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Subtlety can be stunning, but it rarely gets you an Oscar nomination

By Dan Zak Washington Post

Amy Adams could’ve shouted the line and slammed her fist on the table, in defiance of a CIA man thwarting her scientific mission in “Arrival.” Instead she delivered the line quietly and tonelessly, without even a question mark: “Why do I have to talk to him.”

This expert line reading – forsaking flash for finesse – not only created a sly comic moment but also signaled the depth of Adams’s murmuring performance, which didn’t make the list of Oscar nominations Tuesday morning. The Academy isn’t famous for rewarding subtlety, and Adams wasn’t the only actor to do understated work that went unacknowledged this year.

“Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve “created this very calm environment, in which to allow us to have these silent moments,” Adams told the Hollywood Reporter. Her fellow best-actress contender Annette Bening missed out on a nomination, too, for playing a single mother running a household of misfits in 1979 Santa Barbara in “20th Century Women.” This could’ve been a scene-chewing part, a benign Miss Hannigan mugging for the camera, but Bening is all eyes and eyebrows, not spittle or fluttering hands.

“It’s hard to find someone that I like,” Bening says in the movie’s most emotionally revealing scene. “I had my chance, twice, but that part of life just didn’t work out for me.” No tears, or even watering eyes. Just a careful wiggle of her head, her voice lowering in volume as she gets to the end of the line, and then an exhalation of cigarette smoke. The drama is almost entirely internal.

Bening and Adams do not have climactic speeches, breakdowns or trophy-seeking makeup on their faces. Their scripts did not attach adverbial direction to their lines, and their directors declined to make them milk or mug. Hugh Grant, in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” is in the same category: un-nominated for a role that required impeccable restraint in a movie that was ripe for Acting with a capital “A.” His co-star Meryl Streep, as the flamboyant and warbling title character, is up for best actress (deserved, yes, but it’s the type of role that gets noticed easily).

In honor of these unrecognized performances, and to revel in rarity, let’s look at five of the subtlest Oscar-winning performances.

1. Mark Rylance, best supporting actor for “Bridge of Spies” (2015). The movie is a historical thriller, but Rylance’s pulse never rises to match the tension of the plot. As he recounts the story of his family home being raided, he is subdued by the flashback, not traumatized anew. Rylance’s acting in this scene is amplified by director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who slowly push the camera in as he speaks. This heightens the emotion of the scene without raising the volume.

2. Tilda Swinton, best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton” (2007). Her character, a sniveling corporate lackey, is constantly staving off pressure from all sides, and barely keeping it together. But keep it together she does, even as her insides are crumbling. When she encounters the title character, whom she thought was dead, the panic only registers in slight twitches in her cheeks and jaw. Then, when she realizes she’s about to be arrested, her head starts to shake. The camera pulls back from her. By the time she drops to her knees in fright, in the most dramatic move of her performance, she is way in the background and out of focus.

3. Jessica Lange, best supporting actress for “Tootsie” (1982). The movie belongs to Dustin Hoffman, in the role of a lifetime, but he didn’t win. Lange did, for playing his shy love interest and fellow actor, a big soap star with big insecurities. This is a sweet performance, absent drama and irony. When they’re running lines, Hoffman says “Why do you drink so much?” and Lange answers as her soap character: “When you grow up as I did, an orphan raised by a sister years older, you have few illusions.” But there’s something deeper going on in “Tootsie.” Hoffman then repeats the question, out of character. In a less subtle movie, from a less subtle character, such a line would’ve set Lange up for an emotional unraveling. But she parries the real inquiry with delicate subtext. “Because it’s not fattening, and it’s not good for me,” Lange says. “How many things can you say that about?”

4. Jason Robards, best supporting actor for “All the President’s Men” (1976). As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Robards’s red pen does more Acting than he does, as he crosses out whole sections of Woodward and Bernstein’s draft of a Watergate story. He silences Dustin Hoffman with just a look. He says “Where’s the goddamn story?” without yelling. He communicates a world of frustration by gently tapping an eraser. And let’s not forget that the best moment of his performance, coming near the quiet climax of the movie, doesn’t even feature his face: As he walks away from the reporter duo in what should be a moment of wild triumph, Robards taps his index finger on a desk and then claps his hands once.

5. Julie Andrews, best actress for “Mary Poppins” (1964). OK, hear us out. Yes, this is a rollicking movie musical, but the central character is unreadable and distant, even as she dances on rooftops with chimney sweeps. She permits herself a smile now and then, but only to put the mortals at ease. “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking,” Mary says near the end. Andrews adds a touch of wistfulness to the line, but then dashes it by ordering her talking umbrella to shut up – as if to say, with finality, “less is more.”

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