Sunday, June 7, 2015

Is Mark Ruffalo the heir apparent to Gene Hackman? –PART I

Recent viewings:  
Foxcatcher and The Normal Heart

Mark Ruffalo
     A few weeks ago, we saw Foxcatcher, written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller right after The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy, written by Larry Kramer from his 1985 play.  (It took Julia Roberts’ participation to realize The Normal Heart; even Barbra Streisand couldn’t make it happen back in the ‘80s).  Mark Ruffalo displayed powerful range in both roles:  a top wrestling coach, who happens to be a decent family guy in over his head with a billionaire psychopath, and a gay civil rights and AIDS activist, who becomes more prominent and controversial than he’d ever wanted.

You Can Count on Me
     I’ve liked seeing Ruffalo ever since You Can Count on Me (2000), where his insouciant portrayal of a likeable drifter earned him comparisons to a young Brando.  I could see it in terms of looks and his vulnerability, but he didn’t possess Brando’s power or the sense, as Ellen Barkin once put it, that ‘he had secrets’ that she wanted to know.  XX/XY (2002), although little seen, takes a look at a ménage a trois, in which the male is the emotionally weakest character.  We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), based on two André Dubus stories, examined two adulterous academic couples; it was the apotheosis of a serious American independent movie with excellent actors stuck in something that thought it was serious, but was actually dreary.

     Where his persona (and career) took off for me was his performance as Detective Dave Toschi, the primary investigator, in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), which was one of the most ignored excellent movies of the past decade.  With a great cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, and Chloë Sevigny, among others) and extraordinary production design that re-creates San Francisco in the 1969 – 1980 era, it goes so far as to unmask the identity of the Zodiac serial killer.  He was funny, foot loose, and sexy as the sperm donor out of his depth when he meets his adolescent children and their lesbian mothers in The Kids Are All Right (2010).  

Begin Again
     However, 2014 was his year with Begin Again, Foxcatcher, and The Normal Heart by playing three vastly different roles.  He was up for the Oscar for Foxcatcher, a movie that could have been released in the ‘70s with its presentation of complex characters and the revelation of the establishment’s sinister entitlement.  That type of movie only seems to receive major studio distribution nowadays if it’s about historical events, rather than fictional ones (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and the earlier Miller/Frye/Futterman productions Capote or Moneyball).  Steve Carell went the whole way as the creepy, psychotic John du Pont, but it was Ruffalo and Channing Tatum that provided the soul to the proceedings as the Olympic wrestling Schultz brothers.   

Channing Tatum
     To digress for a moment, what about Channing Tatum and when will he get taken seriously?  He’s a wonderful dancer (I thought that watching him on the bus in Step Up  as we rode to Canada in 2006) and he has a wicked sense of humor, but he raised the stakes in Foxcatcher and was criminally overlooked.  He remade himself physically for the part and expressed such a depth of rage that I would have thought he’d be a lock for award nominations, but no.  We haven’t had a smart, funny hunk who can move for a long time:  Burt Reynolds facetiously trashed his career, Sidney Poitier was stuck being a credit to his race/nation/the whole world, which killed his humor – the same thing happened to Barbra Streisand after she and everyone else decided she had to be important – so we have to go back to Burt Lancaster to see his actual forebear.  Tatum can already produce a movie.  If he sets up a production company, goes after great material, and works with European as well as American directors, then he could be the next Burt Lancaster.  And Lancaster never coasted, never called it in, and was still funny and could still move until a stroke ended his career in his late seventies.

     So back to Ruffalo and the two moments where he displayed greatness recently.  About halfway into Foxcatcher, Neil said, “I don’t see where this was so good,” and then the scene comes where Ruffalo’s character is pushed into saying something he doesn’t believe and there’s a horrible, squirming moment in which his eyes don’t lie and his fate is sealed.  After that look, we didn’t talk back at the screen anymore, which is really saying something.  The other moment was in The Normal Heart where Ruffalo as Larry Kramer’s stand-in is getting ready for a date.  He’s been pretty low-key and might even pass for straight, but he’s nervous and running out of time and his wrists turn loose and he slightly flounces and we know this date is important to his very essence.  It’s a scene that many gay men can identify with because of those hands and, even more tellingly, he doesn’t use that gesture again.

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