Sunday, 1 October 2017

Alternate Best Actor 1974: James Caan in The Gambler

James Caan did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Axel Freed in The Gambler.

The Gambler is an effective character study following a literary professor and his gambling addiction.

After watching this film I must say it caused a bit of a perspective change in regards to its 2014 remake and Mark Wahlberg's performance in that film. Now I thought that film was disposable to begin with, and Wahlberg's performance underwhelming, now they're even worse than that in my mind through its fundamental misunderstanding of the source material, a bit like The Beguiled remake in that sense. It is not as though this film is a masterpiece, I'd describe it probably as just a good film, however it properly knows that this protagonist is not a "cool" hero for us to follow, he's a bit of mess. James Caan is known for his tough guys, but here this is both a fulfillment of certain expectation but also a subversion from him. Caan's performance is particularly essential in using this idea, and in general to the film as the film never spells out Axel's motivation. This is almost entirely left to Caan's performance. We are only granted a few hints within the script, usually not directly about Axel, which take place when Caan is least like a usual Caan character which is when he's working as the literary professor. I like what Caan does in these scenes, where technically he's spelling out who the character is through what he is teaching such as William Carlos William's piece on George Washington from In The American Grain, and Dostoyevsky's sentiment on making 2 + 2 equal to five rather than 4.

Caan in his scenes as the professor importantly plays them most closely to the chest, and carefully does not give away his hand. This is important for two main reasons one being on the surface Caan rightfully downplays his usual presence in order to be believable as this literary professor, which he is, but secondly he keeps away from making the nature of Axel too obvious within the film. Axel is in many ways speaking of himself in these moments but Caan carefully avoids making this obvious instead portraying the right low key passion fitting to such a professor. He never oversteps the bounds of his character there effectively realizing a man creating this discussion with his class, though there is of course still more to this type of exact attachments to these sentiments which directly relate to Axel as a man. In the Washington piece there is a reduction of the image of the great American leader, and in this way Caan makes a reduction of his own screen persona with Axel here. In general Axel is really just a guy and we see him when he's with his mother, or with his rich grandfather, as this fairly meek man where Caan subtly reveals this man filled with a real vulnerability. He not only doesn't take charge of the situations we see him in, he's not even in charge as he just speaks to his mother, as Caan even when stealing money from her makes it a plainly pathetic moment in the unease in which he portrays within Axel in that moment.

Caan's Axel is not a man who is assured of his life in any way, and he's certainly not a cool customer. In his scenes with his girlfriend Caan is notably not assured much of the time. He brings moments of this spark of a charm, yet so often Caan defines again this inherent lack of confidence that ends up defining the relationship. Caan has these great instances ofbringing in this attempted, man's man type of confidence, which is common in his performances, yet here he makes it purposefully flimsy, making a problematic part of who Axel is. Caan's especially strong in some the early scenes where he sees the actions of some of his book makers when they become much more violent. Caan never shows Axel brushing this off, although he internalizes it to a certain degree, he reveals a real fear the man. When he himself is almost on the chopping block stuck with few options Caan's terrific in the way he reveals the man almost closing down in being honestly terrified at the danger he is in. These moments are essential to the character yet must be carefully examined against his actions throughout the film, which can seem contradictory to this, but they are not due to Caan so effectively realizing the nature of the character. The potential contradiction though comes when we see Axel as the titular character so to speak, and the most essential facet within the story.

As the Gambler is where the Dostoyevsky's math comes in, which is found right there in Caan's performance. In the gambling scenes is where we see Caan in his purest form in terms of the Caan type in that he brings that more overt confidence in these moments. Now this is not Caan contradicting the sorta sad sack professor we see the rest of the time. Instead what Caan presents is Axel when he is not seeing that 2 + 2 equals to 4, which is when he fears for his well being due to his gambling debt or is the meek son/grandson, but rather here is the man who defies logic to believe that in this instance that 2 + 2 can equal to five. That confidence here adheres to this hubris where Axel is thriving on essentially this delusion, but a delusion that he firmly believes in the moment. Caan is terrific in finding this state of the man as he gambles which is heightened in a way since in every moment while gambling he brings this thrill, but also that assurance that everything will be as he sees it in the moment. He of courses comes into this state and goes out of it throughout the film, and Caan plays this naturally. There's one particularly strong scene in this regard for Caan where he's going from phone to phone making bets, while occasionally snapping back to pay attention to his girlfriend. It's remarkable as Caan makes the delusion feel so honest, even in the moment he suddenly drops it when he sees she's about to leave him, despite having been so influence by it a second ago. Caan finds that pull of the addiction brilliantly. Perhaps my favorite realization of that for Caan is in the final sequence of the film where he bribes one of his students to shave points in a basketball game to wipe his debts clean. In the game itself Caan delivers that burden of the tension as the game goes on, given his life is on the line. Afterwards though Caan plays Axel as frankly bored by the events, and  oddly takes a risk by going into a dangerous neighborhood where he solicits a prostitute seemingly just to get into a violent altercation with her pimp. Now with an actor with looser grip on the character this scene would make no sense, thankfully the remake did drop this scene for their own good, Caan though understand the role and makes you understand Axel through performance. In this scene Caan shows us Axel becoming bored with the results, since the risk is now gone, and in the end he brings that engagement and confidence back only when once again Axel is taking this nonsensical risk that defies logic, yet makes sense to Axel in the moment.

