What the Oscars Do Well: John Hawkes and Jacki Weaver

Regular readers of this journal will already recognize the futility of railing against the Oscars and how and whom they nominate.  The Oscars will not change, nor are they the necessary guideposts that lead us to great cinema and wonderful artistic performances.  However, despite the numerous flaws of the world’s most popular awards show, not all of the nominations and winners are without merit or undeserving of applause, which is why I still wait to see which films, directors, and actors receive nominations.  Occasionally, the Oscars reward someone who justly deserves the reward and the recognition yet would not have received a fraction of the press and publicity without the official trademarked imprint of “The Academy Awards.”

This year, two of my favorite performances from indie-flicks received nominations in the best supporting categories: John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom

Winter’s Bone also has the distinction of being one of the ten films nominated for best picture, and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the heroine Ree, is nominated for best perfomance by an actress in a leading role.  I am not upset that the film received an Oscar nod, but I would not have been crushed had it been left out of the mix.  And Lawrence’s potrayal of Ree is wonderful.  I must say, though, that despite finding Ree attractive as a heroine, I did find it rather difficult to believe that a 17 year old character in such dire circumstances could exhibit such responsibility and wisdom. 

So the film has some legs and tread without Hawkes’s nomination, but without the nomination, Hawkes would still be mostly unkown to anyone but fans of the now defunct HBO series Deadwood. (God how I miss Ian McShane’s deep raspy voice bellowing out poetic curse words.)  Hawkes was the best thing in Winter’s Bone, and the most lasting image that I have of the film is Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle Teardrop, staring into his truck’s sideview mirror, clutching his gun, and staring down the sheriff: an amazing scene in which the unbalanced light of the truck and squad car at night brought out the tenacity in Hawkes’s character.

Hopefully Hawkes’s performance and Oscar recognition will lead to more excellent roles.  His portrayal of a thin, grizzly, methed-out uncle who unwillingly takes on familial responsibility was superb.  Despite his slight body type, his demeanor, uneven facial hair, and angular face, make him perfect for rugged Western roles.   He can nuzzle a shotgun with terrific menace.  It is too bad that HBO will not bring back Deadwood.

Weaver’s film, Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, does not have the same traction as Winter’s Bone.  Weaver is its sole representative at the Oscars.  So without her it could have easily been lost among the pile of good films that remain unwatched by the public at large.  Likewise, her career as a fantastic actress would have remained as unknown as large tracts of the Australian outback.  Prior to her Oscar nod, Weaver’s most prominent film role was that of Minnie in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a foundational film in Australian cinema.

At times, Animal Kingdom can become infuriating with its use of voiceover and a protagonist, James Frecheville’s “J,” who seems stunted and small despite his rather large, clumsy frame.  It appears as though he does not know what to do with either his body or his life.  “J” appears unconvincing for the exact opposite reason that Ree does.  Whereas Ree seems far too capable given her circumstances, “J” appears far too incapable. 

Yet Animal Kingdom does teach us that Guy Pearce, who plays the moral and well intentioned Detective Nathan Leckie, does a wonderful Pierce Brosnan, Australian style.  And I do mean that as a compliment. 

Weaver has a true supporting role as Janine Cody, the matriarch of a family of bank robbers, theives, and general bad guys.  In many of the key scenes and plot movements she is absent.  Her brood of sons who rob banks and the cops who chase them are at the center of the film’s action.  Yet when Weaver does appear, she overshadows everyone else with a demure smile that can charm while hiding sinister intentions.  Her cruelty is subtle, which cruelty often is.  She makes us adore her only to then hate ourselves for adoring her.  In many ways, she is similar to Tony Soprano: charming, engaging, and delightful, yet hateful and vile. 

While it is highly doubtful that either Hawkes or Weaver will be allowed to make a speech while holding that iconic giant golden statue, the nominations alone allow Hawkes, Weaver, and their respective films to carry a badge that will always allow them access into a club of select members.  Oscar nominations act like All-Star selections in baseball; once a player shows up at the mid-summer classic, he always has “All-Star” near the top of his player biography, no matter how poorly he plays for the remainder of his career.  (See Lopez, Jose.)

So Hawkes and Weaver now have “Academy Award  nominee” eternally recorded onto any voiceover that introduces them in any future film trailer.  And unlike Cuba Gooding Jr. (whom I will now refer to as the Jose Lopez of film), both Hawkes and Weaver richly deserve such a title for their exquisite performances. 

If Cuba Gooding Jr. were a baseball player

Moreover, any conversation in which I or someone else recommends either Winter’s Bone or Animal Kingdom to a rather disinterested party will most likely mention the fact that Hawkes or Weaver were nominated for Academy Awards. While this may seem like a minor thing, there are hordes of people who would never think once (let alone twice) about seeing either of these two films.  Yet at the mention of the word “Oscar,” some among the horde will suddenly be predisposed to give the films a look. If they happen to come away impressed, then, in this instance, the Oscars will have helped to facilitate the spread of good cinema.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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