By John H. Foote

I have been told by actors themselves – Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Holly Hunter – that an opinion such as mine, coming from a man who has acted, who has studied acting, and who has directed a substantial number of plays matters a great deal to them.

“Well, you’ve done it” roared Duvall, “why would I not pay attention to your reviews knowing what I do about you?”

“We are taught to listen to our peers, any of our peers, and having acted, more so having directed, of course I would listen to you” explained Ed Harris, “and though I might disagree, I would take in what you wrote.”

Hunter said, “All critics should have to act in a play or a film, let them feel what it is to make yourself so vulnerable and open for attack, and make no mistake some of them like the attacking.”

I have never believed I was any better than the next guy as a critic, and in fact have a handful of film critics I enjoy ready today. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were at the top of my list of go to reading during my younger days and Kael provided an education in film history. 

Studying theatre in 1980-1982 I had no interest in acting, like zero. But I knew if I wanted to direct, and I did, that I had to speak the language of the actors and know how to work with them. My audition was good enough to get into an elite program (at the time), so of the hundreds, maybe 1,000 auditionees, I found myself with a place. My professors were under no illusion as to what I wanted to do and why I was there, and more than a few rules were broken for me by Jerry Smith, Jim Peddie and Gerry Pearson, the instructors I admired most. In my second year, Jerry Smith gave the green light to my directing two mainstage productions, and a workshop production. My understanding was that I was the first student director to ever be gifted with such an honor.

Moving on to the real world, I went onto direct more than 40 plays including all of the great American Post-War Dramas that electrified audiences in the forties and fifties. But film called to me, and when the chance to move into film criticism came, I took the leap, leaving stage directing behind me.

I found that my education in acting benefited me as a critic because I focused on the acting, looking for the truth in the performances to propel the narrative of the story. In my near forty years as a film critic, I have seen several what I call performances for the ages, performances on film that will be remembered for the next 50 years. 

I saw one of them this year.

As doomed Princess Diana in Spencer, Kristen Stewart gave an astonishing performance, slipping under the skin of the character to become Diana before our eyes. That whispering voice, the habit of tilting her head, the look of wonderment she often had on her face, and later the absolute devotion she possessed to her boys is all captured in Stewart’s breathing, luminous performance. 

Today the Screen Actors Guild announced their nominations for performance excellent last year and I am both outraged and stunned that Miss Stewart is absent as a nominee. This gifted actress has been snubbed for the finest performance I have seen this year and easily the finest of her career. After being brutalized by critics for her work in the Twilight teen franchise, she had begun to grow as an actor in films such as Personal Shopper (2018) but as Diana went to another level. Shame on the Guild for ignoring her. They look petty, mean and small by leaving her out, as her performance is the finest of the year, far surpassing the five nominated.

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Nominated for Best Actress are Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter, Jennifer Hudson in Respect and the fifth, Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos. To be clear, Stewart blew any one of the five off the screen, it is nothing short of criminal she has been snubbed. She is either intensely disliked in Hollywood, or there was a sudden love in for Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball. Chastain, Gaga, and Colman, no argument, superb performances, but Stewart blew past them. Neither Hudson, who was very good, or Kidman should be there in place of Stewart. Period.

Left out too and deserving was Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story, utterly incandescent, a startling omission. West Side Story was ignored with The Power of the Dog as Best Ensemble, stunning Hollywood with its absence. 

Left out of the Best Actor race are Peter Dinklage’s magnificent Cyrano and Nicolas Cage brilliant work in Pig. Nominated are Javier Bardem for Being the Ricardos (why, why, why?), Will Smith in King Richard, Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog, and Andrew Garfield in tick…tick, BOOM! Bardem has no business being a nominee, and his presence means no nomination for the sublime Dinklage. Cage was in a film seen too long ago and early releases are often not nominated. I am not happy about it, but I get it.

Best Supporting Actor nominees are Bradley Cooper in Licorice Pizza, Troy Kotsur in CODA, Jared Leto in House of Gucci, Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog and something of a surprise, though very pleasant, Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar. None of the male actors from Belfast were nominated, nor Mike Faist, the well-reviewed young man from West Side Story.

Supporting Actress: Caitriona Balfe in Belfast, Cate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley, Ariana DeBose in West Side Story, Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog, and Ruth Negga in Passing. No Judi Dench in Belfast, nor Rita Moreno in West Side Story, the mind reels. 

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