Playing piano a plus in Oscar competition
By Sandy Cohen
Three pianists. Two eccentric authors. Two Holocaust victims. One ex-con, one bad cop, one ad executive, one gladiator.
The roles that have captured Oscar’s best-actor fancy over the past decade have been almost as varied as the stars who’ve played them.
Winners have ranged in age from 29 to 60. Some were past Oscar winners, others were first-time nominees. They have been black, white, European and American.
"It’s hard to draw any conclusions," said film historian Leonard Maltin. "The voters are generally open-minded. The evidence shows that."
But an analysis of the last 10 best-actor winners reveals a few common threads.
First, academy voters like their pianists. Four of the past 10 winning acting roles featured ivories being tickled.
Geoffrey Rush played pianist David Helfgott in 1996’s "Shine." Adrien Brody was "The Pianist," Holocaust escapee Wladyslaw Szpilman, in 2003. Jamie Foxx embodied Ray Charles in 2004’s "Ray." And though he wasn’t a pianist by profession, Jack Nicholson’s character in 1997’s "As Good As It Gets," Melvin Udall, befriends his neighbor’s dog by playing piano.
Interestingly, Rush and Foxx — both experienced pianists — acted as their own hand doubles. Brody learned how to play for his role, practicing four hours a day.
Oscar voters also like depictions of real people. Four of the last 10 Academy Award-winning actors played true-life characters: Rush, Brody, Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Oscar last year for his portrayal of author Truman Capote in "Capote."
There’s no piano playing by any of the characters whose portrayers won nominations this year, but two of the roles are based on real people. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a homeless dad who becomes a successful stockbroker, in "The Pursuit of Happyness." Forest Whitaker plays Idi Amin, the murderous Ugandan dictator, in "The Last King of Scotland."
Whitaker has already won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for his role and is considered this year’s Oscar favorite. If only Idi Amin had played piano, the win would be a lock.
Other actors up for the Oscar this year are Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a mercenary rogue in "Blood Diamond"; Ryan Gosling, for his role as a drug-addicted schoolteacher in "Half Nelson"; and eight-time nominee Peter O’Toole, who plays an aging womanizer in "Venus."
Artsy roles are also attractive to academy voters. Eight of the last 10 winners played characters with an artistic bent. Hoffman and Nicholson played writers; Brody, Rush and Foxx were pianists; and Roberto Benigni used storytelling to shelter his son from the horrors of the Holocaust in "Life Is Beautiful."
Of course, the artsy thing doesn’t always work. In 2000, Ed Harris played painter Jackson Pollock ("Pollock") and Rush was writer Marquis de Sade ("Quills"), but both lost the Oscar to "Gladiator" Russell Crowe.
That win might have been an example of the academy’s "shoulda" syndrome, as in, "We shoulda given Crowe the Oscar for his work in ‘The Insider’ in 1999" — the year Kevin Spacey won for "American Beauty."
"That’s gone on for 75 years," Maltin said. "Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor — they didn’t get it for the film they should’ve had it for, and the next year they got it for films they didn’t deserve it for."
"(Actors) seem to subscribe to the same theory as the rest of the academy: that it’s the so-called important movie that matters most," Maltin said.
Important films. Pianos. Real people. Artsy elements. The only real common thread among the last 10 best-actor winners? That year, they collected the most votes.