Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Runner-Ups: Fred Melamed in "A Serious Man" (2009)

Scene from A Serious Man
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 other 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: Fred Melamed
Film: A Serious Man (2009)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category (2009):
-Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basters) *WINNER
-Matt Damon (Invictus)
-Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
-Christopher Plummer (The Last Station)
-Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones)

I could write a whole essay on why A Serious Man is directors Joel and Ethan Coen's best movie. I know that there's plenty of argument for Fargo or No Coutnry for Old Men, but I do feel like their seemingly simple tale of 1960's Jewish suburbia has a lot of their most personal and complex work to date. It not only captures the absurdity in tone of what they usually thrive on, but it captures a deeper and more troubling philosophy of humanity and still manages to find the humor in it. Most of all, it feels like these characters are the most human of any that the Coens have ever concocted. With the well for Jewish cinema already being very small, especially in a prestigious category, it's hard to ignore how smart and fun A Serious Man actually is.

For the most part, it would be tough to argue this given that the film did get a Best Picture nomination. There's plenty to praise about what The Academy got right in nominating the film. However, I do think that Michael Stuhlbarg is only one of the pieces that explain why A Serious Man works so well. The supporting cast is equally impressive. Yet there's none that felt as much like a revelation as Fred Melamed, who for awhile could better be known as "Sy Abelman." Coming out of the film, it's tough to associate Melamed as anyone but this character, if in part because of his limited exposure in other areas of cinema. He had been around, but A Serious Man was his chance to shine and elevate his overall status. In the eight years since the film, he has had a pretty solid career resurgence that plays on his strengths as a comedic actor. However, he still probably is Sy Abelman to those who were struck by him in 2009.

After all, 2009 was the year of discovery. Everybody loved Christoph Waltz to the point of giving him the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. To some extent, it wouldn't be too far off to lump Melamed into this category, but on an indie movie scale. Maybe it's the reasoning behind Stuhlbarg's nomination, but it does ignore the genius of Melamed, who probably will have to work twice as hard to get anywhere near another Oscar nomination. Still, it was a powerful performance that made you wonder where he came from. You wanted to see more of his work. You wanted to know who this Sy Abelman was and why you were just now finding out about him. 

Of course, it mostly works if you're willing to go along with the tone of A Serious Man; which is dark and dry in ways that more mainstream audiences won't find accessible. The repetitive nature of Stuhlbarg doesn't help, and the ambiguous ending (as perfect as it is metaphorically) will likely frustrate. Abelman is pretty much the best of these worlds. He is deadpan and a bit conniving without winking at the camera. He is the one who is having an affair with Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik's wife. Yet Abelman wants to be friends with Larry in a way that is manipulative and skeevy. He is a terrible person who just so happens to be trustworthy in a way that doesn't make sense. To unravel this logic is to find truth in nothing. A Serious Man thrives in not making sense, even at its most profound moments. It's kind of why it's so funny.

This is especially poignant in a dream sequence where Larry looks for answers from the cocky Abelman, but finds that the only progress that can be made involves slamming himself against the wall. It takes a lot of skill to give a performance so confident and despicable while still being so charming. In lesser hands, Sy Abelman would be a man with a devilish whisper to his voice and a menace that is a tad obvious. The Coens love grey area too much to do that. It challenges the actors and it keeps the audience questioning what they see. To underestimate how mean Abelman is to be taken in by his character the way that some of the plot does. Most of all, you are literally and figuratively left wondering "Who is this man?"

It makes sense why Waltz not only was nominated, but won the Best Supporting Actor category that year. He gave a similarly effective performance on a bigger scale. You couldn't leave Inglourious Basterds without thinking of him. With that said, there's plenty of room to slide Melamed into one of the other four spots. He almost demands it as one of the most underrated Coen performances to date. Of course, it could just be that A Serious Man wasn't a big Oscar player to begin with and Melamed was one of the first casualties. Still, it is likely that anyone who will watch the movie today will wonder how it got so many nominations in the first place for being so niche and odd. Once they realize that, it'll be hard to not ignore the great Sy Abelman, who really deserved better given that he is in the best parts of the movie.


  1. "For the most part, it would be tough to argue this given that the film did get a Best Picture nomination and earned Michael Stuhlbarg a deserved Best Actor spot."

    Stuhlbarg got nominated for the Golden Globe, but he wasn't nominated for the Oscar. In fact, A Serious Man only got nominated in Best Picture (likely a beneficiary of the expanded category's first year).

    1. Good catch. I swore I remember watching "The Oscars" and seeing them say his name. It was probably the Golden Globes now that I think of it. The only correction I need to give you is that in research, I discovered that it was also Oscar nominated for Screenplay. Still, far from what I was thinking.

  2. I'm not usually one to promote my own stuff in comment sections, but we interviewed Fred Melamed on our podcast and he had some fascinating stuff to say about Sy Abelman. Just wanted to put it out there, if anybody was interested.