Take One: Adaptation. (2002)
Cooper was up against a quartet of big names in the 2003 Best Supporting Actor Oscar race: Christopher Walken (Catch Me if You Can), Ed Harris (The Hours), John C. Reilly (Chicago) and Paul Newman (Road to Perdition). As the then least weighty name, his nomination didn’t necessarily guarantee success. But, conversely, his fifteen prior award wins and a further 5 nominations for the role spoke volumes. He emerged victorious, yet, inexplicably, Adaptation remains his only nod to date.
Spike Jonze’s very meta, self-referencing Adaptation was unique and playful in equal measure. It mulled over plenty of original ideas with its life-fiction overlap. Cooper, as orchid thief John Laroche, a real-life figure, stole the film away from actors as lively as Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton. He played the wry humour and the tragedy of Laroche with equal skill. The event that haunts him (the death of his wife in a car accident) has plot repercussions that Cooper almost invisibly folds into his performance. He uses Laroche’s dry, off-kilter amiability as a subtle yet defining trait. And in the driving scenes featuring with Streep he can be glimpsed looking cautiously for each road turn, knowing danger can arrive out of anywhere, any day. Such moments reveal how immersed Cooper is in the role. But, further than that, he navigates the increasingly bizarre and intentionally conventional plot swerve into thriller territory with ease. It’s a cranky, clever piece of acting both oddly knowing and incredibly moving.
Thanks to his Oscar win here, his career since has been a plethora of top-drawer performances, not least his largely under-appreciated role in Take Two’s film...
Take Two: Breach (2007)
Cooper has, by-and-large, nudged his career toward drama as the genre of choice: military (Jarhead, Syriana, The Kingdom), moody (Capote, Married Life, Silver City) and blue-collar (The Town, The Company Men, Remember Me). He’s made an identifiable mark as a go-to guy for compelling, characterful confrontations within intriguing plots. Billy Ray’s downbeat and dark-hued Breach includes elements of all the above genre variants. It’s perhaps Cooper’s most assured and fascinating dramatic role to date. Playing another real-life figure, American FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Russian intelligence for over twenty years, Cooper brings into play his customary low-boil persona and intricately perceptive character acting. Hanssen cuts a dour figure, with permanently pallid skin and dowdy work attire hanging off his haggard frame. Cooper’s gaunt appearance matches the grey walls in the windowless FBI offices. He’s only occasionally brightened by the flash of a photocopier’s scan.
He plays Hanssen as downtrodden but sneaky, and his mind seems impenetrable: a crestfallen enigma. He’s considered a patriotic family man and dutiful church-goer, but the film’s slow-burn narrative suggests someone sexually questionable and untrustworthy. Hanssen is a deeply problematic fascinating character and Ryan Phillipe's underling has to keep up with him as best he can. Cooper’s suspicious interactions with Phillippe are riveting. Gary Oldman and co. received due praise for all the gloomy snooping in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last year, but Cooper surveilled superbly and with equal skill back in Breach.
Take Three: The Muppets (2011)
Cooper sits alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford as actors who have faces that, shall we say, wear their experiences well. Life is written deep into Cooper's time-sculpted features giving him the perfect expression for serious drama. So, more was the surprise when he popped up in The Muppets earlier this year. As the cartoonish and aptly named oil magnate Tex Richman, Cooper had a ball with his atypical casting playing opposite Kermit and company. How great and refreshing it was to see him send himself up and go gleefully along with the Muppet capers. It’s always encouraging to see a much-respected actor go for broke in an uncharacteristic part especially when it pays off. He should be heartily cheered for taking on the role. One clear standout moment was of course his rap song, "Let's Talk About Me". Kermit’s trying to convince Tex to not raze their beloved studio to the ground. “Hmm. Well, Mr the Frog, let me see...” he says, and with a thump on his desk Tex breaks into his impromptu rap. (“I got more cheddar than some super-sized nachos / Got cash flow like Robert has dineros”) It’s baffling, ridiculous and comes completely out of nowhere. Tex Richman is even accompanied by a surprise group of showgirls he keeps in the cupboard. Cooper’s zaniness is nicely controlled when he segues smoothly from the rap to continue the actual scene – one in which he replies, with poker-faced sincerity, to a stuffed green puppet. You may think it’s mean that I’m calling Kermit a stuffed green puppet, but so be it... Maniacal laugh...Maniacal laugh...
Three more films for the taking: Matewan (1987), American Beauty (1999), The Bourne Supremacy (2004)