Oscar 2009: Michael Stuhlbarg for Best Actor in Coens' Serious Man

This article is in praise of Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man," which opens next week and should be remembered at Oscar time. (See long review).
Almost every year, the Academy's Acting Branch selects a relatively unknown actor for an Oscar Award nomination. Do not get me wrong: These actors are highly skillful and carry with them years theatrical and TV work. However, they are not famous and they are not known to the large public from their movie roles.
Last year, there was Melissa Leo in Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River" and Richard Jenkins in Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," both "small" yet highly original and significant indies, which had premiered and won awards at the Sundance Film Festival. The year before it was Jackie Earle Haley in Todd Field's "Little Children," and Michael Shannon in Sam Mendes "Revolutionary Road."
And this year, with strong critical support, savvy marketing from Focus Features, and some luck, it should be Michael Stuhlbarg, who turns in a splendid, multi-nuanced performance as a contemporary Job in the Coens' serio-comic Jewish parable "Serious Man," one of the best pictures of the year.
There's a danger however that "Serious Man," one of their deepest and most poignant films, would be label "too small," or "too Jewish," and will suffer at the commercial marketplace as a result of these labels in a way that the works of other overtly Jewish directors, say Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Paul Mazurski, never had.
Told from the perspective of the Midwest circa 1967 that Joel and Ethan Coen knew when they were growing up, "Serious Man" is a serio-comic Jewish folk tale with universal humanistic overtones. Although the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, is a made-up (fictional) character, he is based on people who were familiar to the siblings while growing up because he's an academic and both of their parents were academics.
Says Ethan, "Larry is a middle-aged Jewish father in a community not unlike the one we grew up in, where there were lots of them." Adds Joel, "Larry is the head of the family, and he just wants to keep things going. At the beginning of the story, he's happy with the way things are, with the status quo. But misfortunes befall him, and he can't believe that the apple cart is being upset."

The screenplay was initially equally concerned with Larry as with his teenage son Danny (about to go through bar-mitzvah), but the emphasis shifted as the script developed. Ethan admits, "The fun of the story was inventing new ways to torture Larry. His life just progressively gets worse."

In casting "Serious Man," Joel wanted "a lead actor who would be essentially unknown to the audience." Michael Stuhlbarg isn't unknown if you're a theatergoer in New York, but to movie audiences he's relatively unknown. From his theater work, we knew how good he was."

The Tony Award-nominated actor was originally called in to read for a part in the film's prologue, scripted entirely in Yiddish. To prepare, Stuhlbarg recalled, "I studied with a Yiddish tutor and had a wonderful time working on it. At the audition, Joel and Ethan Coen laughed a lot and he was really pleased. But they ended up going with an actor who spoke Yiddish fluently."

The Coens were impressed enough to bring Stuhlbarg back to read for both Larry and Larry's brother, Uncle Arthur. "I was excited because there was so much material to work with," remembers Stuhlbarg. "Time passed, and then a call came; they said they wanted me in the movie, but weren't sure which part I should play. Finally, while at a theater retreat in Vermont, Joel called and said, 'I'll put you out of your misery–you're playing Larry.'"

Stuhlbarg enthuses, "I fell in love with this script when I first read it, taking the whole story in, marveling at its twists and turns, and thoroughly enjoying the artistry with which it was constructed. As his motto, Stuhlbarg cited rime and again the quotation that appears on-screen at the start of the film: 'Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.' That's a great mantra to keep in mind in terms of how we live our lives."

"Being on the set almost every day was a blessing and a terrific education in how the Coens work, and how and why it all flows so beautifully. I felt I was able to shape the character over a long period of time."

Of his character, Stuhlbarg comments, "Larry goes about his life in a very normal way, having developed his routines. He's quite content to continue his life the way it's going. He enjoys his mathematics and his physics, loves his family, and probably takes a lot of what's around him for granted. He's not aware that he's doing that until it all starts to slip away and he discovers that life isn't what he expected it to be, which throws him into a crisis of faith and takes him out of his bubble.

"He hopes that, through his community's spiritual leaders' wisdom, he will learn why these things are happening to him. Then other wrenches get thrown at him. His brother, Arthur, is having his own crisis, which is another weight on Larry's shoulders, though one he bears well because of the great bond between them."

Stuhlbarg reveals that he spoke a lot with his onscreen brother about what their history might have been–that Arthur is older than Larry and was always more intelligent but also more socially inept. As time went by, Larry became more self-possessed and assertive, and Arthur started to atrophy."

Unemployed, possibly brilliant, and homeless, Uncle Arthur is physically afflicted by a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck. The actor saw it as "this little monster, as if the ugliness of the world has attached itself to the back of his neck. He's always draining it with this evacuator, yet it just keeps regenerating." To play Sy Ableman, Larry Gopnik's rival for his wife's affections, the Coens cast actor Fred Melamed. "Sy is the sex guy in our movie; every film needs one," notes Joel. "Yet he's not your usual home-wrecker," qualifies Ethan. Melamed was up for the task, quipping that he was happy "to move a pompous, overweight, pushy guy who speaks in rabbinical tones back to the center of American sexuality, where he belongs!"