October 27, 2013

Jackie Cooper, The Champ

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I've said it before and I'll say it again--I'm not a big fan of child performances. Often times they feel so contrived and it's hard for me to get over the fact that someone so young could possibly possess the ability to create a performance on their own, much less understand the nuances, subtleties, or emotions that come with a character's story arc. So due to my biases and general disinterest, I opted to skip out on watching Jackie Cooper in his Oscar nominated turn in Skippy, but I wouldn't be able to avoid him for long as we would finally meet while I was checking out Wallace Beery in The Champ. Cooper famously wrote in his autobiography that he disliked Beery, saying "there was no warmth to the man" and that he was "a big disappointment", attributing Beery's mistreatment of him to jealousy. And who could blame Beery if he was in fact jealous of Cooper? The 45 year old is absolutely outstripped and upstaged by a boy whose age hadn't even reached double digits yet--and the imbalance between the two performances is embarrassing.

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What makes Cooper's work so fascinating is the amount of maturity he's able to convey on that adorable little baby face of his. His Dink is a precocious and vivacious spirit, made all the more commanding against Wallace Beery's lazy schmoozing, and it's a performance that feels very lived in even though Cooper has been quoted, "I'd just give the script a cursory glance. I had no training, and I was a quick study, so nobody knew how involved or not involved I was. But I look at that stuff now and I can see I wasn't involved, and I wasn't very good." So while this statement kind of validates my belief that child actors aren't exactly pouring themselves into their work or taking it as seriously as our Meryl Streeps and Daniel Day-Lewises, somehow knowing of Cooper's lack of investment makes his performance all the more amazing.

 photo ScreenShot2013-10-08at85042PM.jpgDink Purcell is a boy who is forced into the role of a responsible adult as his father drinks and gambles and messes up their lives. Early on, when some fight bosses dismiss his father as a drunken loser, there's an incredible close-up of Dink--it's a look of irritation over these men insulting his father, mixed with the crushing realization that what they're saying is the truth, followed by shame. There's incredible range on this infantile canvas. Jackie Cooper has such a charming presence to him, and there is a vulnerability that he puts into Dink that makes us love him--being around his father so much, he's adapted to a certain macho-masculine image yet there are cracks that reveal a tender and fragile little boy--the moment when father and son are reunited, and Champ, noticing Dink's sniffles, asks him if he's sick, to which Dink hesitatingly responds, "No I just...started cryin", is so exceptional. There are so many moments that impressed me--from his hysterical sobbing when he thinks his horse had died to his authoritative leading in the scenes with his friends to his disgust when his stepsister scoots closer to him to his disappointment when he finds out his dad had gambled away his horse to his hammy acting when he tries to convince Champ to drop out of the fight, all leading up to that tragic final scene in which Dink bawls to hell and back over his dead father--it hit me right in the feels and warmed up my black hole of a heart. This is an all-around stunning performance, and you'd think given that Cooper was nominated the year before that the high was still fresh and he'd have been in the running a second year in a row. So it's a total disgrace that Cooper didn't get nominated here, because as much as I loved Fredric March's work in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I loved Cooper's work a little bit more. So yes, I'm quite shocked--shocked that I ended up preferring a 9 year old boy's performance to the iconic work of Fredric March, and shocked that a 9 year old boy's performance could floor me the way it did. Here are my takeaways: my convictions will eventually be disproven, and I should probably squeeze Skippy into my viewing agenda now.

NOTE: This post marks the beginning of my Coulda Shoulda Woulda category, wherein I view and review the films or performances that were also-rans of their respective years. Some may have been really close to a nomination but got snubbed at the last second (a la Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin or Marion Cotillard in Rust & Bone), some may have never had a chance at a nomination but its reputation or excellence merits a review (a la Drive), and some may be completely out of left field but I want to review it anyways because I said so. I figure if we're in the business of reviewing amazing Oscar-nominated performances, why not review the other amazing performances that missed out? The world doesn't totally revolve around the Oscars, right?...

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