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Oscar night, March 23, 2003. The lovely Halle Berry appears on the stage of the Kodak Theater to announce the nominees for best actor. Daniel Day-Lewis had already won the SAG award and most of the critics' prizes for his role in Gangs of New York, and he is widely favored to win his second Oscar on his third nomination. But no one is counting out Jack Nicholson. The man with the devilish grin and the perennially arched eyebrows already has three Oscars and is nominated a tenth time for About Schmidt. Two of the other nominees are also past Oscar winners. Michael Caine of The Quiet American or Nicolas Cage of Adaptation could triumph again.
 
As for the other nominee, he seems lucky just to be included in this illustrious lineup. His performance in Roman Polanski's The Pianist is superb, but who the heck is Adrien Brody?
 
Once Berry unsealed the envelope and announced the winner, the entire viewing audience was introduced to Adrien Brody. After the cameras caught his shocked, delightfully honest reaction, Brody bounded on stage where he made the most of his moment by swooping Berry in his arms and planting a lengthy and passionate kiss on her lips. He then delivered one of the best acceptance speeches in Oscar history, one that tastefully acknowledged the recently commenced war with Iraq.

The Oscar "fills me with great joy," he said, "but I am also filled with a lot of sadness tonight because I am accepting an award at such a strange time. And you know my experience of making this film made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanization of people at times of war." The film, of course, was a haunting masterwork that reflected director Polanski's own experiences fleeing the Nazis during World War II.

At age 29, Brody became the youngest male actor to win the Oscar for best actor, a distinction previously held by Richard Dreyfuss. Like Dreyfuss, Brody might be considered an unlikely choice for stardom. With his hatchet like features and prominent nose, he lacks what we generally consider "movie star" looks. But as Dreyfuss once told Larry King, the conventionally handsome leading men like Rock Hudson and Paul Newman are exceptions to the rule. Director John Huston described Humphrey Bogart as having a face that looked like it had been used to break rocks. James Cagney was built like a fire hydrant. Edward G. Robinson was as pretty as the fat cigars he often smoked on screen. Some of the greatest film stars look a lot like those of us in the audience. They have to if we're going to identify with them. Like the best movie icons, Brody is an Everyman. Through him, we never fail to see ourselves.
 
One thing he was not is an overnight sensation.
 
"My dad told me it takes fifteen years to be an overnight success, and it took me seventeen and a half years." 
 
Born April 14, 1973 in Queens, New York, Brody was the only child of a Jewish father and Hungarian mother. His father taught history while his mother, Sylvia Plachy, was a noted photojournalist who sometimes took her son along on assignments for The Village Voice. Naturally, his mother frequently aimed her lens at him, and Brody would later credit his mother with making him feel at ease in front of the camera. Attending New York's famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts, he enrolled in acting classes at his parent’s insistence. They hoped it would steer him away from the tough crowd he had been associating with in the neighborhood.

"I hung out with troublemakers," he recalled. "I was a sensitive teenage boy, who luckily had kind parents, but I lived in a not-so-kind neighborhood. In order to deal with it, I toughened up and became more of a hoodier kid. It was never malicious, that's not in my nature, but I was much harder than I am today."

He also had a strong imaginative bent. "Any experience I had, I'd try to reenact it. I always had an actor within me."
 
The actor in him was coming out as early as age five when Brody, calling himself "The Amazing Adrien," performed magic tricks at children's birthday parties. "I see that was my first performance. And you know a lot about magic is not just the trick, it's the pattern. It's the delivery. It's the presentation."

By age 13, he had appeared on stage and in a PBS TV movie, and in the next several years would have roles in such films as New York Stories, King of the Hill, and Angels in the Outfield. One of his biggest breaks, however, turned out to be a major setback instead.
Cast alongside such notables as George Clooney and Sean Penn in Terence Malick's 1998 World War II epic, The Thin Red Line, Brody later discovered that most of his role had been cut out of the final print. He remembered feeling like "a soldier coming home after giving his soul and then not being appreciated."
 
But critics were beginning to appreciate him around the time he appeared in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. Sporting a punk haircut and a deliberately fake British accent, Brody appeared as Ritchie, one of the more colorful characters in the director's look back at New York life during the eventful summer of 1977.

Roles in Bread and Roses and Affair of the Necklace followed. The latter film, set in the 18th century, cast him as a low-level count whose marriage to Hilary Swank is motivated less by love than her determination to acquire social standing. Dismissed by San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann as "the cinematic equivalent of a paperback bodice-ripper with embossed type," the film nonetheless brought Brody to the attention of Roman Polanski who cast him as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist.The Pianist was an intensely personal project for the controversial director. Like Szpilman, Polanski survived the Holocaust, escaping from the Nazis with the help of sympathetic peasants. "He's a survivor," Brody said, "telling a story about a survivor." But Brody also had a personal connection to this horrific historical episode. Members of his father's family had died in the Holocaust.  Wanting to tell the story as simply and realistically as possible, Polanski warned both cast and crew to avoid "showing off."
 
"Adrien understood right away that it was not going to be a showy performance," Polanski said. "It has to be realistic...like scenes in life." 

Brody learned to play Chopin on the piano, and the already lean actor lost 30 pounds to play Szpilman. He also gave up his car, apartment, and other comforts, believing it would help him relate to Szpilman's loss. "There's no comparison to what Wladyslaw Szpilman went through," he said, "but it gave me a greater understanding of that. And you can't act that. I take the work very seriously."

So did Polanski. "Roman and I were pretty close because of the nature of this film and how personal it was to him and what an integral part I played to it," Brody said, but the director "wasn't easy on me, ever."

