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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.

Everyone knows by now that Hidden Figures is a Kennedy-era tale of three female African-American mathematicians– Taraji P. Henson‘s Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer‘s Dorothy Vaughan, Janelle Monae‘s Mary Jackson — who earned respect as they fought for advancement in the early years of America’s space program.

They all worked under NASA’s Space Task Group, which Harrison, in the realm of the film, is the big boss of. And good old Kevin, an office-worn, mild-mannered figure in glasses, white dress shirt and skinny tie, is the guy who gives Johnson/Henson a fair shake and a respectful salute as events move along.

There are some older actors who can just walk into a room without saying a word, and right away you relax. Because there’s something square and sensible about them. Costner is definitely one of those guys, and in every one of his Hidden Figures scenes, you know things will be more or less okay. Or that fairness will eventually come to pass.

The standout moment is when Harrison singlehandedly desegregates the white vs. colored bathroom system at the Space Task Group’s headquarters (which was located in Langley, Virginia) with a sledgehammer or crowbar or something in that realm.

And yet Harrison isn’t presented as some heroic lead-the-charge type. He’s just a pragmatic technician-politician who wants to get the job done fast and accurately, and who therefore respects anyone with the brains and know-how to substantially help in that effort.

Costner told me last month that he wasn’t especially pleased with how the Harrison character was written at first glance, but that he and Melfi hammered it out and re-shaped him with a bit more dimension and humanity. I for one can state that this effort not only gave Costner more to work with but enhanced the film as a whole.

I wrote a couple of years ago that Costner is the king of “no crapping around.” He’ll sometimes resort to those little charm-school games that all actors haul around in their kit bag, but the older he gets the less he goes there. And he’s not one of those guys who give the kind of “interesting” performances that Stanley Kubrick was always a fan of. Costner is always take-it-or-leave-it real which, in my mind, is always an “up” thing because the technique is more or less invisible.

** In my humble, less-than-all-knowing opinion the following BSA contenders give somewhat actorish performances — Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water (Texas accent, slouchy-grouchy delivery), Dev Patel in Lion (nice guy sensitivity, actorishly unfulfilled, looking to connect with his roots), Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals (as a snarly lawman blithely but actorishly coping with cancer) and Silence‘s Issei Ogata (“acts” all over the place and very enjoyably at that). Not that there’s anything the least bit wrong with “acting” — I just happen to prefer the other kind.

  • Jason

    Haven’t seen Costner’s work yet but agreed — way too much favoritism for scenery chewers and monologues that were over the top even in Shakespeare’s time. Real acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances, like Meisner said.

  • Mark

    You always refer to the 3-scene rule, whereas a great movie must have 3 great scenes. For supporting acting, they just need one great scene or moment to win an Oscar. Does Costner have that signature scene? Bridges, with his exhale and shoulder pat following a mountain showdown, definitely has that moment.

  • Dr. Bob

    The trio who play hidden figures are themselves hidden figures because, hey look, isn’t the white guy great in the supporting role.

    • Chris Otto

      If Costner is the only acting nomination from this movie, folks are going to have a Field Day.

      • Janet Allen

        So far ‘Hidden Figures’ has received the Ensemble Award from the National Board of Review and will receive Ensemble Performance Award from the Palm Springs Int’l Film Festival. Nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast by SAG Awards and also Octavia Spencer for Supporting Role. Golden Globes have nominated Octavia Spencer and the Original Score.

  • SaulPaul

    Glad to see you hop on board the Costner train the last few years, Jeff. Or maybe you were always on it. I have a lot of affection for the guy left over from his heyday. Aside from the very solid, understated acting you mention, he has pretty great taste. If they’d give him the money he’d direct a 3 hour Western every year. Really hope he directs another one soon or at least stars in one. And you can put Bull Durham, JFK and Open Range up against just about anyone else’s top 3.

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  • handsomesolo

    By this logic, you should be pro Stone and anti-actory Portman.

  • He seems like Warden Norton’s nicer kid brother in this.

  • ksb43

    Costner is aces. He gets better and better with time, like a fine wine. He elevates everything he is in. He’s had a great second act as an indispensable character actor.

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