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Nick Nolte seems to be engaging in a small round of media events and interviews in the hopes of generating renewed Academy interest in his role in Gavin O'Connor’s MMA drama “Warrior.” The film generated a predominantly positive critical response (it stands at 83% at Rotten Tomatoes) but was a box office disappointment (or disaster, depending on your perspective) with a $25 million production budget and $22.2 worldwide gross. “Warrior”’s financial failings have in all likelihood destroyed any hopes the film had of making a real showing at the Oscars. But if there is one person who may be able to rise above the limitations imposed by the stigma of (perceived) failure, it is Nolte.
Several critics found “Warrior” to be a film with a limited story that was supported by strong performances (Kris is notably included in this camp). And Nolte’s portrayal of Paddy Conlon has been singled out as particularly strong. His turn as an abusive, recovering alcoholic struggling to reconcile with his two sons, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is quintessential Nolte. He is mercurial, vulnerable to the point of discomfort and grounded. O’Connor wrote the role specifically for the actor, and Nolte delivered the natural and raw performance that we imagine the director both hoped for and envisioned.
Though I loved Nolte’s performance, and would agree that Academy recognition is warranted, it is Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the emotionally shattered war veteran Tommy Riordan that has left the strongest imprint on my psyche. There was a sense of unpredictable rage that, combined with the pure, brute force of him, electrified the screen. I found myself cringing, flinching and waiting for the leash to snap with irreversible consequences each time he moved (even slightly) toward Brendan or Paddy. His performance was restrained in the sense that one felt (almost physically) the scale of the torment that Tommy was holding within, as well as the sheer force of will it took to keep his wrath caged. And yet, there was no doubt that this was a man with the heart and loyalty to sit beside a dying woman’s side, even as it destroyed him to do so.
All of that aside, Nolte really is the best bet for a “Warrior” nomination. First, as mentioned, his performance is legitimately deserving. Additionally, there is obviously respect for him in the insustry. There is also the reality of a ticking clock. Nolte is a 70-year-old man who has done some notably hard living. He’s been nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Actor for “The Prince of Tides” and “Affliction” respectively) and hasn’t yet won. Nolte himself noted the presence of a time element in a recent in interview with The Daily Beast. “You know, it would be nice (to win an Oscar),” he said. “I’m getting to the end of my life. I’m 70 now. I don’t know how long you’re supposed to live. It goes fast.”
There is also a self-reflexive quality to his portrayal of a man who has over indulged and is now looking to redeem himself that will appeal to those who love a tale of triumph over adversity. The actor feels that the performance is not as much about addiction as it is about a father’s desire to provide in a way that he failed to do initially. “What’s behind drunkenness or any of these infections is a spiritual problem,” he said. “And it’s usually love. In ‘Warrior’, the father was so obsessed with winning that he drove his boys to not connect with him.”
Nolte also attests that the connection between his own life and that of his character is loose at best. “They seem to think that’s me because my life seems to have alcohol in it. But it really doesn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t arrested for alcohol. I was arrested for driving under the influence of an intoxicant, but it wasn’t alcohol.” The particulars of the substances involved aside, the truth is, Oscar loves an underdog and much as it loves a comeback kid, and a Nolte nomination for “Warrior” combines both of those sit-up-in-your-chair and cheer-worthy elements. Side benefit: as anyone who has interviewed Nolte knows, there is truly no telling what he might say in an acceptance speech. At all.
It is not unheard of to honor the scope of a career, or simply to acknowledge an actor’s place in cinema history, with an Academy Award for a specific film or performance. So whether you are a “Warrior” supporter or detractor, a Nolte nomination would likely inspire a positive response. During the course of his conversation with the LA Times’s Rebecca Keegan as a part of the Times' Envelope Screening Series, Nolte assessed his chances with characteristic humor and pragmatism: "They might give an Academy Award to a felon. They might not. You never know."
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