Oscar 2014: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher as Top Contender

foxcatcher_4_carellThe 2014 Oscar race has unofficially begun!

Each and every year, several films and performances, first seen at the prestigious Cannes Film Fest, emerge as serious Oscar contenders.

You may recall that “The Artist” (by Michel Hazanavicius) received its world premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Fest before sweeping the Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Last year, the Italian film, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” played at Cannes in competition before walking off with the Golden Globe and Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

This year, it seems to be Bennett Miller’s tragic biopic, “Foxcatcher,” in which Steve Carell gives an Oscar-caliber performance.

foxcatcher_6_carell_tatumCarell plays John du Pont, the paranoid-schizophrenic millionaire who in 1996 murdered Olympic wrestler David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) after sponsoring and befriending his wrestler younger brother, Mark (Channing Tatum).

Playing a scary, powerful, uniquely American monster, Carell offers a deft performance that includes many ingredients of “Oscar stuff” roles.

To begin with, Carell’s turn is based on complete physical transformation.  He is truly barely recognizable, wearing a prosthetic nose, false teeth and a receding hairline. I don’t want to belittle Carell’s modulated and subtle role by suggesting that he is in good company–as far as noses are concerned:

Jose Ferrer won the 1950 Best Actor Oscar for playing the titular role in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Four decades later, Gerard Depardieu achieved the same effect in a new Frecnh version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Then there is Nicole Kidman’s 2002 Best Actress Oscar turn as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.”

One year later, the elegantly beautiful Charlize Theron transformed herself completely (including prosthetic nose) snagged the Best Actress Oscar for playing the lesbian serial killer in “Monster.”

That said, Carell’s acting goes beyond effective physical disguise, He seems to inhabit the part from the inside, claiming it as his own through looks, gestures, and moves.

foxcatcher_1_carell_tatumIn the press conference, following the first critics screening, Carell said that he had prepared for the part by studying hours of footage of the real John du Pont. “I watched as much as I could, I read as much as I could about him and tried to get semblance about the type of person he was,” Carell said.

There was a lot of footage to choose from: John du Point was such an egotist and narcissist that he commissioned documentaries about his own life.  He turned his Pennsylvania estate into a training ground for American wrestlers and called himself a coach, even though he didn’t know much about the sports.

Director Miller said that, initially, there was nothing in Carell’s comedic career that suggested he could pull off such a rigorous character study. But after one lunch together, Miller was convinced that the actor was right for the part.

“I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said, who kept using the variations of the word “journalistic” when describing how he and his cast went about adapting the real-life story.

Sony Pictures Classics, which will release the film on November 14 in the U.S., in time of for serious Oscar considerations, hasn’t decided yet whether Carell will be entered in the lead or supporting actor category, but he’ll certainly be nominated no matter what they choose.

Beyond Carell, the movie also showcases superb acting from Channing Tatum (the film’s lead) and Mark Ruffalo (in a supporting role).

Miller’s previous films, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” were both nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brad Pitt, respectively).

”We prepared pretty intensely for about five to six months,” said Channing Tatum, adding that the wrestling practice left him and Ruffalo with bum knees, to say the least.  It was worth the sacrifice: “Foxcatcher” is already one of the highlights of this year’s Cannes Film Fest, bound to win major jury awards.

End Note

A week after this essay was posted, Bennett Miller received the Best Director prize from canne’s Grand Jury, headed by Oscar-winner Jane Campion.