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An Oscar for Ed Harris, Already?

Ed Harris
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Ed Harris

Since nobody else in GoldDerby's pundit poll predicted a supporting Oscar nom for Ed Harris in Peter Weir's The Way Back (nor do Jeff Wells' Oscar Balloon nor Anne Thompson's Oscar Predicts Chart, though Kristopher Tapley ranks him the third-likeliest winner and Sasha Stone says it seems "destined"), let me explain.

My take: After four prior Oscar noms and no wins, Harris is overdue. So is six-time nominee Weir, who got Harrison Ford his sole Oscar nom (Witness). Harris and Weir are gold-standard filmmaking heroes who arguably never pulled off anything more heroic than this globe-spanning, $29 million, David-Lean-on-Benzedrine epic, a Great Escape from Stalin's Gulag. Harris has a gruff rep for what one journo called Steve McQueen's "mansmanship," only with infinite discipline and a brain behind those blue searchlight eyes. Somebody has to be avid to vote for movies with a brain.

Old-school, ice cool, Harris already has an Oscarish nimbus. "When someone's had a lot of nominations," says Weir, "I've heard people say, 'You've won one.' He could just say, 'Yeah!' But an individual shouldn't win because it's their turn. It should be for the work in their film." Miserable work, Harris and Weir recall. When they were setting up the wind-machine sandstorm scene, an actual sandstorm hit. "For 20 minutes the cars rocked, with a scarf across your mouth," says Weir. "Cold, hot, sand -- it felt like we were tryin' to survive," says Harris. "Closer to what these folks actually experienced [fleeing Siberia through Mongolia and the Himalayas on foot]." 

Everest-sized obstacles do loom in The Way Back's trek to Kodak Theatre. Its narrative wanders (unavoidably). Influential kvetches have told me the 133-minute flick is too long, yet seems like it's missing a reel in the Himalayan part -- no doubt because it's cheaper to film in Siberia-like Bulgaria and Gobi-like Morocco than anyplace resembling K2. Oscar likes tales of personal triumph, but this is about maybe too many triumphs. Star power is intense but intermittent, with shortish performances by Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, and young hottie Jim Sturgess, the likeliest best actor push.

But onscreen, Harris' focus helps provide a storyline spine. And talk about a supporting actor! On set, Weir says Harris was a leader, "in character for weeks and weeks [15], more than usually taciturn, off on his own doing things." "Just focusing," says Harris, "making fishing line outta threads of my coat, or a bone needle. This walk wasn't party time. It was 4,000 miles." "The younger actors looked to him," says Weir. Harris' MacGyver survivalism inspired costar Dragos Bucur to build an umbrella out of bones. "They figured maybe I knew something, I dunno," says Harris. "They were kind enough to respect me."

So does Hollywood -- but enough for an Oscar? "It's a crap shoot," says Harris. If he wins, what will he say? "Probably 'Thank you,' and walk off." Will he take the Oscar to bed, like Halle Berry in 2002, or wander Beverly Hills in revery until cops stop and make him prove he didn't steal it, like Frank Sinatra in 1954? "No, I wouldn't think so. I might put it on a bar and have a beer."