Oscars' unsung heroes: The not-so-famous contenders for Hollywood's most glamorous awards

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Tomorrow is the glitziest date in the movie calendar. For some nominees – like Meryl and Kate and Brad and Angelina – it’s just another awards ceremony. But for the less fancied contenders, it’s the biggest night of their lives

Imagine the scene. It’s Academy Awards night. Jack Nicholson is sitting in the front row. Tom Cruise is beaming like a Cheshire cat. The band strikes up and one of the beautiful people arrives to announce the winner. She opens that golden envelope, and utters the immortal line, “And the Oscar goes to… who?” It’s not as far-fetched as you think. This year’s Oscars are all about the unsung actor. You know the type: you’ve seen dozens of their movies but you just can’t quite recall their name. Until now, that is.

Imagine the scene. It’s Academy Awards night. Jack Nicholson is sitting in the front row. Tom Cruise is beaming like a Cheshire cat. The band strikes up and one of the beautiful people arrives to announce the winner. She opens that golden envelope, and utters the immortal line, “And the Oscar goes to… who?” It’s not as far-fetched as you think. This year’s Oscars are all about the unsung actor. You know the type: you’ve seen dozens of their movies but you just can’t quite recall their name. Until now, that is.

Of course, there are glitzier stories: Meryl Streep, with a record 15th nomination; glamour couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, up for Best Actor and Actress respectively; and the comeback of the decade, courtesy of Mickey Rourke’s washed-up wrestler. But, next to them, a series of character actors is getting its moment in the sun. While this is no new phenomenon – the now-well-known Amy Adams, up for Best Supporting actress for Doubt, first came to our attention as a virtual unknown in the same category for Junebug in 2006 – this has proved an exceptional year for those who usually miss out on all the glory.

“I think it’s a great reflection on the Academy, on the membership of the Academy and who’s voting these days – it’s become much more diverse,” says the producer Lloyd Phillips, whose credits include Twelve Monkeys and Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Second World War epic Inglourious Basterds [sic]. True enough – though in some cases, it’s the companies behind small independent films like The Visitor (which sees Richard Jenkins nominated for Best Actor) and Frozen River (ditto Melissa Leo for Best Actress) that should really be congratulated. After all, it’s no mean feat to persuade voters to check out performances that, while critically respected, are often overlooked by the general public.

Still, in an industry that thrives on glamour, it’s heartening to know that Hollywood isn’t just about rewarding those who grace the cover of celebrity magazines. Good work will out, however small the role – as in the case of the Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon (for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road) or Viola Davis in the equivalent female category for Doubt. The cynical may suggest they’re making up the numbers – particularly in Shannon’s case, being up against the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. But as this year shows, every underdog has his – or her – day.

Best Actor Richard Jenkins, ‘The Visitor’

The trouble with being an unsung actor is being recognised without the actual recognition itself. Some 35 years in the business, with more than 50 films to his name, Richard Jenkins knows all about this. With a face you can’t quite place, he often has to deal with people who think they’ve met him before. “I get that all the time,” he admits. “Somebody said to me, ‘Is your name Ken?’ And I said, ‘No’. They said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yeah – I’m really sure.’” The problem is that, despite working with everyone from Clint Eastwood to the Coen brothers, the 61-year-old has rarely been given star billing.

All that has changed, however, with The Visitor – the film that afforded Jenkins the first Academy Award nomination of his career. Not even nominated at the Golden Globes, the awards ceremony that can usually be seen as a form guide for the Oscars, it looked like Jenkins was going to miss out. Indeed, there’s something of the “nearly man” about him. Take his work in last year’s Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading. Brilliant as the gym manager who pines after Frances McDormand, his part was just as sizeable as the ones taken by his more famous co-stars. But his name never even made the posters – perhaps because “Richard Jenkins” doesn’t sound as sexy as Brad Pitt or George Clooney.

Still, as he readies himself to compete with Pitt for Best Actor at the Oscars, Jenkins is finally in the spotlight for his perfectly nuanced performance as Walter Vale, a dry economics professor whose life changes when he meets two illegal immigrants. While Jenkins is the rank outsider to win, in an ideal world the movie gods would reward him for a career of sterling work in the shadow of others. Certainly, when The Visitor was released last summer, he began to experience a rush of goodwill. “I was very pleasantly surprised by that,” he admits. “Friends who I haven’t seen in 20 years were calling me.”

