By John H. Foote
It is often forgotten that comic Eddie Murphy won the prestigious National Society Of Film Critics Best Actor Award for his brilliant performance(s) in The Nutty Professor (1996), though no Oscar love came his way. It was his superb supporting performance in Dreamgirls (2006) that earned the actor his first and only Academy Award nomination, an award he deserved to win, and he was deeply hurt when he did not. Steve Martin has twice earned the major critics awards for Best Actor for his performances in All of Me (1984) one of the most dazzling comic performances ever given. The New York Film Critics honoured him with Best Actor for that role, an extraordinary example of great physical comedy. Three years later both the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Society Of Film Critics had him tie for Best Actor with Jack Nicholson. Martin was named for his modern day Cyrano de Bergerac in Roxanne (1987), an elegant, romantic performance that was again, physical perfection. Though Robin Williams began as a stand up comic, he would eventually become one of the most respected actors in movies with fine dramatic work in Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1991), The Fisher King (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997) for which he won an Oscar, One Hour Photo (2002) and Insomniac (2002), the latter two as dangerously psychotic characters.
If Adam Sandler is nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, will the earth fall out of orbit? Will the oceans dry up?
Sandler gives a ferocious, seething performance in Uncut Gems, and should be in discussion for a nomination. But because he is Adam Sandler, he might not be in the race, which is hugely unfair. The comedian has grown as an actor considerably, and working with better directors and writers less likely to give in to his comic antics and arsenal of infantile voices and humour, has only allowed that growth. Moving away from critically savaged work such as Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), The Waterboy (1998), Big Daddy (1999), and Little Nicky (2000), all films appealing to the lowest common denominator in comedy, Sandler shocked the film world by making Punch Drunk Love (2002), a film with auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, and delivered a mesmerizing performance. Following that with Anger Management (2003) opposite no less than Jack Nicholson, both actors were clearly having fun going over the top, which was equally fun for audiences, who proceeded to turn the film into a monster hit.
Did working with Nicholson permit Sandler greater growth as an artist?
Starring in the remake of the football/ prison comedy/ drama The Longest Yard (2005), Sandler conveyed real star power as a disgraced pro football player, former MVP jailed for bad behaviour. As the anchor in the film, Sandler was often the straight man to the often hilarious supporting characters led by Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan.
His work in Spanglish (2005) felt even and relaxed, a very real character caught up in a family nightmare. His high maintenance harpy of a wife, an excellent Tea Leoni, has cheated on him while he has denied his feelings for their housekeeper, the luminous Paz Vega. Sandler has a lovely scene where he cooks for Vega, confessing his love for her while acknowledging despite her cheating he still loves his wife. Rarely had we seen him so grounded, as the most normal person in the film, and a warm and loving father. He was superb in the film, but it failed rather miserably at the box office.
As good as he was in Spanglish and The Longest Yard (2005), nothing prepared anyone for the stunning performance he gave in the criminally under appreciated Reign Over Me (2007).
As a successful dentist who lost his entire family in 9/11, his wife and girls were aboard one of the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center, causing him to shut down, retreat from life, and renovate his kitchen over and over. Seething with unspoken rage, he rarely speaks and when he looks at someone, anyone, he really is never looking at them but through them. His in laws want to keep him in their lives but he cannot talk about it, he cannot connect. He loves them, but he can no longer truly love because all his love went up in flames on September 11, 2001. The airline has given him millions in a settlement, but he cannot enjoy it because of what it represents. His character is drowning in grief and needs a life line, when he encounters an old college buddy portrayed by Don Cheadle.
Sandler received the finest reviews of his career in the film, he really was exceptional, but the Academy ignored the film entirely. In underplaying the character Sandler allowed us to feel his pain, and eventually we see it too. No denying, he was brilliant, haunting and tragic, a shattering piece of acting from a most unexpected source.
His performance as a darker version of himself in Funny People (2009) was very good, though I suspect a lot of people felt he was playing himself, or a variation of who Adam Sandler is. What perhaps they missed in watching the film was that for much of it, George (Sandler) is dealing with a terminal illness. I thought Sandler captured rather beautifully, the sadness of a man who has everything but who has nothing real at all.
What he achieves in Uncut Germs is revelatory. There were times you might believe you are in a time machine watching a young Al Pacino in one of his great seventies performances, until he smiles, then you are reminded it is Sandler. Manic, frenetic, always in motion, sweaty, aggressive, pathetic it is a major performance from an actor who deserves critical respect. It reminds me of when Jack Lemmon gave a dramatic performance as an alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and the previously comedic actor was suddenly taken seriously.
As Howard, a jeweler who is also a degenerate gambler and scammer, Sandler is searing in his contempt for those around him. There is no living soul he will not betray if given the chance, seeing everyone as a mark for his personal gain. When he pawns an athlete’s championship ring left as collateral, he gets himself into a very bad place with bookies, the mob, and his wife. Though he knows the trouble he is in he never stops moving forward, trying to come out of it ahead. Even when he realizes his family is in danger he stays in the game.
In the end Howard is a contemptible human being, a person you would never wish to encounter because there is a sleaze to him that is not hidden. Minutes after meeting him you know exactly who he is. The last time I saw such a reptile portrayed on screen was Robert De Niro as brawling Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). De Miro won an Oscar for that film; do you think they will have the courage to nominate Sandler?
I hope he goes all the way. He did with the performance, a fearless piece of acting in which he goes all in portraying a first class bastard. It was galvanizing.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.