Forest Whitaker did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning Cannes and being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Charlie Parker in Bird.
This particular film about a musician is rather different from say the newer ones like Ray or Walk the Line which both told the same story of a bizarrely unceremonious rise to fame, than fall into drug addiction followed by recovery by the woman he loves. Bird is different in that Charlie does not recover from his addiction as it does eventually lead to his death. This is very different film as well because we do not really see his fall into his addiction instead his addiction is more of a constant. There are moments where he steers from it partially but he never seems to entirely escape from his problems.
Due to the nature of Parker's story Whitaker does not so much have a character arc but more of a rubber band that goes back fourth. He goes from highs to lows suddenly without all that much notice. Whitaker therefore has to take bit of a scatter shot approach to his performance, which is helped even less since director Clint Eastwood even uses flashbacks giving Whitaker an even greater challenge to really portray Parker effectively. Whitaker does take on the role well actually despite the fact that Charlie Parker constantly jumps back and fourth in his way, and Whitaker actually does find the trouble within the man that causes this.
An important aspect of Whitaker performance is that he portrays Parker as never particularly happy even in the happier scenes of the film. Importantly he does not over do it and just have Parker as a man of depression. There is always a certain sadness in his portrayal though. Whitaker shows Parker as really a man who is unable to really achieve the sort of happiness that would really allow him to ever escape from his addictions. There is always a pain that Whitaker creates in Parker that only reinforces his self destructive behavior and he makes it believable that Parker even after seeming to drop an addiction he would only fall right back into it.
Whitaker despite showing the pain of Parker as a constant does still do well to portray Parker as a charismatic entertainer. He has quite a bit of charm in the role and is convincing in the way so many seem to like Parker so much. Whitaker makes all of it quite natural and creates the sort of presence that Charlie Parker really should have. Whitaker makes Parker a likable man who honestly in many situations can make himself seem like a man who has it entirely together simply through his charms. Whitaker properly shows that both his health and his charm seem to diminish in almost equal measure as the worse off he is the less he seems to want to please.
Whitaker is actually quite good in bringing together the different sides of Bird that come from his moments of terrible addiction to his reprieves of recovery. Whitaker does well in showing the emotional pulls in Parker that make him shift so randomly at times because the one thing that is constant is that underlying pain that Whitaker always properly conveys which propels him to his drugs and alcohol. Although Parker's jumps around in terms of emotional highs and lows Whitaker never makes them feel disconcerting as he does meet the needs of Bird whether he is charming a crowd or loathing himself in a drug addled haze.
Forest Whitaker here gives a good performance as Charlie Parker though it never becomes the powerful tour de force that one want from a depiction of a self destructive man. I do feel this is the fault of the film more that Whitaker which never quite strikes the right chords with the material to make the life of Parker come alive as well as it should. Whitaker realizes Parker as well as this version of the story probably would allow which is an interesting and effective depiction but never as striking as one would think could come from the man considering his life.