45 comments:

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Ratings and Thoughts on the rest of the cast.

Michael McCarthy: Your ratings and thoughts on Warren Oates in Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and John Hurt & David Warner in Little Malcolm.

Michael McCarthy said...

Luke:

Oates: 5
Hurt: 5
Caan: 4.5
Mitchum: 4.5
S.: 3.5

Oates- (I love that he's such a convincing and watchable badass, but not in the traditional sort at all. Rather than being a cold, ruthless figure, Oates does very well in just playing a rather pathetic and hopeless sort with nothing to lose and a lot to gain. The haphazardness he brings to the first half of his performance really sets up the constant state of Eddie as a hopeless individual, which only amplifies the conviction that grows within him as the situation becomes more personal for him in the second half where it almost becomes a one-man show. It's just a very smartly constructed performance by Oates that makes for an incredibly fitting lead to a Peckinpah film.)

Hurt- (I really did love this performance as it's kind of the one role in the formative half of his year where he really gets to let loose. Like Louis, I was very much reminded of Naked, and while the film ran thin for me in the second half the performance never did. I loved the setup to his character, particularly when Malcolm was alone, as Hurt creates him as a rather pathetic creature who presents himself as a strong and charismatic leader. What makes the performance truly great are his latter scenes where he shows Malcolm to be the coward that he really is, which end up shedding tragic light on the performance he gives in the first half.)

Warner: 4.5 (And a strong 4.5 at that. Warner could have compromised the character by making Dennis very heavily mannered, which certainly would have fit his nature. He decides instead to take the bolder route and incorporate Nipple's eccentricities fully into who the man is, making his long monologues make sense to Dennis's truth. Not to mention, he's hilarious in his first argument with Hurt, and heartbreaking in his last scene where he shows how hurt Dennis is when he's shunned by Malcolm.)

Michael McCarthy said...

Also, I just saw Battle of the Sexes. The cast is good, the climax is rousing and there are some nice touches by the directors, but the film suffers from a lack of focus and a delayed beginning to the primary conflict.

Stone: 4.5
Carrell: 3.5
Riseborough: 3
Pullman: 3.5
Silverman: 3.5
Stowell: 4 (I'm as surprised as you are)
Cumming: 3

Robert MacFarlane said...

Michael: Yeah, I liked Stowell a lot too.

Matt Cofrancesco said...

Michael: Did you like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia?

Michael McCarthy said...

Matt: Yes.

Henry W said...

Lmao Battle of the Sexes was too ehhh for my tastes. Emma Stone gave a respectable performance, but other than that, there are certainly things that could have been better in the hands of better direction and editing. The story is certainly interesting, but I don't really like the delivery of it is all.

Here's another question for you all:

For the last three Best Actor Oscar winners from 2017, 2016 and 2015, what are some roles in cinema from the 20th Century that you think they would be well suited to perform?

Robert MacFarlane said...

Henry W:

Redmayne - Barry Lyndon (I still maintain that role needs someone with limited charisma)
DiCaprio - Tom Ripley (he does well with con artist roles, and I want to see how he'd play it compared to Damon or Hopper)
Affleck - Tom Joad (perhaps a more outwardly bitter take than Fonda, but I could see him selling it)

Anonymous said...

Louis: your top 20 Gabriel byrne john turturro and john goodman acting moments

Michael McCarthy said...

Redmayne: Scorpio in Dirty Harry or John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Affleck: Bad Lieutenant. Also I know it's not technically cinema but he'd be great as Terry or Bunchy in Ray Donovan.

Michael McCarthy said...

I agree with Tobert about DiCaprio as Ripley.

Henry W said...

Michael:

Nice suggestions for Redmayne. What about Affleck's whole minimalist thing. What do you think he'd be able to do with that.

RatedRStar said...

After appearing in so many good films, so many films that were nominated for best picture, that he was never nominated for despite being the leading man while the actress did get nominated, probably the biggest actor in Asia that has never been nominated for an acting award, he finally has been nominated now.

