Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Ewan McGregor in "Big Fish" (2003)

Ewan McGregor
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Ewan McGregor
Film: Big Fish (2003)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actor category (2003):
-Sean Penn (Mystic River) *WINNER
-Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
-Ben Kingsley (The House of Sand and Fog)
-Jude Law (Cold Mountain)
-Bill Murray (Lost in Translation)

I'm sure that this is an unpopular opinion, but Tim Burton's weirdest movie is Big Fish. That may be hard to believe, especially for a director who made Pee-Wee's Big Adventure's Large Marge or, well, Michael Keaton's performance in Beetlejuice. However, weird is a subjective terminology in this case, as weird almost seems to mean "normal" in the case of this weirdo. However, one can easily watch Big Fish and not entirely catch on that it's a Burton film. Given the director's turn of the millennium choice to adapt almost exclusively adaptations of stuff he loved as a child, it does seem weird to make him create something that isn't immediately engulfed in his color pallet and features the macabre undertones of Danny Elfman's pompousness. Yes, Elfman is here. Even Helena Bonham Carter is here. Yet, the film feels like a drama infused with Burton's penchant for supernatural texts. 

If nothing else, Burton has never been this sympathetic before or since. Most of his stories end in a sort of cynicism, or perverse optimism at best. This film feels saccharine in a way. It's Americana crossed with a freak show attraction where supporting players are giants and conjoined twins. It's a story that welcomes the strange, and all in the quest to have the protagonist (Albert Finney) recall a larger-than-life story of himself as a young man (Ewan McGregor) winning over the love of his life. It's not an easy road, and one that is rich with more familiar Burton imagery of bright constructed homes and some dilapidated doors. It's a balance of sorts, and some that the director hasn't even come close to achieving in the years since, save for maybe Dark Shadows and Big Eyes.

Yet at the center is McGregor: an actor who is currently easy to look back on and wonder how he hasn't gotten an Oscar nomination yet. He is charismatic and charming in almost everything that he does. Even in garbage like Moulin Rouge, he seems to be providing an earnestness that elevates his performance. Yet it seems at every turn, he is overlooked for Oscars. It becomes worse when you sometimes notice that his costars get credit, such as with August: Osage County (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts), and Beginners (Christopher Plummer). He always seems to be a little off the list, sometimes showing up at The Golden Globes but never The Oscars.  He may have a lot of great roles to choose from worthy of this acclaim, but I do think that Big Fish embodies what he does very well.

As mentioned, this is very much an Americana love story by way of a freak show. It takes a certain level of performance to perfectly balance naivety and awe without it falling into hokum. In fact, there's something that can be found in McGregor's thick accent that is itself welcoming. He is lacking an imposing core, instead ready to welcome whatever strangers come his way. There's an optimism in his performance that allows for the strange elements to take focus. His simple smile is enough to embody what the audience should be feeling. As delightful as the world is, it's hard to imagine what this film would be if McGregor's performance reflected less or more interest. It would fall into camp at worst, becoming a certain kind of tediousness. Instead, it's nuanced and perfectly fitted into a story that asks the viewer to determine fact from fiction before just embracing the creative side.

It also may be hard to conceive, but I do believe that this was Burton's shot at prestige cinema. Considering that he would tackle daddy issues again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory two years later (in a tacked on plot), it is strange to see him do it so well here. In a film that chooses to embrace the kooky ramblings of an old man, it manages to find a certain appreciation for something more universal. How do we see our elders who may not be all there at the current moment? Even if this was also adapted from a book, this feels like Burton's most personal film, largely because it chooses to let his wild imagery take a backseat to something grander in story. It's the type of film that makes you wish that Burton experimented more with his style instead of landing in a comforting middle-ground with set designs.

It may be Burton trying to be sappy, but it also has the power of what cinema could be. While Finney does excellent work, it is mostly on McGregor's shoulders to convince us that we're in a world of imagination, going beyond the limits of our minds. You're even convinced that he's a younger Finney. It may not be the most memorable or bombastic performance of his career, but it does have enough heart to be something greater, considering that other actors have gotten nominated on less emotion. If nothing else, the awestruck nature of the finale should solidify this as one of the underrated films of the decade, and thus should've shown up bigger at The Academy Awards beyond Elfman's much deserved Best Original Score nomination. Still, could the film work without McGregor? That's not entirely true.

McGregor may be an actor with great charisma, but it does seem like he's going to end his career on the underrated side. While he has a ton that I could consider (Trainspotting), it does seem right to start with one performance that seemed geared for potential Oscar gold. I don't think it could've won, but it helps to ground a very strange story, and one that manages to become a powerful drama by the film's end. It may be accused of being slow at times, but it definitely shows a creative side to cinema that isn't often there - specifically in Burton's own career. One can only imagine what will happen when he makes a film on par with Big Fish again. Maybe it will be when McGregor finally gets an Oscar nomination. Who knows. All that is known is that in hindsight, this film feels more special by how few have copied it in the years since.

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