Career transformations are nothing new. Over just the last few years: Robert Downey, Jr. morphed from a fast-rising indie star into a down-and-out drug addict into one of the most bankable stars in the world. Mickey Rourke went from an A-lister to a forgotten man to an Oscar nominee and back to a forgotten man. And Bryan Cranston, who was best known for portraying a goofy dad on a network sitcom, reinvented himself as one of the most memorable dramatic characters in the history of cable TV.
What is remarkable about 2013 is that it featured remarkable career transformations for no fewer than three actors, each of whom could be rewarded with an Oscar nomination on Jan. 16. Let's tackle them one by one, in alphabetical order.
1) Steve Coogan, best supporting actor/best adapted screenplay hopeful for Philomena
Coogna, a 48-year-old Brit, is immensely popular back in the U.K. for his work as a comedy actor. (He is best known for portraying the narcissistic radio and TV presenter Alan Patridge in three TV series, two radio series and one film, earning two BAFTA comedy awards along the way.) In the U.S., however, he remains largely unknown, or known, if anything, for voicing a character in Despicable Me 2. Therefore, the fact that he co-wrote, produced and stars opposite Judi Dench in one of the year's most acclaimed dramatic films, Stephen Frears' Philomena, has come as a surprise to many on both sides of the Atlantic -- but he insists that it shouldn't, since he studied to be a dramatic actor. Regardless, it is noteworthy that Coogan, playing British newsman-turned-freelancer Martin Sixsmith, more than holds his own opposite Dench, playing an elderly woman looking for the son who was taken from her a half-century earlier -- even though he provided her with many of the film's funniest lines. His character's main purpose, in addition to serving as a straight man to Dench, is to serve as an audience surrogate, listening, observing and reacting to a series of events that are increasingly surprising and shocking, right up to a big climax near the end. The sense of timing that he has employed to such great effect in comedies served him well in this function. And if he winds up with an Oscar nom for best supporting actor and/or best adapted screenplay (he already received Golden Globe and Critics' Choice noms for the latter), it will be well deserved.
2) Bradley Cooper, best supporting actor hopeful for American Hustle
Prior to the release of the first Hangover film in 2009, Cooper was largely unknown (or known as "the guy from Wedding Crashers"). For several years after it, he was largely known -- but only as "the main guy from the Hangover films." He was always more than that -- he trained at the Actors Studio and was impressive in several projects with lower profiles, especially Limitless -- but it wasn't until about a year ago, when people were catching up with David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, that there was a widespread appreciation of the fact that the guy possesses real talent. (He wound up receiving a best actor Oscar nomination for his performance.) This year, anyone who thought that Cooper's performance in that film was a fluke was disabused of that notion by two additional very fine -- and very different -- performances by the actor, who is now 38. In Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, a dark triptych drama, he plays a man at two separate periods of his life 15 years apart, haunted in the latter by tragic events in the former. And in Russell's American Hustle, Cooper takes on a supporting role but is as memorable as ever, making the most of his every moment on screen. Talking a mile a minute and wearing ridiculous curls and 1970s outfits, Cooper brings down the house in a number of comedic scenes (particularly those in which he appears with Louie C.K.) and sucks the air out of the room in others (particularly three in which he is alone with Amy Adams, one in a jail cell and two in her character's apartment). These performances -- particularly the latter -- are clearly the work of an actor who desires to do serious work and is clearly capable of it. The Hangover has finally worn off.
3) Matthew McConaughey, best actor hopeful for Dallas Buyers Club
The dashing dude from Texas began his career 20 years ago with promising appearances in serious films such as Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993), John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997). Not long thereafter, though, he began appearing in an endless string of glossy romantic-comedies -- for which he was handsomely paid -- that can only be described as drek, becoming better known for his abs than his acting abilities in the process. About three years ago, though, for whatever his reasons, he made a conscious decision to "recalibrate" his career and start focusing on projects that actually matter -- and the results have been nothing short of astounding. In 2011, he made Bernie with Linklater and Killer Joe with William Friedkin. In 2012, he made The Paperboy with Lee Daniels and Magic Mike with Steven Soderbergh; the latter brought him a best supporting actor Critics' Choice nom and prizes from the National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle and Independent Spirit Awards. This year, the 44-year-old took things to an even higher level by appearing in Jeff Nichols' summer breakout hit Mud, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (his chest-thumping scene is one of the film's best) and, most notably, Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club. In Dallas Buyers, which takes place during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, McConaughey portrays debaucherous rodeo rider Ron Woodroof -- a character inspired by a real person of the same name -- who is diagnosed with the disease and, refusing to accept a death sentence, begins importing and selling nontoxic, anti-viral medications not yet approved by the FDA that prove to be vastly more effective than any that have been. Much of the coverage of the performance has focused on McConaughey's shocking loss of 50 pounds to play a man dying of AIDS, but the truth is that, in every sense, body and soul, it is McConaughey's most fully-realized performance and shows just how great his potential as a "serious actor" actually is. Here's hoping he sticks with this sort of work, as opposed to reverting back to what he did before, alright? Alright, alright, alright!