Golden Horse Best Actor Nominees...
Chuang Kai-hsun - Who Killed Cock Robin
Huang Bo -The Conformist
Tu Men -Old Beast
Takeshi Kaneshiro - See You Tomorrow
Tian Zhuang-zhuang -Love Education

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Sorvino - 3.5(As typical to any time he has a decent role Sorvino is quite good here in portraying the right type of external sleaze within the character, but actually brings this type of warmth almost in portraying his concern for Axel's well being as actually something genuine.)

Hutton - 3.5(This is an effective performance as she strikes a very specific almost lack of chemistry with Caan. She portrays well just certain level of attraction in their interactions, yet makes this fairly thin most of the time. This approach though works well as she also sprinkles in a few moments where she edges towards something more substantial in their interactions, yet makes these only momentary.)

Brookes - 3(She's good in portraying that her affection towards her son is always genuine, yet also suggesting at the same time a certain despair in the moments where she allows herself to be used by him, then later states she'll no longer help him. In that moment she carefully doesn't make it cruel, but rather reveals just the years of watching him do the wrong thing.)

Carnovsky - 3(He's good in seeming just the likable grandfather in his first scene, then as we see more of him though he brings forth this incisiveness in his performance that basically reveals how he got where he got.)

Everyone else who appears very briefly is good as well including Burt Young, James Woods, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Henry:

Casey Affleck - John Singer (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter)
Leonardo DiCaprio - Elmer Gantry
Eddie Redmayne - Maybe Richard Rich from A Man for All Seasons

Anonymous:

Byrne (Top ten feels more fitting at the moment):

1. "What Heart?" - Miller's Crossing
2. The Funeral - Miller's Crossing
3. "What have you done?" - Spider
4. Opening - The Usual Suspects
5. Going to kill Bernie - Miller's Crossing
6. Odd interrogation - Miller's Crossing
7. Revealing his relationship to Verna - Miller's Crossing
8. Bringing in the "fake" mother - Spider
9. Failing to get the drop on Bernie - Miller's Crossing
10. Fake Brill - Enemy of the State

Turturro:

1. "I wanted to show you something beautiful" - Barton Fink
2. Summation - The Night Of
3. The Life of the Mind - Barton Fink
4. "I'm a writer" - Barton Fink
5. Bloody Murder - Barton Fink
6. Theater of the common man - Barton Fink
7. Ending - Barton Fink
8. Nature of Truth - The Night Of
9. Opening Night - Barton Fink
10. Celebrating getting the case - The Night Of
11. Meeting Audrey - Barton Fink
12. Finding Naz - The Night Of
13. The Detectives - Barton Fink
14. Second Meeting with Lipnick - Barton Fink
15. Strange clues - Fear X
16. The Forest - Miller's Crossing
17. "You're Done" - The Night Of
18. Theater Warning - Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
19. Jesus Dance - The Big Lebowski
20. Encouraging Naz to take the deal - The Night Of

Goodman:

1. The Life of the Mind - Barton Fink
2. A Bad day - Barton Fink
3. Bloody murder - Barton Fink
4. Saying goodbye to Charlie - Barton Fink
5. Theater of the Common Man - Barton Fink
6. Bad Eulogy - The Big Lebowski
7. This is what happens - The Big Lebowski
8. Cyclops Attack - Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
9. Fighting the Nihilists - The Big Lebowski
10. Bad Exchange - The Big Lebowski
11. Acid - 10 Cloverfield Lane
12. Delbert to the rescue - Arachnophobia
13. Wrong suicide bridge - Inside Llewyn Davis
14. "Rescue" - 10 Cloverfield Lane
15. Coffee Drinking Rights - The Big Lebowski
16. Losing the baby - Raising Arizona
17. An Idea - Argo
18. Santa Clause - 10 Cloverfield Lane
19. "Duel" - Arachnophobia
20. "I Killed my pencil" - The Simpsons

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your rating for Byrne in Spider.

Louis Morgan said...

4

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the Transformers episode Dark Awakening.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

My heart goes out to families of the victims of that absolutely horrifying attack in Las Vegas. What dreadful times we live in.

Luke Higham said...

RIP to the victims.

Calvin Law said...

RIP.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: thoughts on Lenny Von Dohlen on Twin Peaks? I thought he was simply great in FWWM.

Giuseppe Fadda said...

@Calvin: What did you think of Sheryl Lee? Because it might truly be one of my favorite performances of all time.

Calvin Law said...

Giuseppe: She was amazing. One of the top 5 Lynch leading performances for sure.

Honestly everyone was really good in it, though. I can't wait to see more of Harry Dean Stanton's character, too.

Also, just when I thought Cooper couldn't be more loveable they bring in Dougie Jones.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: your thoughts on the Dougie Jones breakfast scene?

Calvin Law said...

And what are your thoughts on Chrysta Bell? I actually like what I've seen so far which stands in opposition to the critcism I've heard.

