Oscar buzz catapults relative unknowns into spotlight

By John Anderson
Newsday

Oscar night is about glitz and dresses and famous people, but every now and then, relative unknowns get a ticket to the Academy Awards sweepstakes. They don’t usually win _ just being nominated, as they say, is honor enough (sob).

But they’re in the mix, which this year includes several performers who may not be well known now but likely will be soon. Here’s a who’s who:

Jacki Weaver

(Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “Animal Kingdom”) To find the work of this extraordinary Australian actress invading American shores, one has to go back to 1975 and Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which hardly called for the kind of latent evil Weaver brings to the role of Janine “Smurf” Cody, the monstrous matriarch of “Animal Kingdom.”

In first-time director David Michod’s socio-psycho-crime drama, Weaver is a smiling Mama Macbeth who manipulates her criminal brood with faux-mother love, her black hole of a heart and a creepy kiss on the lips for her murderous boys. “Smurf” prompts one to look for comparisons to other roles and performances. “Mommie Dearest” would spring to mind, if Joan Crawford had actually been homicidal. But Weaver’s Janine is apt to become the bad mother by which others are measured.

Born in New South Wales, Weaver has had an erratic career. Before her reappearance in 2007, she’d been inactive for 10 years. She has worked almost exclusively in Australia, largely on television, and the Oscar nomination is just one of many recognitions for her “Animal Kingdom” performance, and a large, and largely unsung, talent.

John Hawkes

(Nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Winter’s Bone”) Hawkes is a kind of classic case, the character actor who kicks around in smaller parts until the perfect one kicks him into the big time. His nomination for the menacing crystal-meth addict Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone” is just one of the honors the 51-year-old performer is now getting after a career spent habituating horror movies (“Scary Movie”), studio productions (“The Perfect Storm”), standout indies (“Me and You and Everyone We Know”) and television (he was in “24” and “Lost” was Sol Star in HBO’s “Deadwood”).

Originally from Minnesota, and a musician as well as an actor, Hawkes will be seen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which was well-received at the recent Sundance Film Festival. Hawkes plays a Charles Manson-inspired cult leader, a role for which his rawboned look and actorly intensity seemed a perfect fit.

Jennifer Lawrence

(Nominated for Best Actress for “Winter’s Bone”) After being pitched all manner of unsuitable performers, director Deborah Granik held her ground: The actress she wanted for “Winter’s Bone” and its leading Ozarkian character, Ree Dolly, didn’t have to be an unknown, but she had to be young. She had to be able to play American. And to sound American.

“And then Jennifer walked in,” Granik said, “a complete unknown. And from Kentucky, no less.” Not only that, she could act.

Lawrence was among the breakout success stories of 2010, after only about four years doing mostly television: She played a member of the Pearson family on “The Bill Engvall Show” (2007-09), made several appearances on “Medium” and appeared opposite Charlize Theron in “The Burning Plain.” But “Winter’s Bone” is her big moment and one that, in one regard at least, she’d like to leave behind.

Since her Oscar nomination, Lawrence has appeared only in the most flattering and glamorous photo layouts, ones that accentuate her rather considerable good looks and capacity to play other-than-Ree Dolly roles. Clearly, this is one woman who’s not intending to get pigeonholed.

Hailee Steinfeld

(Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “True Grit”) Although the 14-year-old Californian should be the freshest face in the bunch, she’s actually been working as long as Jennifer Lawrence has. Although if you missed “Summer Camp,” or the single season of TV’s “Back to You,” you probably missed her.

Steinfeld isn’t even close to being the youngest best supporting actress nominee (Tatum O’Neal was 10 when she won; Anna Paquin was 11). But the young star of “True Grit,” in which she plays the self-possessed Mattie Ross, who hires Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn to find the man who killed her father, carries more of the film than most child stars are ever called upon to carry.

She might have been nominated for best actress, but in the realities of Oscar World, no kid is going to take it away from Natalie Portman, unless that kid is named Annette Bening. For all the doubt about Oscar strategies, however, there’s little doubt about the talents of Steinfeld, whose ferociously intelligent Mattie makes a pretty valiant stab at stealing the movie from her alcoholic, one-eyed saddle pal.

From obscurity to winner

It’s not uncommon for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize great performances by relatively obscure performers. What’s rare is when those nominees actually get an Oscar. The following are a few winners who defied the odds, as well as some formidable competition. (The years designate that of a film’s release.)

COTILLARD

Marion Cotillard, Best Actress, “La Vie en Rose,” 2007. Anyone who actually saw Cotillard impersonate the late, great Edith Piaf felt justice was served, but since the film was in French, and the competition consisted of Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Julie Christie (“Away From Her”), Laura Linney (“The Savages”) and Ellen Page (“Juno”), it was something of a coup d’statuette.

BRODY

Adrien Brody, Best Actor, “The Pianist,” 2002. Brody was easily the least known of the competition that year (Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson), but “The Pianist” was on a roll. Roman Polanski won best director nd many said, had the film better timed, it might have won best picture (which went to “Chicago”).

BENINGI

Roberto Benigni, Best Actor, “Life Is Beautiful,” 1998. He was so delighted he climbed over chairs; Oscar voters might have hid under them. Nevertheless, Benigni pulled off one of the great Oscar upsets by topping Tom Hanks (“Saving Private Ryan”), Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters”), Nick Nolte (“Affliction”) and Edward Norton (“American History X”).

FRICKER

Brenda Fricker, Best Supporting Actress, “My Left Foot,” 1989. Moviegoers may have known the work of the formidable Irish actress, but maybe not as well as they knew her competition — Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin (both for “Enemies: A Love Story”), Julia Roberts (“Steel Magnolias”) and Dianne Wiest (“Parenthood”).

NGOR

Haing S. Ngor, Best Supporting Actor, “The Killing Fields,” 1984. Ngor, a Cambodian doctor and author who died in 1996, played his countryman Dith Pran in Roland Joffe’s film and won out over Adolph Caesar (“A Soldier’s Story”), John Malkovich (“Places in the Heart”), Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (“The Karate Kid”) and Ralph Richardson (“Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”).

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