Oscar 2005: Best Actor to Tommy Lee Jones

Will Tommy Lee Jones follow in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood and land an Oscar nomination, as an actor and/or director, for his revisionist Western, “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which finally got theatrical distribution (Sony Picture Classics) out of the Toronto Film Festival.

Jones is about the same age that Eastwood was when first nominated for Best Actor for the Western “Unforgiven,” (1992), which went on to win Best Picture and Director. Imention Eastwood and his revenge Western, because Jones' “Three Burials” is very much in the vein of Eastwood's work. Structured as a classic revenge Western that will do Sam Peckinpah and Eastwood proud, Jones' big-screen directorial debut is a sharply observed morality tale with strong political and racial overtones.

With solid critical support, savvy marketing, and some luck, the film, which won acting and writing awards at the Cannes Festival, where it received its world premiere, may be nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Actor.

The critic David Denby once labeled Jones as “the unknown great American actor,” and to some extent there's still validity to that description. Was it Jones' unconventional look that has kept him in the dark for a long time With his large forehead, deep-set dark eyes, rough skin and a smile that could be frightening, Jones was too unnerving-looking to be cast in ordinary roles. Intense and tough looking, he was relegated to playing troubled or troublesome roles.

Jones' acting might have been too original for mainstream Hollywood. His off-hand way of doing things, devastating style of delivery, and rapid, terse approach made him unique, perhaps too unique.

For 20 years, Jones has appeared in mostly bad or mediocre movies, playing villains or taciturn friends. Yet Jones is one of the few great American actors to have benefited from TV work. He performed in three remarkable TV movies in which he proved to be extremely versatile.

Jones was clever and mischievous as Howard Hughes in William A. Graham's 1977 “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” far more compelling than Leonardo DiCaprio was in Scorsese's “The Aviator.” He won an Emmy for his disturbed portrait of killer Gary Gilmore in “The Executioner's Song” (1982), based on Norman Mailer's work. Jones then gave an utterly convincing reading as a classic cowboy in Simon Wincer”s “Lonesome Dove” (1989). Looking natural on a horse, and effortlessly sporting a cowboy hat, Jones inhabited in all three films the wild spaces of the West. And now he is doing the same thing in his new Western, “Three Burials.”

From a Dallas prep school, Jones went to Harvard, where he studied English and played football. He was part of a group of extremely intelligent and gifted actors that included John Lithgow, James Woods, and Stockard Channing. He made his screen debut, as Tom Lee Jones, in “Love Story” (1970), then played parts in “Jackson County Jail” (1976), “Rolling Thunder” (1977), “The Betsy” (1978), and “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (also 1978), all films that didn't “belong” to him.

Though an actor of range and versatility, Hollywood didn't know what to do with Jones, and consequently, his screen career advanced slowly. For a while, he seemed to be doomed to be playing heavies and villains and other second bananas. Jones always looked credible as a cowboy, while he had the misfortune of working in an era when the Western genre was all but dead.

Nonetheless, Jones excelled in several supporting roles, such as Sissy Spacek's husband in the Oscar-winning “Coal Miner's Daughter” (1980), but again it was Spacek's movie. Then he co-starred with Sally Field in the disappointing “Back Roads” (1981). He was extremely touching as an ex-con in “The River Rat” (1984)

Of all filmmakers, it was Andrew Davis who rescued Jones from obscurity and second-rate career in “The Package” (1989), which was followed by a stunning turn as the shadowy, decadent Clay Shaw in Oliver Stones' controversial “JFK” (1991), for which he received his first Supporting Oscar nomination.

Jones then brought panache to the mayhem in the actioner “Under Siege” (1992), again directed by Davis, in which he deliberately gave an over-the-top performance. Davis was also responsible for casting Jones in one of his juiciest roles, in “The Fugitive” (1993), in which he was the motor that drove an implausible film (based on the popular TV series).

Coolly malevolent, Jones gave a witty interpretation of a man who needed to be in command, underplaying the smart, sardonic investigator Gerard with strength and authority. Jones eclipsed the nominal hero, played by Harrison Ford, and won his first, supporting Oscar. It was one of those borderline cases; Jones should have been nominated for a lead role, since he got co-star billing with Ford, and in fact has a larger part than Ford.

Mainstream Hollywood took notice and began casting Jones in bigger pictures that made him more popular, but didn't draw on his distinctive talent. He appeared in mindless actioners, such as “Blown Away” (1994), and in Joel Schumacher's “The Client” (1994), in which the star was Susan Sarandon.

Almost invariably, Jones rose above the limitations of his movies. He gave a sensitive interpretation as Jessica Lange's military husband in Tony Richardson's “Blue Sky” (1994), for which Lange won her second Oscar. Jones excelled in Oliver Stone's ultra-violent satire, “Natural Born Killers” and should have been nominated for playing the title role, the black frog croak, in Ron Shelton's sports biopicture, “Cobb” (1994), but the movie was a commercial failure.

Jones became a box-office draw in the late 1990s with a spate of well-drawn performances in thriller and actioners, such as “Volcano” (1997), “Men in Black” (1997) and the sequel “MIB2,” both directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, “US Marshals” (1998), the sequel to “The Fugitives,” “Double Jeopardy” (1999), “Rules of Engagement,” and Clint Eastwood's “Space Cowboys” (both in 2000).

And now comes “Three Burials,” a project initiated by Jones and written by Guillermo Arriaga. An accomplished writer, Arriaga is a known quantity in Hollywood, having written the Oscar-nominated Mexican, “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, which Focus Features released in 2003.

The project was initiated by Jones, who was born and raised in West Texas and for years owned a cattle ranch in the Davis Mountains. The film explores the area's unique culture, which both unites and divides Americans and Mexicans. In an effort to reflect the rhythm and poetry of South Texas, Arriaga originally wrote the script in Spanish. Set around the violent border of Texas and Mexico, this cultural clash tale contrasts White Americans with their Mexicans neighbors-enemies.

“Three Burials” interweaves together the lives of a Texas ranch foreman, Pete Perkins (Jones), a border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), and an illegal immigrant, Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cediloo). All three characters are outsiders, or marginal men who live on the periphery and don't belong to any culture. Perkins would like to see peaceful co-existence and mutual respect between the two cultures; he speaks Spanish fluently, and is well versed in Mexican mores.

When Melquiades is killed, and Perkins finds out that no further action will be taken, he's outraged at the disrespect to his friend. Contemptuous toward the ineffective sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), Perkins decides to take the law into his hands and remedy the situation by kidnapping the killer, Mike Norton.

Thought it's contemporary, the story has the feel of a timeless tale. The nonlinear film promotes the notion that there are no clear distinctions between the past and the present, implying that the yarn could have taken place in both time frames. The tripartite story changes perspective and tone as its moves back and forth through time.

Most American border films have reflected the POV of the white heroes. However, in this film, though the main character is white, his unique status lands the story a more balanced perspective, one that looks at the problem of illegal immigration and border crossing in a more compassionate way.

Jones gives a strong, effortless performance in a tough role that dominates the entire film; he's practically in every scene. It's time for the Academy to take Jones more seriously as a leading man and nominate him for Best Actor.