Not that he should be too surprised. If Jenkins is a journeyman actor, the dependable type who is all-too-frequently called upon to play cops, lawyers and doctors, he’s also worked in some remarkable pieces – everything

from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters to the seminal TV show Six Feet Under, where he played the Fisher patriarch Nathaniel, who dies in the first episode but is seen in flashback throughout. Still, The Visitor was the chance to play the lead, which Jenkins admits was a worrying responsibility. “I thought, ‘If it’s no good, then it’s my fault.’ When you play the lead in a movie, there’s really no place to hide.”

Born in Illinois, Jenkins worked at a linen company before he was an actor – and only started performing in earnest when he moved to Rhode Island (where he still lives). Working in regional theatre for 15 years, he gradually took to film. Even now, this father-of-two, who’s been married for 40 years, can’t bring himself to blow his own horn. He cites the sex-discrimination drama North Country, in which he played Charlize Theron’s father, believing his presence hindered the film’s budget and that a bigger name would have attracted more backing. “Every time somebody would complain – ‘My water doesn’t work in the dressing room!’ – I thought to myself, ‘That’s my fault!’” As an indication of what a self-deprecating man Jenkins is, there’s something quite tragic about this statement. “Well, I’m a tragic person,” he smiles.

Best Actress Melissa Leo, ‘Frozen River’

When she was 24, Melissa Leo beat a certain Julia Roberts to win a recurring role on the soap All My Children. At the time, neither Leo nor Roberts had a screen credit between them. Yet, 25 years later, it’s Roberts who can look back on a glittering career. And Leo? Words like “consistent” and “dependable” spring to mind. A five-season veteran of the show Homicide: Life on the Street, in which she played the hard-as-nails detective Kay Howard, Leo may rarely have been subjected to periods of unemployment – but she was hardly waltzing up red carpets with Roberts’ regularity.

Still, all that’s changed with Frozen River. Directed by Courtney Hunt, the film has been receiving good word ever since it was unveiled at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. As it walked away with the coveted Grand Jury prize, Quentin Tarantino, a jury member, remarked that the film “put my heart in a vice and proceeded to twist that vice until the last frame”. Much of this is down to Leo, who plays Ray Eddy, a blue-collar single mother of two who lives in New York state, near a Mohawk reservation close to the Canadian border.

Still to secure a UK release (surprisingly), the film finds Ray embroiled, alongside a Native American single mother, in a scam smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. “In our film, this is women doing what women do to get by, especially when the men have let them down,” she says. The result is more a study in desperation than a high-end thriller; according to the 48-year-old Leo, the director told her to watch a series of John Wayne films, including The Searchers, to prepare. There’s “a little bit of the Duke in there,” she admits.

Despite Leo’s relative anonymity, she has offered up some notable performances this decade – from the devoted wife of Benicio del Toro’s born-again ex-con in 21 Grams to the waitress who nips off for motel sex sessions in Tommy Lee Jones’ sublime western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. She makes no apologies, either, for not offering the sort of “look at me” performances most A-list stars give. “Oliver Stone said to me in an audition once, with a disgusted look on his face, ‘Oh, you’re one of those actors who disappears into the role.’ It’s what I do. It’s my pleasure to do it in that way. I don’t know if I could do it any differently from that.”

A born-and-bred New Yorker, Leo – who has a 21-year-old son from a former relationship – now has a host of films coming up in the wake of Frozen River. Most prominent is Welcome to the Rileys, the second film from Jake Scott, son of Blade Runner director Ridley. But for the moment Leo has just one thing on her mind: prepping for the Oscars. “Whatever will I wear?” she says. “It’s definitely being worked on. I think that’s what the event is really – the actors are the entertainment.”

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Shannon, ‘Revolutionary Road’

At 34, Michael Shannon is the youngest of our quartet. He’s also the only cast member to receive an Oscar nomination for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. Neither Kate Winslet nor Leonardo DiCaprio was recognised for their starring roles as Frank and April Wheeler, a 1950s Connecticut couple whose marriage gradually implodes across the course of two very gruelling hours. But while you can debate the wisdom of this, at least the Academy got one thing right. Shannon – already dubbed in some quarters “the best actor you’ve never heard of” – is the finest thing in the film by a country mile.

With his wild stare, hulking 6ft 3in frame and almost ethereal presence, his casting as John Givings is spot-on. A mathematician who has suffered from a mental breakdown, Givings is the film’s Holy Fool. The son of April’s friend Helen, he arrives at the Wheelers’ house to tell the truth about their lives with wincing accuracy. “He’s constantly testing the people around him to see if they’re up to snuff,” says Shannon. “For a few minutes, I think he believes that Frank and April may understand him, and he finds that to be a relief. But then he realises they’re really just as disappointing as everyone else.”

