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Paul Thomas Anderson is the rare filmmaker who doesn’t just make movies – he makes events. People eagerly anticipate his next project. They make a point to see it in the theater as soon as possible. They even haul themselves out to Westwood Village for a screening. (I personally love the area but judging by the complaints on Twitter, this is a huge sacrifice.) And for most people, it seems Anderson’s latest, “Licorice Pizza,” was worth the trip.
Of the many elements of the film that are praised – the story, direction, cast, aesthetic – there seems to be a general consensus that the performance of Bradley Cooper as Barbra Streisand’s paramour/future-superproducer Jon Peters is a major highlight. Not just of the film, but of the entire film-going year. And yet, mention him as a potential contender in the best supporting actor Oscar race and the response is frequently the same: “He’s not in it enough.”
So what is “enough?” In a business where the line between supporting and lead performances is often blurred, why is there an imaginary minimum set on a performance time to qualify it as Oscar-worthy? People love to talk about how Judi Dench won the supporting actress Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” with approximately eight minutes of screen time, but what is often overlooked is the fact that she was completely deserving of that win. In eight minutes, Dench’s Queen Elizabeth I not only commands the screen and saves the day, but delivers a fully inhabited performance that speaks so much as she remarks, “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
Cooper’s turn as Peters somewhat mirrors Dench’s awards journey in that he’s also a beloved performer, long overdue for an Oscar win, who brings both gravity and joy to his movie. Though he shows up in the late stretch of “Licorice Pizza,” as opposed to being sprinkled throughout, the audience is instantly leaning forward from the second Peters steps into frame. Dressed from head to toe in hippieish white garb and sporting slightly shaggy (yet somehow immaculate) hair, Peters’ laidback appearance belies a whirling dervish of a personality. Peters is already at an 11 when he pulls Gary (Cooper Hoffman) aside and begins a verbal assault that manages to be no less intimidating despite being so hilarious. Gary and his crush Alana (Alana Haim) are there to deliver a waterbed to Peters, who lets them know up front just how important he is, putting on a faux-familiar demeanor that still belies the threat of violence.
He is a scene-stealer, but, like Dench, Cooper is an actor’s actor who knows his place in an ensemble. Peters fits perfectly into this story, coming in at a time when Gary and Alana need a common enemy to unite against. I don’t want to give away too much more, but the next few minutes are a roller coaster as Cooper somehow manages to be both absurd and menacing. It’s the rare scene that is almost too intense to watch, yet you also don’t want it to end.
Considering his star power and the fact that he’s playing someone larger-than-life, one of the actor’s greatest accomplishments in the role is that you forget you’re watching Bradley Cooper. In lesser hands, Peters could have been a caricature or one-note joke, but Cooper makes every moment believable, conveying Peters’ reasoning behind his intimidation tactics. At one point he essentially says he can’t help himself – this is who he is and it’s a blessing and a curse. The way Cooper delivers the line is both laughable and tragic.
Obviously, there are many fantastic performances to choose from this year and it’s possible people might be focusing on Cooper for his stellar leading turn in “Nightmare Alley.” But it’s also important to bear in mind that when we discuss the “best,” we mean quality, not quantity. In just a few minutes, Cooper blazes into one of the best films of the year with a fully realized and indelible performance. And shouldn’t that be enough?