As of Halloween 2012, rumors are swirling that Jamie Foxx is about to become the latest member of the class of Academy Award winners to try his hand at acting in a comic book movie. Comic book movies routinely pick up Oscar gold for technological achievement, but Heath Ledger remains the sole recipient of those awards that viewers actually tune in to watch. While Ledger is the only actor to actually win his Academy Award for a role in a comic book movie, the genre itself has tested the acting abilities of previous winners in ways that range from the transcendent to the preposterous.
Two-time Best Actor winner Marlon Brando famously collected a bundle of money for barely more than a cameo appearance as the Kryptonian dad of the kid would become Clark Kent. “Superman: The Movie” features Brando at his ironically detached best, playing Superman’s biological father with the elan of Wayland Flowers and the hairdo of Madame.
“Superman: The Movie” (and, seriously, was nyone in the theater audience so confused about what they watching that they need to be told it was a movie?) features not one, but two Best Actor winners. While Marlon Brando clearly was just picking up a paycheck, the far more professional Mr. Hackman dived into the character of Lex Luthor with all the seriousness he applied to other characters. If you want evidence that Mr. Hackman deserves to mentioned among the most versatile actors in the history of film, this little comic book movie does the trick.
Jack Nicholson as the Joker was my generation’s equivalent of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. If casting anyone else as Rhett would have been unthinkable to audiences of the 1930s, then the idea of anyone but Nicholson facing off against “Batman” was ludicrous to audiences of the 1980s. Nicholson did not quite erase memories of the campy Joker portrayed by Cesar Romero, but he planted the seed for a darker incarnation that eventually brought Ledger his Oscar.
Yes, Paltrow is an Oscar winner. I know, I know. And yes, she has appeared in all the comic book movies featuring Tony Stark. If Gene Hackman represents one of the heights of this class, then Paltrow is firmly established-as always-right in the middle. Neither good enough to top the class nor interestingly bad enough to find infamy.
Yes, Halle Berry is an Oscar winner. I know, I know. Some people were inexplicably shocked at the standard that Halle Berry as the worst case scenario for acting in a comic book movie by an Academy Award winner. Frankly, “Catwoman” does not seem to me to be particularly removed from Berry’s other performances in terms of depth of characterization and overall acting quality. So while I cannot join in the chorus of those who rank Berry’s performance as the worst ever among Oscar winners appearing in comic book movies, I can agree that this is the kind of disaster Jamie Foxx should seek to avoid.
Tommy Lee Jones
Here we have a case of redemption in comic book movie acting. Poor Tommy Lee Jones somehow managed to let himself get involved in the disaster that was “Batman Forever.” It didn’t take Aaron Eckhart to erase the unpleasant memory of Jones’ portrayal of Harvey Dent/Two-Face, but it didn’t hurt. Fortunately, Jones redeemed himself quite well with his appearance in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
The saddest story thus far in the history of Oscar winners diving into comic book movies has to be that of Kevin Spacey taking over the role indelibly portrayed by Gene Hackman. Spacey is, arguably perhaps, the Gene Hackman of his generation. In terms of versatility, Spacey seems capable of doing it all like Hackman. Except, apparently, in bringing Lex Luthor to life. It may not have been his fault. “Superman Returns” fails in every respect and it may only be because we have grown used to Spacey rising above his material that his take on Luthor seems as glabrous as his pate.