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Yes, but Can They Act?

Our panel of acting coaches applauds, questions, criticizes and otherwise dissects--in no-holds-barred fashion--the year's 20 nominated performances.

March 23, 1997|Elaine Dutka

Just how good are the Oscar-nominated performances when dissected by a host of experts? For the fourth year running, three local acting coaches--Janet Alhanti, Howard Fine and Larry Moss--take a stab. Their comments are remarkably frank for such a politic town--a triumph of candor over diplomacy.


TOM CRUISE ("Jerry Maguire")

Fine: In "Interview With the Vampire" and "Mission: Impossible," Cruise played his idea of a villain and hero. Here he digs deep. Rather than playing slick from the get-go, making a whirlwind transformation into an individual with the courage to speak his mind, we see both strains early on. A person is never just one thing.

Moss: This is the fullest use of Cruise's comic ability to date. Very few actors allow themselves this kind of wacky theatricality--arching his back, skipping around the room like a madman. Like Harrison Ford, Cruise also lets us feel how scared the character is underneath the bravura. Though his voice still has an adolescent quality to it, Cruise is about to become a real leading man.


("The English Patient")

Alhanti: Ralph should not be pronounced "Rafe"--and the same lack of naturalness finds its way into his acting. Fiennes' cold and distant technique worked for him in "Schindler's List," but here it conveys a twisted sense of love. Unlike Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson who freely expose their sensitivity, Fiennes' character seems to regard love as a weakness.

Fine: Mannered and affected, the actor's emotional life seems to be contained in a box. Even when the character is drunk and railing at the officers of the club--an ideal chance to let go--Fiennes continues to play only the notes he carefully selected. He doesn't know how to invest himself in a part. It's bloodless--all in his head.


("The People vs. Larry Flynt")

Alhanti: There's something inherently warm and likable about Harrelson--a boyishness to his look and speech that makes us see a totally unsympathetic character almost as a righteous man. And this is the same actor who did "White Men Can't Jump"--he's got incredible range.

Fine: Harrelson wisely chose to focus on the childlike, playful aspect of the character--especially in the carousing scenes--to deflect a bit of the political incorrectness. He never let outward actions define character. Still, there was a glaring inconsistency in this performance. Three-quarters of the way through, he adopted a heavy accent. It was as though he had cotton balls in his mouth.


Alhanti: Though there were no walls to this performance, the actor avoided going over the top. Laughing, talking under his breath, sending out messages almost like a revelation, he was still in the confines of the piece. In "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman played the part. In this case, Rush let the part play on him.

Fine: Rush nailed the performance. But the work of Noah Taylor as the adolescent David Helfgott is technically more difficult and Oscar-worthy. Taylor's character was a transitional one. As an eccentric, Rush's path was more clearly defined.


("Sling Blade")

Fine: I can't remember the last time an actor's physicality alone made me feel. Thornton had that halting speech, compression in the neck and head--and the guts to let himself be seen that way. He allowed the layers to peel off gradually, unafraid we'd write the character off.

Moss: Thornton says more in one grunt than most writers say in a whole script. He's so deeply internal, he makes us move in close. There's a wonderful underdog quality to the actor like there was with Ernest Borgnine in "Marty." One second of self-pity would have killed the whole role.



("Secrets & Lies")

Alhanti: Blethyn is unguarded, responding to everything around her. The simplicity of her approach is what makes the role so touching. There's something so girlish in her portrayal, so painful and unfulfilled. What makes it bearable is the optimism she projects. Blethyn's character was hurt but she didn't close the door.

Moss: Blethyn and the director allowed her character to be almost unlikable, hard to listen to. You wanted to tell her to shut the hell up. She seemed to be clutching at everything--grasping for connection. Somehow, Blethyn turned it around and made us love her. The moment she realized she was the mother of a black child was brilliant. Denying it at first, we saw her catalog the moments in her life and, in close-up, stumble on the moment of conception.


("Marvin's Room")

Alhanti: This performance was very different from past Keaton--devoid of kookiness and one-liners. She reached places she hasn't gone before. Vanity-wise, exposing herself without the wig was the height of bravery. And, rather than going for the "martyr," she went against the obvious and made it about everyone else.

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