Scott Feinberg‘s “Narratives & Precedents” piece explains that over the last several decades performances that convey simple but appealing narratives have tended to win Oscars. Another conclusion is that inhabitings of selfish pricks — “a man experiences professional successes but personal shortcomings” is the narrative — tend to get nominated but don’t usually win.
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network is this year’s model. Feinberg mentions earlier manifestations like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (’41) and Broderick Crawford‘s Oscar-winning turn in All the King’s Men (’49), but overlooks Kirk Douglas‘s Oscar-nominated performance in Champion (’49) — my all-time favorite prick — and Humphrey Bogart‘s in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The difference between these ’40s incarnations and Eisenberg’s performance is that the older guys paid a much heavier price for their selfishness. Welles’ Charles Foster Kane ended up lonely and isolated, Crawford’s Willy Stark was shot to death, Bogart’s Fred C Dobbs was killed by banditos and Douglas’s Midge Kelly died from injuries in the ring. Eisenberg ended up feeling badly about the girl he lost in the beginning of the film (and had always wanted to get back with) and was minus his best friend, but otherwise he ended up with billions. So the punishment was rather mild.
What I’ve always liked about Eisenberg’s performance is that you can feel all kinds of lonely hurt behind those curt phrases and chilly expressions, although he doesn’t overtly “express” them. It’s always the things that aren’t precisely said or performed that linger in the memory and seep in the deepest.