it was ..." Ewan McGregor, half asleep, says, "It was probably house music, Dad." Christopher Plummer laughs in a delighted way at this new information, and reaches out to write it down on a notepad: "House music!!" It's a perfectly realized moment, eloquent of the character's curiosity about life, and openness to new experiences.

This sounds cutesy, but the film isn't. It is the story of a son needing to let his father go, and of a father needing to become the man he always wanted to be, even though he knows he doesn't have much time left. Plummer's performance is a miracle of emotion, humor, and physicality. His increasing frailty is heartbreaking.

There aren't too many people practicing the craft of acting today who can top Christopher Plummer's ability. He has been doing superb work for decades, and he keeps taking risks. He does not rest on his laurels. He is still out on a limb. I would love to see him win this one.