Paul Thomas Anderson is the rare director who doesn’t just make movies – he makes events. People are eagerly anticipating his next project. They made sure to see her in theater ASAP. They even transported themselves to Westwood Village for examination. (Personally, I love the area but judging by the complaints on Twitter, that’s a huge sacrifice.) And for most people, Anderson’s latest release, “Licorice Pizza,” seems to have been worth a visit.
Among the film’s many lauded elements—story, direction, cast, and aesthetic—there seems to be a general consensus that Bradley Cooper’s performance as Barbra Streisand, super-producer/futurist Jon Peters, is one of the most significant. Not just about the movie, but for the whole year. However, I mention him as a potential contender for Best Supporting Actor in the Oscar race and the answer is often the same: “He just isn’t in him enough.”
So what is “enough”? In businesses where the line between support and lead performance is often blurred, why is there an imaginary minimum performance time to qualify as Oscar-worthy? People love to talk about how Judi Dench won the supporting actress an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” with about eight minutes of screen time, but the fact that she totally deserved that win is often overlooked. Within eight minutes, Queen Elizabeth I of Dench not only commanded the screen and memorized the situation, but delivered a fully populated show that spoke as much as saying, “I know something about a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, and God knows that.”
Cooper’s role as Peters somewhat mirrors the Dench Awards journey in that he’s also a beloved, long-awaited Academy Award winning actor who brings oomph and joy to his film. Although he appears in the latter segment of “Licorice Pizza,” rather than being sprinkled all over, the audience immediately leans forward from Peters’ second steps into the frame. Dressed from head to toe in a hippie white attire and his slightly shaggy (but somewhat immaculate) hair, Peters’ laid-back look belies his draped dervish figure. Peters was already eleven years old when he pulled Gary (Cooper Hoffman) aside and started a verbal attack that was no less intimidating despite being very funny. Gary and his crush Alana (Alana Haim) are present to deliver a waterbed to Peters, who lets them know how important it is in advance, and they set up fake familiar behavior that still belies the threat of violence.
He’s a scene stealer, but, like Dench, Cooper is an actor who knows his place in a squad. Peters fits perfectly with this story, coming at a time when Gary and Alana need a common enemy to unite against. I don’t want to give away too much, but the next few minutes will be a rollercoaster as Cooper somehow manages to be silly and dangerous. It’s a rare sight that’s almost too intense to watch, but you also don’t want it to end.
Given his star power and the fact that he’s playing a larger-than-life person, one of the actor’s greatest accomplishments in the role is that you forgot you were watching Bradley Cooper. In fewer hands, Peters could have been a caricature or a one-note joke, but Cooper makes every moment believable, conveying Peters’ thinking behind intimidation tactics. At one point, he basically said he couldn’t help himself – that’s his nature and it’s both a blessing and a curse. The way Cooper delivers the line is both laughable and tragic.
There are obviously many great shows to choose from this year and people will likely focus on Cooper because of his lead role in “Nightmare Alley.” But it’s also important to keep in mind that when we discuss “best,” we mean quality, not quantity. Within a few minutes, Cooper entered one of the best films of the year with a fully verified and indelible performance. Shouldn’t that be enough?