Film: Double Vision

Oscar season finds a number of actors working double duty

Oct 18, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Departed's Matt Damon(left) and Leonardo DiCaprio battle it out for Oscar supremacy this fall — each is in multiple films.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I begin with the observation that the fall box-office season opened with a pair of Ashton Kutcher projects occupying the top two slots. For connoisseurs of his particular charms, you had either animated Ashton playing sidekick to Martin Lawrence in Open Season or the live-action version being mentored in the art of blankness by Kevin Costner in The Guardian. Talk about a double bill for the ages.

But that's just a momentary lapse in a season that promises to tempt and tease Academy members, not the most likely bunch to make a pilgrimage out to local multiplexes, into purchasing tickets for twin bills of golden idol seekers eager to claim commercial and critical glory.

So much has been made of the return of Martin Scorsese to his urban crime roots, but for all the guts and grit in his remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed unloads a double-barreled opening salvo from its co-leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Besides trying to stay one step ahead of each other in the twisty narrative, they will also be working overtime to keep from landing on their own heels with prestigious follow-up projects.

The second coming of Leo in Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond might end up facing a skeptical audience that remembers Zwick's attempt to convince us that Tom Cruise was The Last Samurai. But Diamond has the cache of a respected cast, which includes Djimon Hounsou and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly (another doubleheader thanks to her supporting work in Todd Field's Little Children), and the topical South African intrigue should pique global interests. If it does nothing more than provide an engaging adrenaline adventure, then it should be able to stand alongside The Departed, which offers nothing groundbreaking for fans of Scorsese or Leo who packed houses during the film's opening weekend.

For more straight-ahead Oscar-worthy fare, Damon ushers in Scorsese alum Robert DeNiro's The Good Shepherd, which uncovers the life of Edward Wilson, the man behind the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The role seemingly furthers Damon's investigation into morally ambiguous characters with multiple identities. Most actors would find themselves treading into a typecasting no-man's land here, but Damon constantly refashions his Boy Scout looks to confound our expectations of how a character takes the lead. He has gone to great effort not to let his hard work take center stage, which likely explains why Good Will Hunting remains his only Academy-nominated acting turn (although he shared the original script award for Hunting).

On the character-acting front, Michael Caine will also rear his head twice during awards season. In Christopher Nolan's suspenseful thriller The Prestige, Caine will likely issue a smoke signal prior to his apparently more buzz-worthy supporting turn in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. It's a pleasure to see one of the hardest working actors in the business — a dubious distinction he split with Gene Hackman for some time but that Samuel L. Jackson is laying claim to now — applying his talents toward quality projects rather than second house payments or his children's college tuition fund.

Caine might be an awards threat this season, though, based on his Academy track record. He has been nominated four times in the best acting category, but his wins have come from his supporting turns — Hannah and Her Sisters (1987) and The Cider House Rules (2000).

In the female camp, Cate Blanchett might be hoping for some of the supporting mojo. She has two highly-touted supporting roles — Steven Soderbergh's World War II crime mystery The Good German and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's globe-hopping Babel — and her own (albeit brief but certainly enough to qualify) set of odds in the nominations game with the Academy. Her lone win was for her recent supporting effort in Scorsese's (there's that name again) The Aviator, while she snagged a lead actress nomination for Elizabeth in 1999.

Speaking of Babel — which might have the richest cast of double-threat options (co-star Gael Garcia Bernal jumped out of the gate early in The Science of Sleep) — one that is missing from the list is Brad Pitt. He could have had the chance to increase his odds of landing another nomination (10 years ago in Twelve Monkeys) if the release of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford hadn't been pushed back to early 2007.

Ultimately, the final decision rests with the studios and not the performers themselves. For instance, actress Kate Winslet would seem to be covering her commercial and critical bases with All the King's Men, Flushed Away, Little Children and The Holiday. That's a full day of racing from theater to theater in your multiplex, but Oscar hopes in her case are dwindling now that All the King's Men has been considered a misfire. That leaves her performance in Todd Field's sophomore feature, which has the earmarks of Oscar bait if his directing debut In the Bedroom is any indication.

Clint Eastwood had an outside chance of issuing a high-profile directing double feature with Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. This one-two punch might have landed him in the rarefied air of Soderbergh, the last director who competed against himself in 2000's Erin Brokovich/Traffic race. In this case, Eastwood's massive undertaking stood in even more dramatic relief due to his attempt to tell both sides of this pivotal period of World War II history. The impact will be lessened slightly, since it has been announced that Letters will not be released until February. So this companion piece will be extended into next Oscar season, if it has the legs to run that long.

Maybe Scorsese should consider double dipping next time. Odds are audiences will feast on the extra treats. ©