Best Movie for Grownups from 2002
Directed by Alexander Payne
Best Actor (50 and Over)
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Nicholson didn't have to make About Schmidt. But luckily for us, the actor often associated with such scenery-chewing roles as Batman's Joker and The Shining's axe murderer fell in love with the charming subtleties of the book and put all his power into ensuring that Schmidt reached the screen. Thanks in large part to Nicholson, Schmidt is one of the most perceptive, honest comedies ever made about life beyond 50.
"I'm really alerted to the very limited nature of the stories about people who are towards, let's call them, autumnal years of life," Nicholson said at the time of the film's release. In youth-obsessed Hollywood, he noted, most older actors find themselves cast in supporting roles—the types of parts Nicholson refers to as "Judge Hardy and Uncle Bim."
About Schmidt takes what could have been a background character and wraps an entire movie around him. And with Nicholson's name above the title, the film has attracted audiences young and old who might have skipped the story of a newly retired, just-widowed insurance executive who leaves his home in Omaha, Nebraska, in search of himself. In a Winnebago. During his "adventures" he visits his childhood home, chats with a guy in a tire store, then heads to Denver to talk his daughter out of marrying a loser waterbed salesman.
Not the kind of low-key role you'd expect from Nicholson. But he was so struck by the part that he took a small percentage of his usual $15 million fee, came up with the character's ghastly comb-over, and eschewed his trademark smirks and raised eyebrows (well, most of the time) to portray a truly ordinary, smaller-than-life man.
For an actor of Nicholson's recognition level, it's a feat of fearlessness. "He continues not to make any safe choices," James L. Brooks, who directed him to two Oscars, has said. "He just does the job like a guy hungry out of acting school."
Nicholson's uncharacteristic subtlety is a must this time. Despite his simple exterior, Schmidt carries a truckload of emotional baggage. "He has a sense of irretrievable loss," says Louis Begley, who wrote the book. "He faces the loss of his wife, the loss of the sense that his life had a purpose and a meaning, the loss of friends, bitter loneliness, and the sense that he has botched the relationship with his daughter."
We did mention this is a comedy, right? And not even a black comedy. The script is so wise and Nicholson's performance so knowing that Schmidt's story becomes our story, and we can laugh at his trials and fitful, slow awakenings...so long as we can laugh at ourselves.
"A retired gent like Schmidt as the overwhelmingly most important character in a film is a rarity," says 69-year-old Begley. "But I think this will change. There are more and more of us. Why shouldn't there be movies about us?"
Runners-up, Best Movie: Far From Heaven for exposing the hidden '50s (in glorious Technicolor); The Hours for revealing the deep emotional costs of conformity; The Quiet American for exploring the bonds and tensions between generations.
Runners-up, Best Actor: Michael Caine as a weary, wary expat in The Quiet American; Dustin Hoffman as a neurotic husband in Moonlight Mile; Samuel L. Jackson as an infuriating, inspiring dad in Changing Lanes.
Best Actress (50 and Over)
Meryl Streep, Adaptation
We were bowled over by her portrayal of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean—starting out as an all-business feature reporter and winding up a murderous drug fiend. But who better to critique Meryl Streep than the real-life Orlean, whose nonfiction book The Orchid Thief inspired the film—and who, we hasten to add, is absolutely innocent of the film's highly fictionalized hijinks. "There are scenes that seem so familiar to me—this mixture of bravado and insecurity that I have," says Orlean. "It's the ultimate out-of-body experience."
Runners-up: Judi Dench as a domineering mother in The Importance of Being Earnest; Susan Sarandon as two moms: mordant in Igby Goes Down and mourning in Moonlight Mile; Sigourney Weaver as a patiently probing journalist in The Guys.