It's round two of Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum's volley over Oscar 2004's actor nominees. This time, they assess Tim Robbins, Patricia Clarkson, Djimon Hounsou, and others

By Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum
February 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Lisa Schwarzbaum Illustration by Eric Palma

Lisa Schwarzbaum Okay, I think we can agree on this: You tend to be actor-centric, and I tend to be director-centric. To me, presenting your inner essence is the mechanism of star quality; inhabiting someone else’s inner essence is the mechanism of great acting. And to do the math further, great actors can be stars, but not all great stars can be good actors.

But let me steer back to the beginning of our conversation, and talk a little further about the chemistry of actors and directors. Aside from ”Lost in Translation”’s Best Actor nom for Bill Murray, the only other Oscar contender to produce players in the acting categories is ”Mystic River,” which accounts for three — Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Marcia Gay Harden. One could argue that this imbalance occurs because Penn, Robbins, and Harden stand out in a small ensemble, as opposed to the jam-packed roster of men in ”Master and Commander,” orcs in ”The Return of the King.” But Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and William H. Macy give good perfs in ”Seabiscuit,” too — a similarly sized principal cast — and barely made an impression on me (or, apparently, Academy voters). Why? I’ll tell you why: Because horse-fable director Gary Ross has no particular ear for the chamber music of master actors in ensemble, and Clint Eastwood does. Penn, Robbins, and Harden are superb actors, true, but the director brought out their best work.

Owen Gleiberman I’d argue that the trio of ”Mystic River” acting nominations sprung, in classic old-school Oscar fashion, out of the general acclaim that the movie received. I think that Sean Penn, who anchors the film, really deserved his, but one of the many problems I have with ”Mystic River” begins with Tim Robbins’ performance. He does such an overstated job of acting that character as a timid, trembly, dysfunctional wreck of a man that he seemed, at times, to be playing the nerd psycho out of a slasher movie — a neorealist Norman Bates. It was italicized ”victim” acting, as showy, in its way, as the character was shy.

And while I’m on the subject of Oscar nominations that stick in my craw, let me be the bad-guy detractor and point out that Djimon Hounsou’s nomination for ”In America” is all too piously predictable. He’s a forceful actor, all right, but he is being honored for playing a role that simply HAS to be retired: the black saint who is put on earth to save white people. Say what you will about its sensitivity as an Irish-family saga, but the racial politics of ”In America” are mired — depressingly — in the 19th century.

LS As letters from our readers often begin, ”Were you seeing the same movie I was”? Part of what I love about ”Mystic River” (and what, indeed, I love about ”The Lord of the Rings”) is that although each actor goes deep, he or she does not go broad in the role, and each works in service to the larger story as much as in service to the individual tragic character. For me, Robbins and Penn actually…reined their stuff in!

As for Hounsou, funny, I have no reaction whatsoever to his performance, maybe because I felt nothing whatsoever for the character: I didn’t know who he was, what he was feeling, why he was feeling it, why he became friendly with his Irish-sprite neighbors, why he did anything at all. Really, I thought ”In America” was a foreign-language film without subtitles, and I was convinced of none of it. It sounds, however, that you’re dismissing the role rather than the acting. Which is, come to think of it, what I’d do with Patricia Clarkson in ”Pieces of April.” Ah, there’s a movie about which we can warmly agree, can’t we? We didn’t like it! We were unconvinced by its twinkly dramedy structure, its faux East Village vibe, its picturesque squalor and neurosis, its preciousness! Meanwhile, in a role I didn’t believe, Clarkson was terrific. Why is Clarkson so frequently terrific?