POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards

In case you hadn’t heard, the 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be distributed on Sunday evening. And even if you haven’t paid attention recently (or ever), it might be of interest to you as a POINTS reader to recall that Oscar – the nickname for film industry’s most prestigious award for achievement – has long had a fascination with drugs, with drink, and with their influence. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the 2010 Academy Awards deliver comparatively few nominations for films instigated by drugs or alcohol in the outlying categories like “best foreign language” or “best documentary.”

But those acting categories? They deliver the drugs and the booze. Thus, I offer my own brief accounting of the influence of drugs and alcohol within this year’s nominated films and performances. Consider it “The POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.”

To begin, BEST ACTOR honors will almost certainly go to Colin Firth for his stolidly sympathetic performance in The King’s Speech, a film in which Firth’s measured enjoyment of an occasional, neatly poured drink stands as but one measure of his character’s throne-worthiness. Firth’s status as this year’s frontrunner derives in no small part from the fact of his near-miss at last year’s ceremony (when he was nominated for his memorably melancholy turn in the spirits-soaked A Single Man). Last year, Jeff Bridges took the trophy with his made-for-Oscar performance as a dissipated country singer on the path to possible redemption in Crazy Heart. Bridges happens to also be a nominee this year for his performance as the seriously drunk U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. (Though he has little chance of winning a second Best Actor trophy this year, Bridges would be only the third actor to be so recognized…and the first to do so while playing defiant drunkards two years running.) This year, Firth’s main competition arrives from two younger actors with some serious drug use elsewhere in their filmographies. The career of James Franco (nominated this year for his portrayal of real life climber Aron Ralston who had nothing to cut the pain as he cut off his own arm) has been punctuated by apt portrayals of potheads ever since the late 1990s, first in the cult television series Freaks and Geeks and possibly culminating with the 2008 dystopic stoner comedy Pineapple Express. Comparably, Jesse Eisenberg’s previous roles have included atypically intelligent coming of age dalliances with drugs and drink in films like 2002’s Roger Dodger and 2009’s Adventureland. Nominated this year for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg’s other noteworthy “true life” performance this year arrived in the little seen Holy Rollers (now available on dvd), in which Eisenberg plays a young Hasid who becomes involved in an international ecstasy smuggling ring. The fifth of 2010’s Best Actor nominees is Javier Bardem in Biutiful by Alejandro González Iñárritu (the filmmaker responsible drug-fueled epics like 2003’s 21 Grams and 2006’s Babel). In Biutiful, Bardem plays a hustler involved in any number of illicit economies but who, facing a terminal illness, does his best to extricate himself – both personally and professionally – from the easy outs promised by drugs and drink. But even Bardem’s soulful performance will likely not detour Colin Firth as he makes his way to Oscar’s stage on Sunday night.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR boasts what is perhaps the “druggiest” field of nominees at this year’s Oscars. Most notably, Christian Bale’s portrayal of a contender-cum-crack-addict stands out as the frontrunner. In the boxing melodrama The Fighter, Bale plays Dicky Eklund, a once promising welterweight whose addiction to crack cocaine was documented in the 1995 HBO-TV special, High Times on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (the making of which is featured in the fictional 2010 film). Bale’s widely honored performance offers a meticulously crafted portrait of Eklund as a man consumed by passion – for boxing, for family, and for crack. Bale’s co-nominee John Hawkes delivers a comparably searing performance in Winter’s Bone, the neo-noir thriller set deep within the meth-ravaged Ozark backwoods. As Teardrop, the meth-doing and -dealing uncle to the film’s young protagonisht, Hawkes delivers a performance of ominous volatility and haunting humanity. Though Hawkes has little chance of winning, his nuanced portrayal of a man transformed by a life defined by drug use stands in subtly stark contrast to Bale’s twitchier (though inevitably iconic) turn. Rounding out the nominees include Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, both portraying characters clearly well-versed in a well-rolled or well-poured indulgence. Both Renner’s portrayal of The Town‘s impetuously intense bankrobber and Ruffalo’s charismatic slacker biodad in The Kids Are All Right each offer solidly evocative performances, each deserving of the honor of just being nominated. (And if any performance is poised to yank the title from Bale it’s that of Geoffrey Rush as the elocution teacher who transforms a royal into a king in The King’s Speech.) But look for Bale to rush the stage and claim the trophy.

