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Kevin Costner as NASA honcho “Al Harrison” in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures
When SAG and Academy members nominate actors in whatever category, they are naturally presumed to have chosen this or that colleague for two reasons. One, they’ve found the journey of a certain character to be emotionally moving and two, they’ve been impressed by a demonstration of exceptional “acting” skill. The winner of a SAG award or an acting Oscar will have usually aced both.
But I have a funny thing about “acting.” I respect and value top-notch thesping more than most, but the best performances, I feel, are those that don’t look or feel “performed” — the kind that fool you into thinking that the actor isn’t reading a line, or hasn’t been urged to sound or behave in a certain way. The kind of acting, in short, that doesn’t feel like “acting” at all. The art of apparently doing very little but hitting a bullseye.
If you ask me only three fellows in the Best Supporting Actor realm this year have met this particular standard — Kevin Costner in Ted Melfi‘s Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox, 12.25) along with Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (a steady, nurturing vibe — warmth, kindness, caring) and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea (naturalistic, matter of fact — no reaching). **
Costner has been excelling at non-actorish performances all along, but especially since he moved into his older-guy phase about 15 years ago. He’s really hitting his stride these days. His settled naturalism couldn’t be further from the peppy, mannered acting of James Cagney, but in every performance Costner seems to be following Cagney’s famous acting advice — “Know your lines, find your mark, look the other guy in the eye and tell the truth.”
Nobody “acts” less than Costner, and if you think that’s easy…
A few weeks ago I riffed about Costner bringing a settled, fair-minded authority and decency to his performance as “Al Harrison”, a NASA official in the film but actually a real-life composite character. Harrison is partly based on the late Robert Gilruth and also John Stack, a top aeronautical engineer at NASA for decades.