While millions of moviegoers behold Woody Harrelson as a wild man shrieking warnings about the end of the world in "2012" right now, he's giving another showy performance in a small indie that could land him an Oscar nomination.
"The Messenger" opened only in four theaters this past weekend, earning $50,000 compared with $65 million for "2012," but it may have a much bigger impact on his career. Harrelson earned an Oscar nomination for the title role in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996) and shared the SAG ensemble award for "No Country for Old Men" (2007), but he has yet to win a major solo film-industry honor. The best he has done so far is winning an Emmy as the air-headed bartender on "Cheers" in 1989.
"The Messenger" showcases just the kind of role that might stand out in academy members' minds. In fact, his supporting part is so big that it towers over the subtle, sensitive turn of lead star Ben Foster as they pair up as U.S. soldiers charged with informing families of military personnel that their loved one has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Foster portrays the good-hearted, dutiful straight arrow. Like in "2012," Harrelson is a bit of a wild man, but less bonkers. In "The Messenger," he's a sly, playful bully who loves to knock Foster around, but ultimately gives himself a beating in the end. (Spoiler alert: He even gets a crying scene. That's usually Oscar bait, eh?) His role is nicely layered emotionally and psychologically in a film that's literate, deftly made and politically timely.
Getting an Oscar nomination is an uphill battle, though, considering the mighty rival forces he faces: Matt Damon ("Invictus"), Jude Law ("Sherlock Holmes"), Peter Sarsgaard ("An Education"), Stanley Tucci ("Julie & Julia" or "The Lovely Bones") and the two front-runners to win -- Christopher Plummer ("The Last Station") and Christoph Waltz("Inglourious Basterds").
"The Messenger" doesn't have a major studio behind it. Oscilloscope is the upstart company of Beastie Boy Adam Nathaniel Yauch, who tried unsuccessfully to get Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" into the derby last year, but it distributed Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "The Garden," nominee for best documentary feature. It's aggressive, though. Oscilloscope hired veteran Oscar soldiers 42West to press its campaign and they're pushing forward. Last Friday, DVD screeners of "The Messenger" were shipped to the full academy membership, not just the actors' and writers' branches. Its producers want to beat the pre-Thanksgiving rush.
Photos, from left: Woody Harrelson stars in "The Messenger" (Oscilloscope) and "2012" (Columbia Pictures).