Yahoo! Best Actor Roundtable: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin – oh, my!

Thelma Adams
Movie Talk

It's raining men! For our second Yahoo! roundtable, I welcome my colleagues Jonathan Crow and Matt Whitfield, as well as actress-director Jordan Bayne, "Movie Mom" Nell Minow, IndieWire bloggers Melissa Silverstein and Anne Thompson, critic Caryn James, Awards Daily's Sasha Stone, and Oscar obsessive Nathaniel Rogers.

Let's hit the roundtable for best actor. Nathaniel Rogers started us off at the end of the last roundtable with this quote: "It always hurts when actors are having their best year and they're passed over, which is what's happening with Brad Pitt. What does he have to do to win awards? Age another 15 years I suppose. They do love to make the golden gods wait until they're old and grizzled."

Anne Thompson: The real race that has developed between onetime front-runner George Clooney and Jean Dujardin, who won best actors at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, improves Brad Pitt's chances by creating a split. A close race brings up the possibility of a third actor actually gaining more votes, which is how Adrien Brody won for "The Pianist," a huge upset that year.

Sasha Stone: Dujardin has the thing in the bag.

Anne: Clooney still has support. And so does Pitt. It's not a sure thing at all.

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Caryn James: Don't buy the split-vote theory, and I've never thought "Moneyball" was an Oscar-winning role. Definitely Clooney vs. Dujardin and hard to predict. I'm hoping for a Dujardin backlash to save Clooney.

Sasha: Start with the performances. Dujardin stands out as carrying the whole film. Moreover, Pitt and Clooney are both hurt by essentially playing the same role -- as in single dads, charming, womanless, with a great crying scene at the end. Neither of them goes to the depths Dujardin does with his role. So on its face, Dujardin is the best of the three. If the actors were willing to go for an unknown French actor over a huge star like Clooney (I don't buy the split vote either) then, well, you know. That is beyond significant. But we'll see.

Thelma Adams: I'm really teetering on the brink of "I don't know" here. I'm not buying the split vote either, and I do believe that Pitt is out for "Moneyball." That's why he's so relaxed. Every step he takes is a plug for his brand, without any wanting of the prize.

Clooney, on the other hand, wants it. Breezy, but wants it. But I'm a little stuck: I was so convinced of Clooney before the SAG surprise, and I keep reaching back to other actors who totally wowed me: Dominic Cooper, Michael Fassbender (in his many colors -- "Jane Eyre," "A Dangerous Method," and "Shame"), and Woody Harrelson from "Rampart." This belated wondering can't be good. If I took it fresh, again, of the five I'd go for Clooney. And, eek, if I just went for performances, I'd vote Gary Oldman, who is such a complete chameleon.

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Anne: Folks in the movie biz love and admire Clooney enough -- and have for years -- to nominate him for pic and "Ides of March" screenplay; Dujardin is new. And "The Descendants" is a hit, while "The Artist" is fumbling at the box office.

Thelma: So, Anne, Clooney?

Sasha: Folks in the industry love Clooney? Huh. I did not know that. I always thought he wasn't the most popular guy in town, you know, someone who had to really fight for attention. You learn something new every day! But seriously, yes, of course they love Clooney. But Clooney's got two problems. One is Pitt, obviously, almost as beloved. Maybe isn't going to be homecoming king, but he's certainly got the quarterback cred. The more popular of a contender Pitt becomes, the harder it is for Clooney to have the edge. There is no incentive, particularly, to give him a second Oscar here. Dujardin, on the other hand, has much going for him. Winning the SAG was really the key indicator -- he didn't go up against Clooney at the Globes. The only place Clooney won against Dujardin was at the Critics Choice. So, you know. Clooney winning the SAG was the expected outcome, given his popularity in the industry and elsewhere. And now it isn't just actors voting, it's all of the other branches, too. Dujardin is hard to resist. Anyone who comes in contact with him falls in love with him. And you just know ol' Weinstein Co. is going to make sure that happens. It also feels good to watch a guy who cried at his SAG win. When Clooney wins, no one cares because he's already such a grand success story. But Dujardin winning has the added bonus of it being a feel-good ending to boot.

"The Artist" has made $20 million -- that's pretty good for a black-and-white, silent movie. "The Descendants" might win adapted screenplay. I'd love to see it overcome "The Artist" for picture -- either that or "Hugo." But after the SAGs, I feel it's Dujardin's to lose.

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Nell Minow: If I were in the academy, I'd vote for Brad Pitt. He is always underestimated as an actor because he makes it look effortless. Only the most gifted performers can do that. No one is better than Pitt at calibrating precisely how best to deploy his extraordinary star power. A lot of actors with screen chemistry use it as a crutch or a smokescreen, but he uses it only to the extent that it serves the role. He made two movies in 2011, and both were nominated for best picture. The precision and scope of those performances were dazzling.

