Monday, 15 July 2013

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1994: James Whitmore in The Shawshank Redemption

James Whitmore did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption.

After having two large delicious servings of ham it is time for a serious change of style as I look at the performance of James Whitmore in The Shawshank Redemption. Whitmore plays an elderly inmate who has clearly been in the jail for a long long time, and runs the prison library. We see his Brooks in the prison where he seems perfectly at home actually. In Whitmore's performance there is no sense of pain or fear rather he seems entirely comfortable in his confined surroundings. Not only does he seem comfortable Whitmore suggests that Brooks all together like being there which enables Brooks to be just a likable old man who seems to barely even think about his incarceration.

Brooks just seems to be one of the characters in the prison, a particularly endearing one, that is until Brooks suddenly has an emotional fit in which he puts a knife up to another man's throat. Whitmore doesn't suggest that Brooks has suddenly become psychotic, but rather this is an intense emotional breakdown from this man as something seriously gone wrong. This of course is understandable as the prison certainly has many things to make a man troubled over, but what causes Brooks to be so upset is that his parole actually has come up. It might seem strange for a man to have such a reaction to being released from jail, but Whitmore is absolutely convincing in portraying the anguish of Brooks.

After Brooks is released Whitmore becomes basically the star of his own short film within the film about Brooks's attempt to try to become part of society again outside of the jail. The scene is done mostly in Whitmore's narration over his physical portrayal of Brooks as he tries to deal with a world that isn't surrounded by concrete. Whitemore is excellent as Brooks just leaves the prison and he suggests just a glimmer of hope in an uneasy smile which conveys more of an attempt at happiness rather than the actual happiness that one would expect from a man finally being release from confinement after having been in there for so many years.

As Brooks attempts to reenter society Whitmore is absolutely heartbreaking in his portrayal of this failure. What perhaps is so haunting about his performance is how well he internalizes Brooks's sadness as he tries to go day by day, but finds nothing worthwhile in his performance. He is incredibly moving in the way he suggests to pain in Brooks in such a subtle yet very affecting. Whitemore never tries to pile on the emotions, he lets them flow gently in and effectively so. He allows us to feel every moment of Brooks's gloomy life as he suffers at his job, is lost in the modern world, and is left entirely alone without another soul to help him with his fears.

This has to be one of the most haunting depictions of a man's suicide in a fictional film. The reason being that Brooks's short time outside of jail isn't that of these big emotional moments that force him into depression then suicide. No it feels all the more tragic as Whitmore portrays his journey as just a man reaching for something yet only finding the void until the point that the only way he can end his suffering is to end his life. The brief moments of trying to be happy, like when he wishes he could see his old bird, honestly bring the tragedy of the man as Whitmore does leave that possibility that if Brooks had something out in the real world he could have lived out his days in contentment.

There is no rush in Brooks to end his life, there is nothing loud in his end, this is the end of a man who has lost what was the only thing that he had in his life which was the prison routine. Whitmore's performance is essential for the film as he stands as the worst example of what can happen to a man who has fallen so deeply into the system set by the prison that he forgets and loses any idea of what there is to the outside world which is the central theme of the film and that which Andy Dufresne tries to fight against throughout the film. Whitmore's personal "short film" alone is one of the most powerful scenes in this very powerful film, and just is a beautiful piece of acting by the character actor. His portrayal of Brooks though serves the whole of the film perfectly always leaving that memory of what could be the fate of any of the incarcerated men who slowly grow to find comfort in the confined and controlled world of the prison.


koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

I swear, his monologue manages to make me tear-up every time. There are like, three, maybe four performances that get that reaction from me.

Michael Patison said...

I couldn't agree more. And I have the same reaction every time koook.

Mark said...

I have to agree with both of you. It's one of the saddest moments in film history.

Lezlie said...

Agreed, this is a great performance, I wonder why they didn't nominate it.
Oh and, I've seen the trailer of Twelve Years a Slave, it looks very promising so far.

mrripley said...

I remember thinking he might get a sentimental win but landau had that sewn up,maybe they did not need 2 veterans.

Louis Morgan said...

mrripley: I would say that the critics failed Whitmore as he did not get a single citation for this performance.