Films

Oscar and the Art of War

As the gladiator games begin, Ed Harris shines in Pollock and Enemy at the Gates

Brian D. Johnson March 26 2001
Films

Oscar and the Art of War

As the gladiator games begin, Ed Harris shines in Pollock and Enemy at the Gates

Brian D. Johnson March 26 2001

Oscar and the Art of War

Films

Brian D. Johnson

As the gladiator games begin, Ed Harris shines in Pollock and Enemy at the Gates

Imagine you’re Steve Martin. You have been quietly collecting modern art, you’ve written a well-received novella and a hit play, and you amuse yourself by penning droll, absurdist squibs for The New Yorker. You’ve come a long way from the guy who stood onstage with an arrow through his head. But now they want you to host the Oscars, the most vulgar spectacle on earth.

Well, how bad could it be? Just look at the monologue material—movies about swordplay, drug abuse, chocolate sex, politically correa cleavage and spilled coconut milk. The mind reels with possibilities for the big production number. How about a gladiator revue of kung fu nymphs with plunging breastplates? Or a squad of Jackson Pollocks drizzling the dance floor with chocolate-filled syringes? Or Martin could deliver a Yorick-like soliloquy to Wilson, the Cast Away volleyball.

At this year’s Oscars, at least there is a clear contest. The main event promises to be a WWF showdown between East and West—the high-flying feminism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon versus the Super

Bowl brutality of Gladiator. And if Crouching Tiger wins, history will be made: during the 73-year history of the Academy Awards, best picture has never gone to a foreign-language film.

Most of the nominated films are tales of outcasts and underdogs. In Gladiator, a betrayed general fights his way out of slavery to avenge his slaughtered kin. In Traffic, everyone is reduced to a foot soldier in the drug war. A white-trash Cinderella tears a strip off the American dream in Erin Brockovich, while reaping its rewards. In Chocolat and The Contender, Juliette Binoche and Joan Allen become targets of witch-hunts. And in Before Night Falls, Quills and Pollock,

Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush and Ed Harris portray self-annihilating artists.

It’s not a safe year for predictions. But count on Julia Roberts, Hollywood’s prom queen, to go to pieces as she’s crowned best actress for Brockovich. Expect Bob Dylan to give the night’s strangest non-acceptance speech if Things Have Changed from Wonder Boys wins best song. Watch Steven Soderbergh stoically lose his double nominations for directing Brockovich and Traffic, while Ang Lee wins for Crouching Tiger. Benicio Del Toro ( Traffic) gets supporting actor. Supporting actress is anyone’s guess— mine is ingenue Kate Hudson {Almost Famous).

Best actor comes down to a duel between Cast Away s Tom Hanks and Gladiators Russell Crowe; Hanks is the sentimental favourite. There’s no way the conservative academy will salute Bardem for playing a gay Cuban writer who sneaks a novel out of prison via anal mail, or Rush for scribbling on prison walls with excrement as the Marquis de Sade—or even

Harris for splattering paint on canvas as Jackson Pollock.

But among a field of acting nominees who appear to be trying to outdo one another with sheer physical activity, Harris’s performance stands out. Like Joan Allen, he is one of Hollywood’s chronically underrated talents, more actor than star. And, as usual, he’s better than the movie that surrounds him.

Pollock is the result of a 10-year labour of love by Harris, who also directed it— and learned to paint for the role. It’s always a kick to watch people paint on screen, but usually the camera keeps cutting away to the hand of a professional artist. In Pollock, Harris performs his own art stunts, executing bold brush strokes and dripping elaborate arcs of colour across the canvas. That, of course, may only reinforce the argument that Pollock’s splatter technique was child’s play. Yet Harris displays enough control and focus to make it seem artistically cogent.

Marcia Gay Harden (nominated for best supporting actress) brings remarkable spunk to her role as Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, who abandons her own painting to nurture his career. The painter’s friends, however, are mere

sketches. The most sharply drawn is the imperious curator Peggy Guggenheim, portrayed by Harris’s wife, Amy Madigan. Jeffrey Tambor ( The Larry Sanders Show) plays Clement Greenberg, pompous art critic. A grinning Val Kilmer looks weirdly out of place as painter Willem de Kooning. And Jennifer Connelly just breezes through as Ruth Cligman, Pollock’s mistress.

Considering that Pollock was such an experimental painter, the movie follows a rather cautious formula. Even the eureka moment of inspiration, when Pollock notices the pattern made by paint dripping from his brush to the floor, seems calculated. And the story— tortured genius drinks himself to an early grave—has inherent limitations. Pollock is a portrait that paints itself into a corner. Still, it’s utterly absorbing. The implosive dedication that Harris brings to the role resonates with the painter’s own obsession. And Pollock’s awkward embrace of celebrity—as he is interviewed by Life magazine or painting on command for a documentary— is touching. It suggests an art star with a pre-Warhol innocence who never figures out how to frame his ego.

Harris shows up again in Enemy at the Gates, as a Nazi marksman assigned to kill a celebrated Russian sniper during the decisive siege of Stalingrad in 1942. This is a grand war epic on a scale not seen since Saving Private Ryan. In fact, the carnage of the opening scene, which shows hundreds of fresh Soviet recruits being sent to slaughter in a suicidal charge, is highly reminiscent of Private Ryans, bloodbath on the beach—but in this case, those who dare to retreat are cut down by their own officers.

Directed by French filmmaker JeanJacques Annaud ( The Bear, The Lover), Enemy at the Gates combines spectacular battle scenes with intimate melodrama. Based on a real-life legend, the story concerns a Russian farm boy, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), who becomes a famous sharpshooter, and whose exploits send a morale-boosting shot of adrenaline through the devastated Soviet ranks. Vassili is discovered by a Soviet propagandist, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who turns him into a pulppress folk hero, a kind of Bolshevik Billy the Kid. That prompts the Nazis to dispatch their best sniper, Major König (Harris), to hunt him down. And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s also a torrid love triangle, as Vassili and Danilov both fall for Tania (Rachel Weisz), a female soldier.

The movie is riddled with false notes: the front-lines romance is hard to buy; Fiennes plays a Stalinist caricature; Bob Hoskins overplays Khruschev as a Cockney Colonel Blimp; the final scenes are slathered in pathos, then blunted by a happy ending that was tacked on after test screenings. But the basic intrigue— of snipers stalking each other in the ruins of Stalingrad—is riveting. Annaud magnifies suspense by shooting with microscopic texture. And in Law, Harris and Weisz, he has three actors who thrive in the crosshairs of an extreme close-up. Law is superb. After darkening the screen in The Talented Mr. Ripley and eXistenZ, he gets to show his mettle as a romantic hero. And with the script’s clichés whizzing over his head, his performance is a feat of charismatic modesty, rivalling much of the work nominated at this year’s Oscars. E3