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A supporting cast that's unforgettable

There is no minimum time for fine acting, be it in just one scene

February 15, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

In looking at the Oscar category of best supporting actor and actress, I'm reminded of the sort of delicious dinner party that lingers in your memory years later. Although presumably you accept the invitation because you have some affection for the host, it is the unexpected alchemy of possibilities created by those on the guest list that heighten anticipation of the event.

Then the evening arrives. Though it might be subconscious or unfair, we tend to judge a party by the company it keeps with success resting on the narrow or broad shoulders of those around you. And so it is with supporting characters in movies.

They may come late and stay just a little while. Penelope Cruz doesn't show up until nearly 40 minutes into "Vicky Christina Barcelona"; Michael Shannon was a late arrival in "Revolutionary Road," as was Viola Davis with her single riveting scene in "Doubt," and Josh Brolin in "Milk." Or they might be there for the duration, spreading their energy across the evening: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in "Doubt," Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler," Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" and Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder." But it matters that they were there. In some fundamental way they season the experience. They each find a way to make the party unforgettable.

I'm not sure there is anyone around who can rage quite as compellingly as Cruz. She has a face that is stunning when it is quiet and contemplative, which it so rarely is. Eyes with pooling drops of sadness always, the not-quite-perfect nose and that wild tangle of hair. As Maria Elena in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" the homicidal and suicidal ex-wife of Javier Bardem's artist, Juan Antonio, she comes into the film bruised and angry. Once again, she is fearless, emotionally naked -- a body at war with itself, explosive, uncontained one moment, soft, repentant the next.

One scene. A tiny slice in the life of a film, that might well have landed on the cutting room floor but for the way it grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. Such is Davis in "Doubt," for me the most memorable of a rich season. You cannot breathe from the moment she comes into the frame as a mother learning that her child may have been molested by a priest. There is a lifetime of misery in every tentative glance, every nervous gesture. You can almost see the slender but fraying thread stretched between her hope and desperation, her fear and frustration. And when you finally do breathe, when she has disappeared behind a door, it is not relief you feel but wrenching sadness and desolation at the truth she has allowed you, forced you to see.

"Doubt" also brings us the twin pillars of Hoffman as Father Flynn, the fly under the microscope, and Adams, as the novice Sister James, whose vague concerns put him there. For both of them, it is an examination of loss -- Father Flynn's arrogance will be stripped away, Sister James will lose nearly every shred of her innocence. The high-wire act that writer-director John Patrick Shanley has created is dangerous particularly for Hoffman, who must create an absolute balance between villain and victim so that we're almost but never quite sure which he is. Hoffman's body and his voice are his blessing -- with the slightest shift in either, he can change the temperature in the room. He can seem impossibly loose and tightly wound all at the same time.

Where Hoffman represents complex mystery, Adams comes in as simple clarity, transparency. Of all the characters in "Doubt," Sister James is the one who could have most easily slipped into cliche. But Adams won't let her -- moving step by careful step through the naivete, the righteousness, the confusion, the indecision and the disillusionment, handing each one to us to reckon with at just the right time and in just the right way. Sister James shrouded in black says volumes with the tentative dip of her head, the blush that stings her cheeks, her eyes at times piercingly direct, at others averted in shame. It is Sister James whom Shanley charges with leading us on this journey of uncertainty and ambiguity, and if there was a false note in Adams' performance, the film would have been left to founder. She never does.

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