Harvey Keitel did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jimmy Fingers in Fingers.
I say original film, as I previously reviewed Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the perhaps more artfully directed remake of the film from 2005. Both are good films though in their own right (though the sex scenes might tell you a little too much about its writer/director), and to inhabit slightly different experiences almost entirely realized within the central performance. Where Duris gave a strong portrayal of a normal guy caught up into a very difficult situation, Keitel doesn't something entirely different with the part. I'll admit when going into watching the film I thought I was more likely going to see a variation on Keitel's work in Mean Streets, which would've been closer to Duris's eventual approach, but Keitel genuinely surprised me. Where Duris portrayed a man who understood his situation in a sense, even though he was often powerless to deal with it, Keitel portrays a man who in unaware of it. This is fundamental in his approach to the part though which is that Jimmy might be a bit mentally ill, or at least mentally off from the duality of being raised by his criminal father and musician mother, who also appears to be a bit mentally off herself. Keitel's performance then is just not of this hood, or even conflicted hood. It is rather revealing of his Jimmy Fingers as a man wholly out of place in his existence in a way, though technically fashioned by that existence.
Keitel doesn't portray the character as having two sides, at least not exactly. We open the film as he is practicing Bach on the piano. Keitel portraying the uproarious passion of the man within it. This passion for music though doesn't stop once he stops playing. This as we instantly see him trying to entice a young woman while dragging along a radio that is constantly playing some his favorite music. Keitel excitedly speaks every word as Jimmy speaks about the music he loves so much. It is without hesitation that we see this passion from Keitel, where he emphasizes in a way that for Jimmy music is this essential part of him. He speaks of it as though others should just understand at as he does, and his eyes blaring with this rich sense of belief in every word of his. This in portraying Jimmy as just not a music lover, but also as this believer that everyone around him ought to love music as he does. Keitel's performance managing to find this natural, by in a way making it somewhat mentally off, in one way or another, in these moments. This isn't to say he undercuts the passion, quite the contrary, but rather he expresses a man who finds music as the truth of his life and life in general. This though with a lack of awareness that others do not share this same treatment, and showing essentially an anger when there are others who do respect the art as he does.
The scenes where Jimmy speaks to his father (Michael V. Gazzo) Keitel does not hide his excitement at the prospect of the audition, something this father is even generally supportive of. In this time though we also have his father give Jimmy two money collection jobs, as basically his muscle. This may seem at odds with the artistic man that is Jimmy in the opening scenes, however that would be misguided. Instead at the first money pick up job, it is with his radio that we're storming in. This where Keitel is beaming as he explains his love of the song coming from the radio, and just trying to inquire ways of how his radio can be supported. The man, who owes Jimmy's father money though doesn't relent to that, or Jimmy's initially gentle demands for the money. Jimmy in turn then violently accosts the man, and what is so unnerving in this is how natural Keitel makes it. It isn't a shift rather it is the same passion within the man, though now for different purpose where Keitel delivers the same intensity found in his love of music, now for violence. Keitel delivers on that menace but what makes it remarkable is how it segues in the moment with such ease as Keitel portrays Jimmy's as singular, despite the two interests seem at opposite ends of one another. This is made all the more clear when he gets into a violent argument with men questioning his radio, where Keitel's snap of threatening the man as this near instinct of a man who has this specific sensitivity.
The sensitivity that Keitel does not turn into making a "good" man but rather the man that he is. This as we see him in any instance, including his interactions with women. Keitel portrays this desperate need for some deeper show of affection, that is palatable and seething in these moments. There is a distress in his eyes of a man looking for some greater connection that he never finds. The same can be seen within when we see him playing piano, and now failing to do so for an audition. Again Keitel emphasizes the frustration in his passion that seem displaced, and in his failure to direct it in a away for others to understand. We find that though with his scenes with his father and his one important scene with his mother. His father who in general is more open, though prompting Jimmy to commit more violent acts, and his essential scene with his mother. In both there is a searing need in Keitel's eyes of a boy just looking for approval in his parents, with very differing expectations, and in turn grants sense to the man who thrusts himself so fiercely into a life of both art and violence. Keitel manages to create then this strange, yet convincing, extreme of the man who in a way becomes deranged by the oddness of the arithmetic that makes up his life. Keitel finding these emotional extremes then in the end believable fashion, as we see the man throwing himself still into song, but then just the same as we see his violent acts at the end of the film. Keitel defines Jimmy as a man defined by his passion, and does so powerfully whether it be through an elegant concerto or a brutal murder.