The nominees for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture are:
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christopher Waltz, Django Unchained
On February 24, the Academy Award should go to....
... Christopher Walken, A Late Quartet.
What's that? Walken wasn't nominated? Yeah, I know. But if he had been, he might have collected his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (He won his first for The Deer Hunter in 1978.)
Why wasn't he nominated? My guess: A Late Quartet was a crowd-pleaser at film festivals, where Academy members rarely venture. No one knew the director, Yaron Zilberman. In the theaters, it grossed an infinitesimal $1.5 million. It simply disappeared.
It certainly did not vanish in the arts cinema near Lincoln Center. We saw it in a packed theater. With a reverent, knowledgeable audience. There was an ovation at the end.
The title is a pun.
The music that anchors the film is Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, opus 131. Half an hour long, played straight through, it is a bold, original composition that sets the bar extravagantly high for the musicians. Schubert's comment: "After this, what is left for us to write?" Beethoven agreed; it was his favorite of his late quartets.
There's another pun, and it's much heavier. The Fugue String Quartet has played together for 25 years. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the second violinist, and Catherine Keener, who plays viola, are married. Mark Ivanir, the first violinist, seems like the group's natural leader. In fact, it is Walken, the cellist, who founded the group. ("I'm the dad," Walken told an interviewer.) Playing hundreds of concerts a year, incessantly traveling, tamping down ego for the sake of the group -- few quartets can stay together for a quarter of a century.
So, yes, a quartet in late life.
As the film begins, Walken has just confirmed his darkest suspicion -- the trembling in his hand is the first sign of Parkinson's. Rather than hang on, he wants to retire. Will he be replaced? Or is his exit the sign that the Fugue has run its course, that it is dead? Thus: literally late.
His colleagues are so unhinged by Walken's news that their lives -- all their lives -- are knocked off-center. Watch:
Don't think this is an artsy, pretentious movie. It's about people fighting -- clawing -- for meaning in their lives. And yet it wasn't always like this. There's a great scene when the group is interviewed and Hoffman explains how they got together:
Mostly, though, A Late Quartet hit me hard because of Walken. His performance is exquisitely dignified, admirably private. He's not chatty, but he doesn't have to be -- his face says it all. And what a face! There's no vanity here. He's 30 years older than his colleagues, and he looks it.
Here's the thing: the more ravaged and tortured Walken looks, the more beautiful I find him. His face is the face of an artist; you can imagine the statue. And in every frame, you can see and you can love the depth of greatness -- of the character and the actor.
Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, opus 131.