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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Del Toro's Cop A Subtle Gem


February 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The movie Traffic ends wordlessly, with one of the simplest yet most satisfying scenes in recent memory. Tijuana vice cop Javier Rodriguez sits in the stands of a small stadium, watching kids play baseball at night under the lights. The camera holds on Benicio Del Toro, the marvelous character actor who etches a stirring portrait of Rodriguez in the film.

Del Toro says nothing and does little. He just watches that game. Yet you want that shot to go on forever. It's like a balm that soothes the burns left by Traffic's corrosive criticism of our nation's doomed war on drugs. After the film immerses you in moral ambiguity, official corruption, junkie nihilism, explosive violence and hollow governmental rhetoric, the scene delivers an upbeat ending that you don't see coming.

It speaks volumes about director Steven Soderbergh's faith in Del Toro that the filmmaker would close his movie with that shot of Rodriguez, his face relaxed, his guard down for the first time, a glimmer of boyish delight in his world-weary eyes. And Del Toro does not betray his director's trust. As he has throughout the movie, the actor uses his face and his body rather than mere words to tell his character's story.

It's a big-time star turn from the 34-year-old native of Puerto Rico. It seems light years removed from Del Toro's motion picture debut as Duke the Dog-faced Boy in Big Top Pee-Wee. Ironically, the actor first made a name for himself by playing Javier Rodriguez's polar opposite, the elusive, charismatic Mexican drug lord Caro Quintero in the acclaimed 1990 miniseries Drug Wars: The Kiki Camarena Story.

Del Toro has given some terrific performances before, most notably as the mumbling hood Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects. But right now he looks poised on the verge of a career breakthrough; in addition to Traffic, his credits for the past 12 months include a brief but haunting appearance as the wrongly accused murder suspect in The Pledge, the unlucky diamond thief Frankie Four Fingers in Snatch, and a co-starring role in the Tarantino-esque caper flick The Way of the Gun.

A golden seal of approval from the Academy would confirm Del Toro's status as one of the most promising actors of his generation. It would also demonstrate that the Academy understands the difference between acting and scenery chewing.

Which probably means that Del Toro doesn't have a chance. Time and time again Oscar has gone not to the actor who developed his character through subtlety and nuance, but to the one who played his part most flamboyantly.

This year the latter honor goes to Willem Dafoe. In Shadow of the Vampire Dafoe plays a bloodsucker who pretends to be an actor (named Max Schreck) playing a vampire in F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu. He really sinks his canines into the role; Dafoe's malevolent-eyed, bat-eared, lip-smacking performance is the best thing about the movie. It's great campy fun, not to mention one of the showiest roles of this or any year.

But is it great acting? When Shadow of the Vampire made the rounds of film festivals last fall, it seemed that Dafoe was a lock. But Traffic hit theaters in the final week of 2000, and Del Toro supplanted the erstwhile Platoon-leader in the forefront of Academy voters' consciousnesses. Will that momentum carry him through the Ides of March, or will Dafoe emerge from the Shadow?

Because of the radically contrasting styles of the actors involved, the Dafoe-Del Toro showdown shapes up as one of Oscar 2001's most interesting races. Cases can be made for each of the other three contenders for best supporting actor, but they are far less compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix, for example, rides in on Gladiator's toga-tails. He had some fine moments as evil Roman emperor Commodus, but overall the performance was a tad exaggerated, maybe even cartoonish.

In The Contender, Jeff Bridges makes playing the president look easy. That has always been Bridges' blessing and his curse; he makes every performance look easy. Maybe too easy for the Academy's sensibilities -- Bridges has been nominated for three Oscars previously, but he's never won.

Even at that, Albert Finney has him beat. The crusty-but-lovable boss to Julia Roberts' indomitable legal assistant in Erin Brockovich, Finney has four best-actor nominations on his resume. Oscar voters tend to look favorably upon perennial best actor/ actress nominees who drop a weight class into the supporting category. And Finney has a secret weapon guaranteed to curry favor with some Academy members -- he's English. In a weaker year, he'd be the favorite.

The envelope, please

Who will win: Dafoe.

Who should win: Del Toro.

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