The Year Of The Actor

(and the actor-director)

A Star is Reborn: Foxx is the latest to make another's life his own

February 27, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The 77th annual Academy Awards are about actors. Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles has aroused an outpouring of affection -- including host Chris Rock's proclamation that if Foxx doesn't win the comedian's going to steal a statue and give him one himself. Clint Eastwood has cemented his evolution from gun-toting enforcer to Grand Old Man by producing, directing and acting the boxing-ring sage in Million Dollar Baby. Johnny Depp has continued his march into the ranks of Hollywood legends with his performance in Finding Neverland. And a host of fresh performing talents have gotten their first Oscar nods, including the astonishing Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo for the great Hotel Rwanda.

It's a refreshing change from the years when the media concentrated on dueling moguls or bogus controversies. As the late critic Pauline Kael once wrote, actors are "the human material" of the movies. In a phrase that existed in the theater long before the movies were a flicker in Tom Edison's eye, they are the ones who "bring the script to life."

-- Michael Sragow

A Star is Reborn: Foxx is the latest to make another's life his own

The front-runner for best actor, Jamie Foxx, transforms Ray Charles in Ray -- a legendary blind performer once accused of blasphemy for blending gospel with soul and rhythm and blues -- into a joyous expression of America's bubbling, creative melting pot.

In doing so, Foxx follows the great American show-biz tradition of appropriating a previous star's identity and making it resound with renewed clarity and meaning. He does it as surely as James Cagney made song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) the personification of Irish-American flag-waving patriotism. And he does it with as much flair as Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), when she used comedian Fanny Brice's old routines to demolish conventional glamour and replace it with her brand of New York Jewish humor and flamboyance.

Unlike Cagney or Streisand, who created their own versions of Cohan's moxie and Brice's sass, Foxx pulls off his feat with an uncanny impersonation -- he becomes Ray Charles, then stays loose and responsive enough to the other actors to keep the performance vivid and surprising. No one in the movie mutters "cultural fusion," but the film's subtext is full of it, from the scene of Ray auditioning in a country bar to his audience-jolting excursions into string-laden pop.

But this quintessentially American tale of an artist uniting a continent-full of influences wouldn't click without an actor who could nail the idiosyncrasies of a well-known genius, then imbue them with present-tense immediacy. "The amazing thing about Jamie Foxx in Ray," says writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), "is that the mimicry is brilliant but it doesn't put you off. Sometimes when an actor does a virtuoso impersonation it throws you out of the movie. But Foxx does Ray Charles so that he draws you in."

Foxx lip-syncs to original Ray Charles tracks. But like Charles himself, when Foxx "sings" he makes the odd, rectangular shaking of his head and shoulders and the elastic, ecstatic grins that light up his face seem like the spontaneous emanations of a human tuning fork catching nothing but good vibes.

He conveys slyness and subtle yet volcanic force on-stage and off; the concert scenes sizzle because you see what fuels the art. When he and the smashing Regina King as his lover and sometime backup singer Margie Hendricks team up on "Hit the Road, Jack," their performance is as much combat as duet -- she has just found out that Charles can't be faithful to his wife or his mistress.

Kevin Spacey did his own singing as Bobby Darin in that debacle Beyond the Sea (which Spacey also directed). But he couldn't approach the note-perfect snap of Darin's delivery. The ambition at his core played more like an actor pushing beyond the limits of his range than a scrambling kid from the Bronx fulfilling himself completely when giving himself over to a song.

Channeling the soul

The choices Foxx makes in Ray are so aesthetically correct that you don't sense the hard labor behind them. He makes you believe that he has super-refined powers of touch and hearing, whether Charles is judging a woman's beauty by feeling her wrist or homing in on a hummingbird flying outside a restaurant window.

Foxx and director Taylor Hackford peel away the usual biopic moralism and stage what happens, no holds barred, when Charles opens himself up to new sounds, an awareness of the burgeoning civil rights movement -- and to hedonistic self-indulgence.

Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush give equally astounding performances in (respectively) the made-for-TV movie Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) and the made-for-cable movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004), but they don't have Ray's lucid, vibrant backdrop to set them off. Neither does the sensational Robert Downey Jr., in Richard Attenborough's otherwise zest-free Chaplin (1992).

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