Of course, the elevation of the Kentucky-born Shannon was always on the cards. Those who caught William Friedkin’s Bug (tricky, given that it played in one cinema for one week in the UK) will have seen his blistering turn as an unhinged war veteran, a role Shannon had already finely honed on stage (the film was an adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts). As his co-star Ashley Judd put it, “I felt like that must have been what it was like to work with Al Pacino on Dog Day Afternoon. There were times when the crew spontaneously erupted into astonished applause. He was remarkable in the role.”        f

Shannon first performed the part on stage in Chicago in 2001. It was a return to the city where he had spent years training in the theatre, and followed an extended sojourn in Los Angeles. While he’d plied his trade in Hollywood, in films such as Pearl Harbor and Vanilla Sky, he wasn’t happy. “I just went out and threw myself into the Hollywood arena,” he says. “I worked a lot and I kept busy, but I didn’t find a lot of the work I was doing was as satisfying as what I’d been doing in the theatre.” It evidently re-invigorated him – even if he still took the occasional Bad Boys II or Kangaroo Jack to pay the rent.

After Bug, however, directors began to use him differently. Oliver Stone recognised his other-worldly presence to play the heroic marine Dave Karnes in his 2006 film, World Trade Center, stalking through the rubble of the Twin Towers like a heat-seeking missile. As happy as he is with his new-found exposure, however, Shannon is a little uncertain what the Oscar nomination will bring. “So far my life hasn’t been changed and I don’t want it to,” he says. “I just want to work and tell stories.”

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, ‘Doubt’

Viola Davis is trying to stay grounded right now. Even before Doubt was screened to the critics, she was hearing that her performance was generating “buzz”, that near-audible whisper that circulates through Hollywood’s corridors of power when an actor delivers a barnstorming turn. “Buzz makes me nervous,” she confesses. “What is it? Seriously! You can’t cash a cheque on buzz, you can’t pay your mortgage on buzz, you can’t touch buzz. Buzz is … buzz.”

While she has a point, the 43-year-old Davis’s work as Mrs Miller, the mother of a boy at a Bronx Catholic school who may or may not have been abused by a priest, more than merits the nomination. On screen for just 11 minutes, sharing her scenes with a formidable Meryl Streep, she attacks every line like it’s her last. “I don’t get a lot of great, fabulous roles like this,” she says, “ones that come along, that are fully realised, and humanised, and complicated, with a lot of duality and contradictions, written for a black woman.”

Born in South Carolina, and raised in Rhode Island, where her father was a horse-groomer, Davis didn’t get her first film role until she was 31 – in the little-seen The Substance of Fire, alongside Sarah Jessica Parker. Her big break came when she auditioned for Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, two years later. “He cast me in Out of Sight because I had big hair!” she grins. “I remember I used to do my own hair extensions, and I used to go overboard. I put myself on tape for Out of Sight, and he said that what attracted him was the simplicity of how I played the role … and the big hair!”

It evidently stuck in his mind. Since then, Soderbergh – who is one of Hollywood’s biggest hitters – has cast her as a social worker in his drugs drama Traffic, and as one of the beleaguered crew members in his sci-fi remake Solaris. She’s also worked for Todd Haynes (on Far From Heaven), Denzel Washington (in his directorial debut Antwone Fisher) and Oliver Stone (in World Trade Center), though more often than not in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parts. “Once you start to work, the more you want to work,” she says. “You want the roles to get better and better. Because then you get better.”

It means Davis is still at that “Don’t I know you?” stage.

“It’s really nice when people recognise you and they know where they recognise you from,” she says. “But when they say, ‘You’re an actress! What have you done?’ it’s hard for me. I get so self-conscious standing in some store running down my resumé. That drives me a little bit insane.” As does the racial stereotyping she has faced when it comes to casting. Black actresses, she says, get a raw deal. “Think about it. Do you know the black equivalent of a Meryl Streep? Or the black equivalent of a Lindsay Lohan, a Julia Roberts or a Nicole Kidman?”

Married for five years to fellow actor Julius Tennon, with whom she has two children, Davis notes that living with an actor is crucial, for only they can truly understand “the paranoia, the unemployment and the instability” of what she calls a “rogue profession”. Next up is another fleeting part, opposite Russell Crowe, in the political thriller State of Play, in which she plays a pathologist. “I was treated great,” she says, “but it was just a day.” Ah, the life of a jobbing actor.

The 81st Academy Awards will be screened live on Sky Movies Premiere from 1am on Monday morning

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