And, finally, let’s talk about the women nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS and BEST ACTRESS. In both categories, we can see a raft of Oscar’s favorite female stock characters: devoted daughters, wind-beneath-his-wings girlfriends, weary wives, and monstrous mothers. And it seems that drinking, drugging, or loving a drinking/drugging man seems be part of the formula for several of the female nominees as well.

This year’s BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS nominees, as is perhaps typical to the category, especially legible as gathering daughters, girlfriends, and mothers of men involved in drug/drink. Only The King’s Speech‘s Helena Bonham Carter is not attached to an inebriate and, as the devoted wife and future queen, appears the very model not only of English propriety but also of British sobriety. Australian actress Jacki Weaver, on the other hand, is not. In Animal Kingdom, first-time nominee Weaver delivers a terrifying portrait of mother love at perhaps its most vicious as she strategically maneuvers a family landscape riddled with addiction, overdose, and drug-dealing (and doing so with terrifying ease). Perhaps comparably, Melissa Leo’s widely celebrated performance as The Fighter‘s mother is married to a ruddy-faced drunk and mother to a crack-addict. Often with a beer of her own in her hand, Leo’s character is the very portrait of self-ratifying denial. In contrast, Hailee Steinfeld, nominated for her feature film debut in True Grit, offers a portrait of a barely teenaged girl of preternatural forthrightness, even/especially when confronted with the daily dissipation of the adults around her. Oscar-pundits put this year’s contest between Bonham Carter, Leo and Steinfeld as one of the actually unpredictable contests for this year’s awards. That’s why I think the one remaining Supporting Actress nominee – Amy Adams as The Fighter‘s girlfriend – might be a surprise contender. As a barmaid who knows she drinks too much (and lost an athletic scholarship due to partying too hard), Adams’s performance offers the cinematic equivalent of a moment of clarity within The Fighter‘s swirl of drugs, drink, and prize fighting. It’s a longshot, but I can’t help but wonder if Adams (combining the stalwart support of Bonham Carter, the fierce Boston accent of Leo, and the sober truth-telling of Steinfeld) might be the Supporting Actress Oscar surprises everyone by liking best this year.

Among the nominees for BEST ACTRESS, the two nominated performances that are (arguably) the most hauntingly accomplished – Nicole Kidman as Rabbit Hole‘s grieving mother and Michelle Williams as Blue Valentine‘s devastated wife) – both have little to do with drug/drink and little chance of winning on Sunday. In contrast, the three performances with a shot at winning are each, in different ways, arrive in narrative scenarios shaped by drug/drink. First time nominee Jennifer Lawrence delivers a career-inaugurating performance as a teen forced to defend herself and her younger siblings within a landscape of rural poverty ominously transformed by meth-production, meth-addiction and meth-trafficking. In The Kids Are All Right, veteran nominee Annette Bening, on the other hand, plays a slightly masculine, comfortably middle class lesbian (and California wine connoisseur) whose sense of self (and sense of security) is shaken. Bening’s character might be considered by some to be a bit of a lush, whose already scathing tongue is loosened at key dramatic moments by her enthusiastic consumption of local wines. Finally, while the performance most likely to be recognized by Oscar (Natalie Portman’s portrait of obssesive self-destruction in Black Swan) is about a somewhat infantilized workaholic with food issues, it’s worth recalling, too, that the pivotal sequence leading to both the dramatic incidents of the film’s finale (and the character’s doom) are instigated by Portman’s character hitting the town for her first real night of drinking and drugging.

There you have it. The POINTS Guide to the performances celebrated at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. What are your thoughts about this year’s nominated performances? Your predictions for this years Awards? Offer your thoughts in comments and check back Monday for a brief post-mortem on what actually happened.