Nathaniel: Full agreement with Nell here. In a way, Brad Pitt has developed Jeff Bridges' former problem. Now, few actors are in Jeff Bridges' league, but Bridges always had the problem of effortlessness, which is a problem in any acting category. So few winning performances come free of gimmicks; they want to see you sweat for it.

But that monologue in "Moneyball" about it being hard not to romanticize baseball? That makes it so hard not to romanticize Brad Pitt's entire filmography. It's such A-level work. That's a star fully in charge of his gift without visible grandstanding about it. It's so authentic a feeling and, for me, far superior to Clooney's more obvious awards-baiting at bedside.

I don't normally share the "how do you compare performances?" angst that sometimes inflicts discussions of the Oscars, but I'll admit it is a little hard to look at what Dujardin is doing in the same context. But god, he's great in "The Artist." If it wins best picture, he's half-responsible, if you ask me.

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Thelma: And, Nat, we did ask you.

Jordan Bayne: Right. I always forget this is a high-school popularity contest and not actually based on the merit of the performance. So George Clooney probably has it in the bag for a film that I felt was flimsy with a premise I never bought. For me, Clooney dials in Clooney, and that is not acting. I never feel anything from him. Brad Pitt is excellent, but I don't feel this is his best performance. However, I agree with Nell that part of his greatness is that we never see technique. We always see a human being.

I do feel Jean Dujardin is a serious contender. The work he did required not only tremendous skill in storytelling but also in conveying emotion without falling into sentimentality. It is an incredible and unique performance. For me, the one performance that stands out, that I felt deeply in every frame, that pulled me in and made me weep was Demián Bichir. This was a masterful performance full of beautiful restraint, honest emotion, and deep conflict. In my opinion of these nominees, this actor is most deserving of the award.

Anne: Wow. Of all the Oscar best-picture nominees, "The Descendants" is the only one on my 10-best list; Clooney has earned rave reviews for a reason: It's his best performance to date. Both Clooney and Dujardin bring great emotion to their roles; Dujardin is new, a fresh surprise. Pitt makes what he does look too easy. Popularity does count -- and, by the way, charmers Brad Pitt and Jean Dujardin have been effectively winning hearts, too. This is a campaign, but in the end the academy voters go for the performance they think is the best of the year. SAG went for Dujardin, which means a great deal, and "The Artist" has been winning key races like the PGA and DGA. This suggests that many branches of the academy membership are heading that way. But the actors are one-fifth of the Academy. And in a close race, folks who voted for "The Descendants" and "Moneyball" as their favorite films could vote for Clooney and Pitt as well. Best actor is closer than people may think.

Thelma: To me, post SAGs, PGA, and DGA, it seems like an incredibly close race.

Jordan: Yes, I know. I am one of the rare ones who did not like "The Descendants" at all, but that's another convo.

Matt Whitfield: Michael Shannon? Anyone?

Jordan: Love, love, love Michael Shannon.

Matt: As much as I'd love to see Clooney and Dujardin split -- with Pitt emerging victorious -- I don't see it happening. In fact, I think Clooney and Pitt will split, and Dujardin will walk away with the statue. I'm just really bummed Pitt was never in contention for a best-supporting actor nod for his work in "The Tree of Life." I truly believe it was the performance of his career. Had he been a double nominee, I think he would have given Plummer a run for his money.

Anne: I agree with you that Pitt's better performance is in "Tree of Life." Fox Searchlight tried to go for supporting there, but it got no traction. It was "Moneyball," which is a terrific movie star role, but isn't as showy as "Tree of Life." Truly his best.

Nathaniel: Jordan, we only seem like rarities given the lockstep craziness of all the "American Masterpiece" talk. I actually think "The Descendants" is Payne's weakest film, and I am bewildered at the love. But yes: sidebar conversation, though it does apply here given Clooney's mysterious front-runner status despite being better in all of his recent Oscar roles.

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Jonathan Crow: I agree with Nathaniel. "The Descendants" is better than "About Schmidt," but it's one of his weaker films. It did seem groomed however for Oscar attention. That scene where Clooney says goodbye to his wife just screams "For your consideration." Jean Dujardin is very charismatic and ingratiating, though his performance at times tips right into cloying. Brad Pitt was fine in "Moneyball," but I was underwhelmed by the movie. The pacing was terrible. Overall, I''m having a hard time getting excited about this category. In my bizarro version of best actor, I would have nominated Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter," Ryan Gosling from "Drive," Robert Wieckiewicz from "In Darkness," Michael Fassbender for "Shame," and Kevin Spacey from "Margin Call" with a wild card for Peyman Moadi from "A Separation." But since the academy in their wisdom decided to not give any of these much more deserving performances the nod, I say wearily a pox on your house. And in an Oscar pool, I'd give it to Clooney by a nose. Though, I am rooting for Gary Oldman to win.

Thelma: "Tinker Tailor Soldier" Oscar winner! And, until next week when we dish on the supporting categories, we'll twist the cap back on the chardonnay. And we can be thankful that we're not experiencing true Oscar nominee agita: the prospect of losing in front of millions of people worldwide.

See this trailer for "The Descendants":