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The Oscars: Winners

Did they deserve it?

One performance, one film, one year. That's the old standard for the

February 23, 2009|Betsy Sharkey | Film Critic

ACTOR

Sean Penn -- without a doubt

With Sean Penn, there is forever the sense that he has demons of his own to beat back before he can slip underneath the skin of whatever character is awaiting dissection on the table in front of him. The knives are always at the ready, the guns loaded, the enemy awaits.

And so it felt with "Milk" that there were wounds that he needed to suffer through first to excavate the soul of the slain San Francisco politician and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk.

It was a transformative journey, and Penn took all of us along with him, from the grit of a subway hookup to the emerging idealism of the martyr he was to become.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 135 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar photographs: In some editions of Monday's Calendar, a photograph with an article about the backstage scene at the Oscars said that it showed Jack Black with a stage director. Black was with the telecast's producer, Laurence Mark. And a caption on a photograph of "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle being congratulated after the show said he was being embraced by his wife. She is his ex-wife. Also, a photograph of Kate Winslet, Sean Penn and Penelope Cruz on the section cover was credited to Los Angeles Times photographer Jay L. Clendenin, but the picture was taken by Times photographer Lawrence K. Ho. And with the article about red carpet fashions, the photograph of actress Taraji P. Henson wearing a Roberto Cavalli gown should have been credited to Times photographer Bryan Chan, not Wally Skalij.

Though Penn has countless performances from the searing to the sublime, "Milk" became the crucible that would test him, revealing a new essential core of complexity within an already complex actor's actor. It is in the ever-so-slight release of tension that seems to always play across Penn's body, the bare tilt of his head, the way his voice pirouetted around the homilies he is preaching. In "Milk," he found his way to new emotional depths.

ACTRESS

Kate Winslet -- why this time?

An extraordinary and much-loved actress, Kate Winslet is disarming, delightful, decent in a world saturated by excessively annoying egos. So many richly attenuated performances from that increasingly rare creature who treats acting as craft as much as art. Six times nominated and until now passed over.

Yet, you have to wonder whether the academy was in the tight grip of guilt for all the times Winslet has been overlooked, so that only an Oscar would assuage.

It was clearly a dream moment for Winslet, yet in the dark of future nights there are bound to come moments when she murmurs to herself, as I did Sunday night, why not "Little Children"? Or "Iris"? What of "Sense and Sensibility"? What a shame that it was the rough-textured Hanna in "The Reader" that would place the Oscar, finally, in her hands.

Why not Melissa Leo? What of Meryl Streep?

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Heath Ledger - yes, absolutely

What would "The Dark Knight" have been without the Joker, that swirling and malevolent force that Batman must overcome? A far less disturbing experience, to be sure. But it was a dark and potent magic that Heath Ledger conjured, and the result was indelible, haunting you long after the film had become just a distant memory.

Never satisfied with the commonplace, the actor re-imagined the very notion of a comic book character from the inside out, building instead a complex human, born of flesh and blood and pain, seething with disillusionment and revenge. His twisted scar of a face, that sneer of a smile, the twitching lurch, the maniacal laughter -- all of the oversized pieces of this tortured and punishing soul the actor channeled with compassion and care.

Though it may be, it should not be said that Ledger's death last year at 28 won him the Oscar. His passing added layers of emotion, yes, but his is a performance that stands alone in its power and humility, a brilliant interior piece for a character who could have been little more than a series of vaporous expressions.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz - yes, but ...

With rages that send her limbs flying madly and whispers that seduce all within reach, Penelope Cruz swims in a sea churning with emotions to create the extraordinarily troubled Maria Elena in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." She's late coming into the film, but it's never better than when she is on screen as a woman torn between a love she has lost and a tangle of needs she can neither control nor ignore. In Cruz's hands, Maria Elena as the not-to-be-forgotten ex-wife dances exquisitely on the edge of insanity, and for the fearless courage of that performance she deserved to win.

Still, it's impossible not to at least sigh that Viola Davis' heartbreakingly tragic Mrs. Miller in "Doubt" didn't quite make it to the stage. There is a lifetime in just a single scene thanks to Davis, in her face unspeakable anguish, her son's future in the hands of everyone else, it seems, but hers. She sees his fragile psyche facing damage on so many fronts -- the priest, his father, the world in which he must try to survive his coming-of-age issues. Her resignation is fierce and unforgettable.

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