Albert Brooks: The engine that makes “Drive” go – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell In 1999, Dame Judi Dench took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth I in John Madden’s Best Picture-winning “Shakespeare In Love.” It was Dench’s second nomination, and her first win.

She was on screen for a total of 8 minutes.

As the grand dame demonstrated, it isn’t the amount of screen time one receives, but rather what one does with the visibility that matters. Dench dominated “Shakespeare” every time she entered the frame, and the Academy (wisely) saw fit to recognize her achievement.

I thought of Dench while watching Albert Brooks annihilate his scenes in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” which opens today. Rarely are we encouraged to root for the bad guy in Hollywood films, particularly when they are as cold-bloodedly ruthless as the L.A. gangster Brooks portrays on screen. Yet I found myself pulling for Brooks’ character to somehow escape the quiet, lethal mayhem that keeps pulling Refn’s characters into the muck. This, here, is a deep, dark, demented character we need to revisit every few years. In a just world, mainstream audiences would flock to the theaters every few years to see the further adventures of Brooks’ Bernie Rose, and Capt. Jack Sparrow would be put back on a shelf somewhere, preferably on a ship that’s enclosed in a bottle.

As I wrote in my review, Brooks’ portrayal of the smooth-as-silk Rose acts as a flashlight that’s ignited in Refn’s pitch-black room, and when he’s on – which means “every minute he’s on screen” – it’s impossible not to stare. I’d be disappointed if Academy members somehow failed to recognize Brooks’ stellar performance with a Best Supporting Actor nomination once the campaign season picks up in earnest. At this moment, Brooks appears on the fringe of the discussion among Oscar trackers. Perhaps now that the film’s out, pieces like this will push him back into the thick of the race. It’s the double-edged sword of the supporting actor. He outshines the film’s star (Ryan Gosling) in virtually every scene, but isn’t in the film long enough to qualify as the film’s lead.

Thankfully, as Dench reminds us, “time” isn’t nearly as important as “impact.”

“Drive” opens everywhere today. See it for Refn’s direction, for screenwriter Hossein Amini’s airtight plotting, and for Brooks, who has never been this breathtakingly terrifying. And Oscar? Take note.

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