Oscar 2009: Christoph Waltz for Best Actor

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It may be too early to make Oscar predictions, and as of late August, there have been few Oscar-caliber pictures or performances.  However, one actor stands a good chance to receive an Oscar nomination, Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII fable, “Inglourious Basterds,” which opens nationwide August 21.


It's hard to tell whether Waltz, the 52 year-old Austrian-born actor, will be competing for the supporting or lead Oscar as Tarantino's WWII fantasy is very much an ensemble-drive picture.  Indeed, though Brad Pitt is the biggest name in the cast, who gets star billing, I think his role as Lt. Aldo Raine is a secondary one.  Pitt, who gives an entertaining but largely one-note performance may be in the run, too, and likely there will be an argument whether he plays the lead or supporting role.


Waltz had deservedly won the Best Actor kudo at the Cannes Film Fest, where “Inglourious Basterds” received it world premiere, and Cannes' acting awards do not distinguish between lead and supporting ones.


Like all of Tarantino pictures (the good and the mediocre) the best elements of “Inglourious Basterds” are the characterizations, dialogue and acting, and the helmer should be commended to gathering a superlative multi-national cast, which speak in at least three languages (English, German, French, and a bit Italian, too).


Even so, amongst a uniformly accomplished troupe, Waltz shines in every scene he is in, and he sets the tone for the rest of the picture in the very first (and best) scene.


Let me elaborate. Chapter One of “Inglourious Basterds” begins in rural France, during the first year of the German Occupation, by depicting a French farmer named Perrier Lapadite (a terrific Denis Menochet, blessed with soulful and expressive eyes), who’s hiding a Jewish family in the cellar of his house.  In the first heavy-duty dialogue-driven scene (this is a Tarantino picture, after all), the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as the “Jew hater,” unexpectedly arrives at the farmer’s house and begins interrogating him.  Two glasses of milk later (I am not kidding), the farmer is forced to reveal the whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, the Jewish family he’s hiding, which leads to the first of many massacres of bullets flying all over the place.


Ultimately, the film belongs to Waltz as Colonel Landa, the only character that interacts with each of the other ones.  It’s a pleasure to watch Waltz as he deploys his snake-like charm and courtly manner as well as nastily aggressive voice (when needed), not to mention his fluency in four languages.  His scenes with Bridget at the movie house and with Aldo Raine in the woods at the end of the film are priceless, largely due to Tarantino’s exquisite control of language and tone.


Reportedly, the part of Col. Hans Landa was initially a casting challenge and Tarantino was apprehensive about finding the right actor.  But upon auditioning Waltz, the thespian immediately set Tarantino’s mind at ease.  Producer Lawrence Bender recalls: “Christoph starts his audition, and Quentin’s reading with him. “Quentin and I looked at each other, and I could see in his eyes, and he could see in my eyes that we found him.  It was just so amazing that Quentin was so concerned, and literally hours later the guy walks in that can do it in English, French, and German.  He was just killing it.”


For his part, Waltz said at the press conference in Cannes: “It's one of the best parts I've ever read.  It's so tight-footed that I wasn't concerned with the evil part at all.”


True, Waltz's interpretation to his terrifying role is serious, matter-of-fact, subtle, and multi-nuanced, lacking the campy, over-the-top, one-dimensional approach that a lesser actor would have used.


If Waltz gets a nomination it won't be a first.  The Academy has nominated before actors that played villains gangsters and Nazis, but they were stars or recognizable names like Humphrey Bogart, Robert de Niro, and Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler's List.”  Waltz is an unknown quantity in Hollywood and for the American public at large.  Thus, his prospects at an Oscar nod are directly related to, and perhaps even contingent on, the level of commercial appeal of Tarnatino's picture.