Dear Michael Sheen: Please come to your Oscar senses. On Tuesday, when I saw "Frost/Nixon" at its first big media screening in Los Angeles, I — like everyone else — was mightily impressed by your performance as the wily British talk show host who nabbed The Interview of the Last Century.
But I also felt quite sad — because it occurred to me that you will not get a well-deserved Oscar nomination for it, if you pursue your current campaign. No, no, no, sorry. But you do have a shot at nabbing one if you'll humbly agree to drop down to supporting.
I know it doesn't seem fair. Your character's name shares the movie title with someone else who's widely considered to be a shoo-in for a bid. You even have more screen time than Frank Langella. Arguably, you are the lead and he is supporting, yes, yes, I know. But you're going to lose this argument at the Oscars — just like you did at the Tonys — because logic doesn't apply to Yankee peer-group showbiz awards. You probably have noticed that by now.
Let me be brutally frank. You're not going to win an Oscar this year. You can't beat any of the current front-runners in lead (more on that below) nor the ghost of Heath Ledger ("The Dark Knight") in supporting. The best you can hope for is a nomination, and you won't get that in the lead category because that race is far too crowded with academy darlings giving grandstanding performances.
Dropping down to supporting again would be humiliating, I do realize. Even though you obviously had the lead male role in "The Queen" two years ago, you bowed down, as you were ordered by studio lords, agreeing to campaign in the lowly supporting slot (with peasants!) and didn't get nominated by Oscar. But at least you got a BAFTA bid, and you won the supporting prize from the L.A. Film Critics Assn., right? That's far more than you'll get this year if you continue your current, dogged campaign in lead.
I realize that you and costar Langella both got nominations for best lead actor from the Olivier Awards after performing "Frost/Nixon" on the London stage. But the minute you both crossed the Atlantic, your awards fate changed. That's because we Yankees are crazy.
When you and Langella competed at the Tonys, you experienced the same fate that you will soon meet at the Oscars if you stay in lead. You'll be shut out — and Langella might win, leaving you without even a consolation nomination in supporting. The reason has nothing to do with the caliber of your performance. Forget that. The last thing academy members are voting on is what's really best. To cite my favorite example: Nobody gave Nicole Kidman an Oscar for one ham-bone scene in a plastic nose in a film called the worst of the year ("The Hours") by Time magazine, Newsday, New York Daily News and other major media.
But she won for two reasons. 1) Voters wanted to bestow a hug to the discarded and humiliated ex-queen of Hollywood's box-office king. 2) Even though Kidman had less face time (thank gawd, considering that hideous honker) than costars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, she portrayed novelist Virginia Woolf, who was crazy and doomed, bringing about her own tragic downfall. Just like Richard Nixon.
And just like Idi Amin too. "The Last King of Scotland" is another good example of a parallel situation that you, Michael Sheen, face now. Arguably, James McAvoy really had the lead role in that film. He had the most screen time and most lines of dialog. And film-goers saw the action of the film through his eyes. That's key. Consider where those eyes were focused: on the man who won the Oscar as the monstrous Idi Amin.
The size of one's role and the sensitivity, even the quality, of a performance do not matter at the Oscars. Sad to say, but that's true. Actors who accept the injustice of the system can get their maximum reward -- like Ethan Hawke -- if they're smart. Hawke had the most dialog and screen time in "Training Day," but he wisely ducked down to supporting, getting out of the way of Denzel Washington, who ended up prevailing in lead.
Last year when I ran into Hawke, I asked him why he agreed to such humiliation back in 2001.
"I'm a realist," he said. "Denzel had the big, flashy role, and I couldn't compete with him. If voters saw both of our names in one category, they might just pick just one of us and — let's be honest — it wasn't going to be me. The best hope I had was to get out of his way, even if that meant dropping down to supporting. At least I got a nomination out of it."
It's true that many film costars have been nominated opposite each other in the same category, but it's not going to happen this year because the category's too crowded. Already the best-actor race has six strong front-runners: Leonardo DiCaprio ("Revolutionary Road"), Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino"), Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon"), Sean Penn ("Milk"), Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler"). It's going to hard enough for voters to knock one of those heavyweights out of the ring. They're not going to knock out two in order to make room for a British "rookie" (you're not, but that's how they see you) in what seems like a passive role when stacked up against Langella's portrayal of Richard Nixon as a giant, fabulous dragon.
Photo credit: Universal