"Has anyone tried this before?" Brody asked when Polanski instructed him to climb out a window, slide off a building, and then fall to the ground while under fire from Nazi soldiers. The 68-year-old director waved away his fears, then proceeded to perform the difficult stunts himself. "There, somebody did it," Polanski said. "Now do it."

The Pianist portrayed the Nazi's persecution of the Jews in many horrific sequences, but it was Brody's mournful eyes and gaunt face that conveyed those horrors most effectively. It was, Brody noted, the story of "one man's struggle, one man's strength," and, in retrospect, it's really not surprising that he was honored with the Oscar for his performance.

"It's interesting winning an Academy Award as a young man," he said. "It's been very helpful to my career, but I'm trying to stay on the path I was on before."

Promising that he would never take a role for money because "you feel like you're lying to everybody," he did agree to appear as himself in a TV commercial for Diet Coke. He also took part in a Tori Amos video, "A Sorta Fairytale," before resurfacing on the big screen in M. Night Shyamalan's moody horror thriller, The Village.

In a stellar cast that included Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt, Brody was a standout as the mute Noah Percy. "It was so not what I was looking for," he said of the role, "that it seemed so right." Brody found the experience enjoyable because he had the "luxury to have the sense of humor that I normally have and that I like to have."
 
Some critics thought The Village was one of the year's worst films, but Peter Travers in Rolling Stone was impressed: "Its power, unrelated to digital monsters, comes from the tension building inside the characters." Whatever one thought of Shyamalan's film, there was no debating Brody's effectiveness, especially his panic after he murders a romantic rival.

The Jacket also flirted with the horror genre, though many viewers regarded director John Maybury's film as a less imaginative retread of the cult classic, Jacob's Ladder.

Like his character, Brody was strapped in a straightjacket and placed in a drawer for long hours. "Those situations are very challenging, emotionally and psychologically, to find yourself in a confined space like that. I thought it would be interesting. It was very painful and I kind of encouraged that pain. I spent time in an isolation tank and I would let them leave me in the jacket and leave me in the drawer for awhile."

Based on his reaction to the film, critic Roger Ebert probably thought Brody suffered in vain. The Jacket "trudges through its paces as if it were deep and meaningful, which I am afraid it is not." In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers said it ""fires off subplots like shrapnel."

His next stop was Skull Island.

After his Oscar winning trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson decided to remake King Kong, the classic film that introduced him to the wonders of cinema. Recreating 1930's New York, as well as the menacing Skull Island, on a set in New Zealand, Jackson chose a decidedly offbeat cast for his ambitious project. Jack Black, best known for such comedies as The School of Rock, was assigned the role of Carl Denham, the megalomania cal director who leads a reluctant crew on an adventure that brings them face-to-face with the most legendary creature in film history. Naomi Watts was a fetching modern incarnation of Ann Darrow, the part played by Fay Wray 72 years earlier. For the role of Jack Driscoll, the playwright who becomes the film's primary hero, Jackson had only one actor in mind: Adrien Brody. The actor was surprised to learn that he had no competition for the part and accepted.

"I don't think anyone thought of me as a heroic leading man before I won an Oscar," Brody said. "I'm not sure anyone does now, outside of Peter Jackson."

He considered it a "phenomenal role that any actor would kill for," but learned that acting in a film dominated by special effects could be a difficult, even silly, proposition.
 
I'm running around in front of a green screen screaming, 'Where's the monkey? Where's the monkey?'"

Upon its December 2005 release, King Kong proved to be a wondrously imaginative spectacle, an adventure with a heart that was less a remake than a stunning tribute to the 1933 original. It was also a gargantuan hit that had the misfortune of being subjected to even more gargantuan hype. It didn't out gross Titanic, as film industry insiders were predicting, and was therefore branded a "disappointment."

Brody was also a disappointment to those who believed that a hero had to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the fact that Brody was not a square-jawed muscleman was precisely the point. As the fictional movie star Bruce Baxter says before fleeing in fear from a brontosaurus attack, "Heroes don't look like me in the real world. In the real world, they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut." Brody is utterly convincing as a man who didn't set out to be a hero but became one when necessary. In that sense, Jack Driscoll was a fictional cousin to Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist.
 
Brody's next film also had roots in Hollywood folklore. Hollywoodland posed the theory that actor George Reeves, famous for playing the Man of Steel on the 1950's TV series, The Adventures of Superman, did not commit suicide as the official record states, but was murdered for his role in a love triangle.
 
Set in 1959 Los Angeles when the all-powerful studio system was on its last wobbly legs, Hollywoodland is nostalgic for an era that has disappeared, but it also exposes the dark underbelly of the glamorous film capital. Upon its release, most of the focus was on Ben Affleck who successfully redeemed his tabloid-ravaged reputation with his role as Reeves, an actor who desperately wanted to be taken more seriously than the role of Superman allowed. But Brody was equally fine as Leon Sima, the private investigator hired by Reeve's mother to investigate his death, who becomes more involved in Reeve's tragedy than he should. Speaking throughout in terse, often whispered, statements, Brody beautifully captures his character's haunted quality.
 
Brody believes that a good actor needs to be a "well-rounded person. You have to experience good and bad, wonderful moments and pain. You need to meet people who have no exposure to kindness, who lack any opportunity and have no way out, like the homeless, the mentally ill, and you've got to learn empathy for them."
 
Whether he's playing a Holocaust survivor, or a hero who saves the heroine from a giant gorilla, Brody's sensitivity always travels from the screen to the audience's consciousness. He's not the typical Hollywood star, not by a long shot, but that's part of his strength.
 
"I suppose that means I'm not easy to define. But that's good, isn't it? In this town, they love to define you to death."

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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