Oscar scouting report, best actor: Bichir, Clooney, Dujardin, Oldman, Pitt

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Gary Oldman as George Smiley. ()
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Capital is evaluating the Oscar nominees in each category. Here: Best Actor.

Demián Bichir as "Carlos Galindo" in A Better Life

Mexico-born actor Demián Bichir plays Carlos, an undocumented immigrant struggling to get by in Los Angeles, working as a gardener and sleeping on the couch of the small home he shares with his teenage son.

Directed by Chris Weitz, whose credits include American Pie, About a Boy and Twilight Saga: New Moon (way to keep them guessing, Mr. Weitz), A Better Life came and went briefly last year, and despite strong reviews, the nomination of Bichir was a surprise. ("Who is Demián Bichir?" was a common headline the day following the Oscar nominations announcement.)

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Bichir, a series regular on Weeds with a long string of credits, including playing Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che, has worked steadily with a low profile. As Carlos, he gives us an in-depth and very human portrayal of a member of the invisible nose-to-the-ground illegal-immigrant population. It is not a self-congratulatory performance and that is the best part about it. He is stoic, yet filled with nameless worry. He lives a chaotic life. He is undocumented. He does not have a driver's license. Everything is precarious.

I was mostly struck by Bichir's walk, a sort of sturdy and yet passive walk, the walk of a man who never wants to make a false move, who aspires to blend into the scenery as much as he can. It's painful to watch such a strapping man attempt to be invisible. The beauty of the performance is in the details. The scenes with his teenage son are heartbreaking, because an abyss of silence lies between them. They don't know how to talk to each other. In a year when A-list actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling were expected to be nominated, Bichir is the dark horse. In interviews, Bichir mostly sounds excited that people are going to seek out the film and watch it. I love nominations like this one. I love surprises. He is the third Latino to be nominated for a best actor Oscar.

George Clooney as "Matt King" in The Descendants

George Clooney is such a regular on the American Movie Star scene that sometimes it is hard to remember that he became a star pretty late, as these things go.

He was not a hot young actor in his 20s. Stardom hit for him in his 30s. After a couple of years appearing in typical romances as a typical leading man (with not too much success), he started to carve a very independent and interesting path in Hollywood. He had to be a leading man in his own way. He is too cranky, too singular, to submit to a well-worn formula. He is his own man.

Matt King in Alexander Payne's The Descendants is a man baffled by his daredevil wife, baffled by his daughters coming into adolescence, and baffled at the tragedy that has befallen him. He tries to do the right thing. It is interesting to see George Clooney allow himself to be mostly baffled, because his movie-star status gives him a natural cock-of-the-walk energy. Clooney seems like he would be comfortable in any environment.

Being as big a star as Clooney is is, of course, a blessing and allows him to develop the projects he wants to develop. But it can also be a trap. Audiences may not accept him in different types of roles. Here, he is still recognizably Clooney, but he has somehow removed his cockiness, his certainty, and most of his humor, and has replaced it with a sense of confusion. There's an existential malaise working on Matt King, although he is given no words to express it.

It's always a joy to watch Clooney work, although I am not so sure that this is an Oscar-worthy performance. I thought he should have been nominated for his mostly-silent role in The American, one of my favorite Clooney performances. But The Descendants is interesting because it plunges Clooney into the middle of a raucous ensemble, and it allows him to play a father, something he has rarely done.

Jean Dujardin as "George Valentin" in The Artist

George Valentin in The Artist is a beloved silent film star. He is on top of the world in 1920s Hollywood. With the advent of sound, Valentin is kicked to the curb. Hard times follow.

The Artist, filmed in black-and-white, with no sound, and title cards, imitating the silent films of a bygone era, has experienced critical acclaim as well as critical "backlash", and seems to delight and offend critics in equal measures. I thought it was charming, funny, and clever. Valentin, an obvious nod to famous silent film stars like John Gilbert and Rudolph Valentino, is played by the smiling, jaunty Dujardin, a gifted physical comedian with an eloquent, expressive face.

Valentin's interactions with rising star Peppy Miller (played by Best Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo) are fun and touching. It's an appealing romance. Dujardin has already won multiple awards for his performance, including the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.

When I first saw The Artist, I was not particularly struck by his performance, except as part of a delightful ensemble, and a fun experiment in silent film-making. Dujardin is certainly appealing, and perhaps that will be enough to give him the statue. 

Gary Oldman as "George Smiley" in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A chameleon who is not afraid of big physicality and even bigger gestures, Gary Oldman's performance as ex-spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has brought him his first Oscar nomination. It is, perhaps, the most interior work he has ever done. I saw the film after the nominations came out, and for the first forty minutes or so, I was wondering why this was a nominated performance. And by the end of the film, it was 100 percent clear to me why.

This is a performance that does not want to be noticed or congratulated. What is so incredible about Oldman's work here is the faith that he, the actor, has in what he is doing. George Smiley is not expressive. He does not have a catharsis. He does not even have a bad temper. There are no comforting scenes in which Oldman gets to  let it all hang out. Smiley is pained, and silent, and watchful. To maintain that over the course of a film, and have it add to the tension as opposed to dissipate it, is no small feat.

Oldman's performance works in increments, slowly building in power, almost invisibly. The film is a Cold War thriller and it works on that genre level, but it flat-out could not work at all without Oldman's performance at the coiled, tense center of it. Even with the busy plot, and the large cast, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy becomes a character study in Oldman's hands. Oldman's Smiley stands at his office Christmas party and looks around him, clearly on the outside of anything even approximating joy, and he has a tentative smile on his face, there for show. He's at a party, after all. The miracle of what Oldman does is that in the midst of a thriller, he builds his character, brick by brick, so that you ache for him at the end of it. You ache for his loneliness, and you ache for his isolation. This is not a character who explains himself, or reveals himself, except for the one time he has too much to drink.

Oldman has been booked solid with the Harry Potter franchise over the last ten years. He has always been entertaining to watch. Here, he goes deeper than he has ever gone. So deep it appears to be bottomless.

Brad Pitt as "Billy Beane" in Moneyball

In my review of Moneyball, I wrote:

Over the years, people have been surprised when [Brad Pitt] turned in a good performance, as though they didn't think he had it in him. Brad Pitt has always had it in him. Robert Redford cast Pitt as his own younger self, basically, in A River Runs Through It, and his joy and unselfconsciousness wearing that mantel is a revelation. His career has been diverse, and he has become successful enough to pick and choose what projects he wants to do. And age is making him even more interesting to watch.

In this year alone, Pitt appeared as the rough, stern 1950s father in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, as well as his Oscar-nominated performance as the quirky, watchful, track-suit-clad and awkward Billy Beane in Moneyball. His performance is a master-class in listening, something I mentioned in my review. Giving just one of these performances would be considered a triumph, but two in the same year shows Pitt's dominance. As I said, he has always had it in him. But his performance in Moneyball is his best to date.