Also, I have to admit I liked Michael Cera's cameo. I mean, I guess someone else could have made it funnier, I'm thinking Alden Ehrenreich, but he was quite funny IMO. Though the highlights of the episode were of course Dougie and the FBI agents.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

As third season episodes go it is a better one though it once again explores the almost bizarrely self-doubting Rodimus, a character flaw they give yet they don't properly explore it. Anyway the episode though is almost surprisingly intense in its depiction of Optimist fighting with itself and there is at least something to be had out of the ending there even if it creates a plothole for the season finale.

Calvin:

You can find my thoughts on Van Dohlen in Trintignant's review for the Great Silence.

Classic Lynch hilarity in every way with that ridiculous suit, that looks even more ridiculous on thin Dale, with the topper of the proper way to wear a tie. What makes the scene for me though is Sonny Jim's reactions that are so endearing, and of course the jubilation of sorts when we hear "coffeeeeee".

Bell's performance is definitely Lynch specific however I think it works in that sense, as she gives to me her own fashion of the off-beat FBI agent that fits right in with likes of Gordon, Albert Dale, Chester, Philip, and Sam as she is peculiar in her own way. Like those there is a logic there which comes later in a pivotal scene.

Anonymous said...

Louis: your top 10 favorite guest stars on The Simpsons

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

1. Phil Hartman
2. Kelsey Grammer
3. Albert Brooks
4. Alex Rocco
5. Joe Mantegna
6. Jon Lovitz
7. Jackie Mason
8. James Woods
9. Adam West
10. Leonard Nimoy

Matt Mustin said...

Louis: Out of curiosity, do you consider Marcia Wallace a guest star? Because I don't, really, despite what the end credits say.

Louis Morgan said...

Matt:

No, I didn't even remember that she was listed as such.

RatedRStar said...

Happy Birthday Tahmeed =)

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Thank you Daniel :)

Luke Higham said...

Happy Birthday Tahmeed :)

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the screenplay of Wolf of Wall Street.

Anonymous said...

Oh, happy birthday Tahmeed. :)

Henry W said...

Happy birthday, Tahmeed.

Can you guys name your favorite supporting performances of the 70s without ranking them?

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Thanks Luke, Henry and Anonymous :)
Henry: My favorite supporting performances from the 70s would be

John Cazale in The Godfather Part II
Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter
Robert Shaw in Jaws
Robert Shaw in The Sting
Ian Holm in Alien
Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now
John Huston in Chinatown
Amitabh Bachchan in Sholay
Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man
Hal Holbrook in All the President's Men

Luke Higham said...

John Hurt - 10 Rillington Place
John Cazale - The Godfather Part II
Robert Shaw - Jaws
Laurence Olivier - Marathon Man
Christopher Walken - The Deer Hunter
Ian Holm - Alien
Robert Duvall - Apocalypse Now

Robert MacFarlane said...

Henry W:

Robert Shaw in Jaws
John Cazale in The Godfather Part II
John Huston in Chinatown
John Vernon in Animal House
Leon Vitali in Barry Lyndon
Ian Holm in Alien
John Hurt in 10 Rillington Place
Hal Holbrook in All the President's Men
Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green
Harrison Ford in Star Wars

Anonymous said...

John Hurt in 10 Rillington Place
John Cazale in The Godfather Part II
Robert Shaw in Jaws
Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man
Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter
Ian Holm in Alien
Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now
John Huston in Chinatown
Hal Holbrook in All the President's Men
Robert Shaw in The Sting

Charles Heiston said...

John Hurt in 10 Rillington Place
Robert Shaw - The Sting
Robert Shaw - Jaws
Christopher Walken - The Deer Hunter
Ian Holm - Alien
John Cazale - The Godfather II
Lee Strasberg - The Godfather II
Dennis Hopper - The American Friend
Robert Duvall - Apocalypse Now
Marlon Brando - Apocalypse Now

Charles Heiston said...

Happy Birthday, Tahmeed!

Matt Cofrancesco said...

Marlon Brando- Apocalypse Now
Andrew Robinson- Dirty Harry
John Huston- Chinatown
Robert Shaw- Jaws
John Cazale- Dog Day Afternoon

John Smith said...

Congrats Thameed.

My favorite performances from the 70s would be.

-Amitabh Bachan/Anand
-Shashi Kapoor/Kabhie Kabhie
-Duvall/Apocalypse Now
-John Hurt/ 10 Rilington

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

It's a little hard to fully guage the screenplay without having read it since the film is notable for its improvisation which certainly made at least one of the most memorable scenes in the film. The screenplay needed to be strong though in its structure, which I'd say was Goodfellas influence however so what, it does it in its own, and in its own fantastic fashion. If some of the great lines were improvised many definitely needed to be written as he creates such a witty and downright hilarious work that grants a kind of insight in the vapid world, while doing it with such style.