Oscar Preview: The Unexpected Force: Woody Harrelson

Every week from now until the critics groups start giving out their prizes for the best of the year, I’m going to be spotlighting the big Oscar players and their chances at Oscar glory this year.

No one would have guessed in 1986 when a 25-year-old actor named Woody Harrelson made his big screen debut in a little scene sports drama called Wildcats that he would go on to not one, but two Academy Awards nominations for acting and is in line for a potential third nod this year.

Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and English from Hanover College in 1983, Harrelson made his first acting appearance in the long-running series Cheers in 1995, portraying a simple-minded bartender. Although his appearance in Wildcats was a flash in the pan, his work on Cheers earned him five consecutive Emmy nominations for Supporting Actor from 1987 through 1991, two years before the show went off the air. Although he would make a handful of television appearances and television movies afterwards, the big screen was calling and the year he received his final Emmy nomination, he made his first major celluloid appearance in the semi-popular fish-out-of-water comedy Doc Hollywood.

Proving a charismatic presence on screen, he would field a number of prominent titles through the early 1990’s, White Men Can’t Jump and Indecent Proposal. In Oliver Stone’s 1994 off-kilter, cross-country murder flick Natural Born Killers, Harrelson would earn some of his first award-worthy notices though he picked up no major film awards for it. That wouldn’t last long for in two years, he’d make his first flirtation with the Oscars.

In 1996, The People vs. Larry Flynt earned Harrelson his first nomination for playing the foul-mouthed founder of Hustler magazine who’s legendary obscenity trial that defined years of pornography precedent. Alongside the surprisingly effective and critic award-winning Courtney Love, Harrelson turned his rapid-fire dialogue delivery into a pointed performance that had critics talking. He also received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, though he lost all of them.

What would have been an extremely exciting career didn’t seem to go very far. Although he appeared in Oscar bait flick Wag the Dog and Oscar nominee The Thin Red Line, most of the rest of his work was poorly received in comparison. Little success found the actor even in Oscar-nominated North Country, baity bomb The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and Robert Altman’s final film A Prairie Home Companion. But in 2007, Harrelson took a small part in the Coen Bros. Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men which seemed to revitalize his career. In 1008, he appeared in six films including box office hit Seven Pounds; however, 2009 proved to be his best year yet.

The year started off well in the comedy horror flick Zombieland where Harrelson played another cross-country traveler, this one was akin to his Natural Born Killers persona, a butt-kicking, rifle-toting zombie killer. The film’s success among critics and on DVD showed he could carry a film. Then, as a military man delivering news of soldiers’ death to grieving loved ones, Harrelson earned his second Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor in Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. This time, he picked up several more award nominations and even managed to win prizes from the Spirit Awards and the National Board of Review.

2010 was a quiet year for the actor starring in a little seen film called Bunraku, but 2011 has given him another chance at the Oscars. Now the most unexpected Oscar contender one could have imagined 25 years ago has become someone whose performances will become instant short-listers when year-end prediction lists begin construction.

Rampart

Director Oren Moverman, who directed Harrelson to his second Oscar nomination for The Messenger is behind this modernized adaptation of a James Ellroy novel. Playing a corrupt cop, Harrelson looks to get a lot of juicy scenes and buzz has been building around his performance for the last couple of weeks. And he may not be the only one. The film has a star-studded cast including Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, and Oscar nominees Sigourney Weaver and Ned Beatty. Beatty and Weaver could both find their chances bolstered by a successful Harrelson, though I’m betting that he will be the sole actor emerging in an already-packed lead actor field. He has some stiff competition to overcome, but a handful of awards from critics and he could find himself a lock for a nomination.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Actor (Woody Harrelson)

Woody Harrelson’s Oscar History

  • Wildcats (1986)
  • Doc Hollywood (1991)
  • White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
  • Indecent Proposal (1993)
  • I’ll Do Anything (1994)
  • The Cowboy Way (1994)
  • Natural Born Killers (1994)
  • Money Train (1995)
  • Kingpin (1996)
  • The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) – Nominated for Best Supporting Actor
  • The Sunchaser (1996)
  • Wag the Dog (1997)
  • Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
  • The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
  • Palmetto (1998)
  • The Thin Red Line (1998)
  • Ed TV (1999)
  • Play It to the Bone (1999)
  • Anger Management (2003)
  • Scorched (2003)
  • After the Sunset (2004)
  • She Hate Me (2004)
  • The Big White (2005)
  • North Country (2005)
  • The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)
  • A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
  • Battle in Seattle (2007)
  • The Grand (2007)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)
  • The Walker (2007)
  • Management (2008)
  • Semi-Pro (2008)
  • Seven Pounds (2008)
  • Sleepwalking (2008)
  • Surfer, Dude (2008)
  • Transsiberian (2008)
  • 2012 (2009)
  • Defendor (2009)
  • The Messenger (2009) – Nominated for Best Actor
  • Zombieland (2009)
  • Bunraku (2010)
  • Friends with Benefits (2011)
  • Rampart (2011)

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