Six Performances You Must See Before the 2011 Oscars

by Eric Melin on February 24, 2011

in Blogs

The 83rd Academy Awards are this Sunday evening and in the running for the night’s top awards are some of the best performances of the year. The acting categories are particularly strong this year, and if you want to be prepared to make predictions in your office Oscar pool, there are some performances you need to see before the ceremony. Here’s a quick guide:

steinfeld-true-gritHailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”

If you haven’t seen the Coen brothers’ melancholy and truly entertaining Western (nominated for 10 Oscars), you are probably asking yourself, “Who is Hailee Steinfeld?” Don’t feel bad, until about two months ago, nobody else knew the young actress either. The film’s casting directors auditioned 15,000 different girls to find the perfect mix of confidence and naiveté before finally choosing 13-year old Steinfeld to play lead character Mattie Ross.

How she ended up in the Supporting Actress category is a matter of Oscar politics, but this previously unknown actress more than holds her own with veteran Oscar nominees Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Even though she is saddled with mouthfuls of Biblical dialogue and a very specific late 19th century cadence, her pluckiness and petulant nature never seems forced.

Black-Swan-Natalie-Portman-MirrorNatalie Portman, “Black Swan”

She’s been nominated once before (2004’s “Closer”), but Portman has never been as emotionally (and physically) tortured as she is in Darren Aronofsky’s go-for-broke horror flick. Besides training five hours a day, six days a week to play a ballerina obsessed with perfection, Portman had to access some pretty dark places.

Her insecurity manifests itself in all kinds of nightmarish ways, and Portman’s journey is ours. Being both the victim and the tormentor is tricky, and Portman’s mental breakdown, despite all its over-the-top genre trappings, is scary, cathartic, believable, and ultimately heartbreaking.

The-Fighter-Mark-Wahlberg-Christian-BaleChristian Bale, “The Fighter”

Speaking of over the top, Bale proves that method acting can be not just transformative, but also gloriously fun to watch in David O. Russell’s riveting family drama with boxing as the backdrop. In a Spin magazine interview from 1996, Bale said “An actor should never be larger than the film he’s in,” but he steals the movie as the crack-addicted former pro boxer intent on reliving his glory days.

If you stuck around to see the real Dicky Ecklund in the closing credits, however, you saw that British Bale might have even underplayed his hyperactive, Boston-accented subject. It’s one of the reasons he’ll be going home with an Oscar Sunday night.

Eisenberg-Social-NetworkJesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”

Eisenberg may be known for playing introverted outcasts, but Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-layered monster in jeans and a hoodie. Fueled by bitterness and exclusion, he takes his obsession with social strata to a new level and creates the most important website of our time.

Eisenberg not only spits out mouthfuls of the best-written dialogue in years like it was nothing, he deftly characterizes the fears and hopes of an entire generation.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”

This Best Picture frontrunner hinges completely on Firth’s performance as King George VI, the monarch with a debilitating stammer who led his country into World War II through a series of radio broadcasts. The King’s inner struggle is powerful stuff and the stammer produces huge amounts of frustration behind the actor’s eyes, but it’s the relationship with Rush’s unorthodox speech therapist that forms the heart and soul of the film.

British royalty was not allowed to develop the kind of friendship and trust that is portrayed in “The King’s Speech,” but without it, the psychological trauma that led to the King’s condition could never have been tackled. In other words, without Firth and Rush, the movie doesn’t work.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James February 25, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Well said. There are probably my favorite performances(Eisenberg, Portman, Bale, Steinfeld) of the ones nominated. Firth in particular deserves all the accolades he will get even if I preferred other performances, particularly Eisenberg’s more.

Bale’s performance is sad, delusional, funny, and spirited. Hopefully the great lengths he goes too, doesn’t bother his peers and his somewhat poor media representation in the past won’t hurt him. Its not about likability, its about the best. At least it shouldn’t be about likability. Right, Mr. Zuckerberg?

Portman being damaged, insecure, though confident in the 2nd hour, innocent, dark, and like you said tormented will surely get her the oscar. At least I hope she will. Its an unhinged performance that could rub some people off, but rarely has she gotten a role that fits those emotional heights she often tries to get to. Here she does.

Steinfeld is helped, by having filmmakers who know how to get the right kind of performance from their actors, but also by having a very rare kind of role for someone her age. She has to be smart, yet naive and never annoying. As you said, its a tough role, but she comes off natural.

Eisenberg to me is the real deal. I have to thank all the various critics groups because through them, I think that led to Eisenberg’s nomination. The role he has and the way he decides to play it to me wouldn’t be generally to the Academy’s liking. Also his age could have hindered him. I also thought Garfield’s slighty more sympathetic role would gather more attention, and its a shame he missed out, but I’m glad the Academy was wise enough to nominate the film’s lead. Its the kind of performance that can go overlooked and I know there’s just alot of people from general audiences that are asking “What’s so good about him? He’s one note.” I’m glad his peers didn’t think so. Its unapologetic. He’s neither the bad guy, or the hero and credit goes to Fincher, Sorkin, and of course, Eisenberg.


2 Eric Melin February 27, 2011 at 1:59 am

James – Thanks for your comments! You make a good point about Steinfeld. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here when not under the specific guidance of the Coens. I also like what you said about “likability.” It’s so frustrating when people tell me they didn’t like one character in The Social Network and therefore they didn’t like the movie!


3 James March 2, 2011 at 12:30 am

Who knows? Steinfeld might have wisdom beyond her years. We will see. Sadly for her, she won’t come across a role as well written as her one for True Grit for some time most likely.

As for the likability thing, its ridiculous. I guarantee you, if like a young Tom Cruise was in the lead role people would have immediately liked Zuckerberg for his looks and charisma. I’m not knocking Cruise either, but this whole way people perceive films as “Okay who is the good guy. Who is the bad guy?” is absurd. Its not always the right way to look at films. “Okay, Mark is the bad guy. Eduardo is the good guy. Done.”

I’m not saying Mark is secretly a saint, but can people get off their high horses? The guy was young and stupid. He even said it himself. I guarantee you as well if Erica had accepted the friend request, he would have been forgiven by alot of audience members. And yea I never understood the prerequisite that we have to like the characters to like the film. Ambiguity doesn’t fly with alot of audiences and sadly not the industry either as we saw this Sunday. You said people should consider rewatching or revisiting the flick. Some people are out right appauled by such a thing. Its odd. As if they think their comprehension skills are being insulted. Its like “oh no no, I mean I get it more from repeated viewings. I’m not saying you didn’t get it or…” I think alot of people take as that. The King’s Speech is an easy digest, a solid one, but an easy one.


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