' Cinema Romantico: Awarding a Retroactive Honorary Oscar

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Awarding a Retroactive Honorary Oscar

Q: What do all of the following lines have in common?

- "You know what top secret means?"
- "You remind me of myself fifteen years ago."
- "We may lose this battle but we're gonna' win this war."
- "Leave your god-damn hula shirts at home."

A: They are all lines spoken by Alec Baldwin in "Pearl Harbor."

If you were to turn on your TV and then somehow managed to sift through the god-awful glut of reality television you might happen upon the NBC comedy "30 Rock". And on it you would find Alec Baldwin's performance as fictional NBC President Jack Donaghy to be the funniest thing found on any TV set at present. Make no mistake, the writing of Tina Fey (the show's creator and its other star) is excellent, but Baldwin can sell even the lines that on paper proably don't amount to much. For example, the scene from the recent Christmas episode wherein the parents of Tina Fey's character present Jack Donaghy with a canister of popcorn and he opens it to exclaim, "Cheese, carmel, butter, all my favorites. How did you know?" The way he phrased that made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt.

Yes, Alec Baldwin's long been a great actor that has flown under the radar (perhaps because he is a Baldwin) and so his turn as Jack Donaghy shouldn't be surprising but for anyone paying attention you would have seen the roots for his latest character planted all the way back in the horrendous shlock of 2001's "Pearl Harbor" (a movie so terrible it made me vow never to pay to see another Michael Bay film, a coda which I have kept).

In it Baldwin portrays Colonel James Doolittle, the man famous for leading the Doolittle Raid into Japan (also portrayed in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" - which starred Spencer Tracy as Doolittle) and Randall Wallace's script has Doolittle spouting line after line that would cause even the curator for The Hall of Cliches to raise an eyebrow and give pause. If Dolittle's not simultaneously criticizing and commending Ben Affleck's character for playing-by-his-own-rules then he's speaking almost strictly in War Recruiting Poster Lines. So how did Baldwin make this drivel work?

If you'd given the role of Doolittle in "Pearl Harbor" to Pacino he would have simply screamed every line at the top of his lungs in a futile attempt to hide their wretchedness. If you'd given the role to DeNiro he would have done extensive research on not just Doolittle but on every commanding officer in all of WWII in a futile attempt to make each line sound authentic. If you'd given the role to Day Lewis he would have participated in some sort of voodoo ritual to quite literally become the real James Doolittle at which point he would have read the script and said, "Wait a second....I never said any of this crap."

Baldwin was aware of the bad lines he was being forced to utter but rather than trying to mask their badness he played straight to it. He delivers them almost as if they're zingers. Notice the twinkle in his eye nearly every time he speaks. He seems to be looking past the actors to whom he's speaking and instead looking into the hearts and minds of his audience as if to say, "Come on, that line was just plain not good. You know it. I know it. What would you have me do? Try and convince you what you're watching is real? No one would benefit from that. Let's have some fun, what do ya' say?" Compare his facial expressions here to his facial expressions as Jack Donaghy and you won't see a big difference. The funniest character on TV was actually conceived in the film that Michael Bay took (and these are his words, people) "very seriously."

But the worth of his performance takes on even more significance when you consider the fates of the other main players in the most terrible of movies. Ben Affleck had won an Oscar a few years earlier and seemed poised for stardom. But it was shortly after "Pearl Harbor" (and before the whole J. Lo debacle) that he started becoming the butt of so many jokes. Only now - post "Gone Baby Gone" and seven years later - does he seem ready to get out from under. Josh Hartnett was also set to break through but this movie derailed that hope and he never seems to have fully recovered. Kate Beckinsale had been saddled with the Just A Pretty Face logo before "Pearl Harbor" but the role did her no favors to shake that tag and might have made things worse. And then, of course, there's poor Cuba Gooding Jr. in an atrociously under-written supporting role. No, he didn't have much going on before "Pearl Harbor" but he followed it up with "Rat Race", "Boat Trip", and (gulp) "Snow Dogs". Ouch. In the aftermath of "Pearl Harbor", Cuba sank even lower.

All four of the previously mentioned actors, however, clearly came at their roles seriously. They were trying to make their lines emotionally resonate. This is why their lines cause you to cringe and Baldwin's lines leave you chuckling. It's why from the pit of despair that was "Pearl Harbor" only one man emerged, not only unscathed, but with dignity completely intact and managed to go on to bigger and better things.

If that isn't worthy of an Oscar then I don't know what it is.

1 comment:

Wretched Genius said...

Baldwin has always had this ability. I think what makes him special is that he is capable of delivering any line, no matter how bad, as though his character believes in that line right down to his core. Your description of his lines sounding like they came from a recruiting poster is correct, but Baldwin makes you believe that if you pointed out the cliche, he would punch you in the face. That's why he is also so great on 30 Rock, and why his 10 minutes in Glengarry Glen Ross are among the best 10 minutes ever committed to celluloid.