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The Globe and Mail

A vote for Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale

The Golden Globe Awards, which will be presented Monday night, have meaning the same way that diamonds have value: They matter because a huge industry is committed to convincing us they do. The award is a popularity contest voted upon by fawning, faceless scribes you wouldn't spend 20 seconds reading during the rest of the year, and there are only two reasons to watch it. One, it's fun to see the animals in their native habitat. And two, it's the last chance for Oscar voters to get a look at the lead-actor nominees before they have to turn their ballots in Jan. 28. Which this year, for me, means a last chance to think about Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale.

There are so many strong male performances every year, I spend January crossing my fingers for what I call the Sixth Nominee -- the guy who for some reason isn't getting the attention he deserves. Everyone agrees that the Oscar front-runners are Philip Seymour Hoffman ( Capote) and Heath Ledger ( Brokeback Mountain). The other three nominees are likely to be David Strathairn ( Good Night, and Good Luck), Terrence Howard ( Hustle and Flow) and Joaquin Phoenix ( Walk the Line).

That's all very nice, but it leaves out Daniels, whose performance in Squid deserves to be studied by anyone who's interested in pure acting -- acting for the sake of the character, without ever begging for the audience's approval.

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It's a prickly role, a narcissistic, fading novelist named Bernard who crushes his marriage and his two sons under his ego.

"The comment I'd get all the time from financiers, and from some actors, was 'Bernard is so unsympathetic, he needs redemption,' " said Squid writer-director Noah Baumbach, who based Bernard closely on his own father, the experimental novelist Jonathan Baumbach. "But Jeff never cared about that. He just wanted to be as much the character as he could be. Kevin Kline told me, 'So many actors would have either made him too much a villain or too sympathetic, but Jeff played it right on the line.' "

Still, there are a couple of moments where Daniels could have made Bernard a little softer. But he never does. He disappears into the guy so thoroughly, it's as if he isn't even acting. (It reminds me of that other Jeff who never gets enough credit, Jeff Bridges -- my sadly overlooked Sixth Nominee a couple of years ago for The Door in the Floor.)

Daniels is a big, broad guy who resembles a stack of rectangles -- rectangle head on rectangle torso, atop two long rectangular legs. I met him back in September, and he was delightfully cranky even then about his award chances. "I've never been invited to the dance," he said. "Early on, in the eighties, they'd call and say, 'We want you to present best catering' or something. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

"Comedy is rarely honoured by the Oscars," he continued. "People think, 'Serious actors don't lower themselves to do jokes,' or 'Comedy is a way to hide the truth.' Well, the last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks. Anybody who's done comedy knows that the art in doing it well is equal to anything dramatic. I take issue with anyone who doesn't think they're equal."

Daniels has shown plenty of acting chops in the past, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen's favourite Woody Allen film) to scenes in Heartburn and The Hours opposite Meryl Streep, whom Daniels calls "the best actor we have." Yet he's better known for playing dimwits, as in Dumb and Dumber. He mentioned several times that Baumbach took a big risk in casting him: "My work has great range, purposefully, but there's nothing in it that really said I could do this."

"I took as much a risk as you can take, casting as good an actor as Jeff Daniels," Baumbach told me. "In the reality of getting a movie financed, yeah, there are other names they want. And writing it, I did an imitation of Bernard in my head. I fully expected that whoever played it would somehow let me down. But it went the other way. Jeff reinvented it, and now I imitate him. I don't even know how I used to do it any more."

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Daniels not only met with Noah's father, he wears some of his clothes in the film, and Jonathan was on set during much of the shoot. But Daniels pulled no punches. "Jonathan is a writer, in the truest sense of the word," he said. "In the writer's mind, your work is the only thing that matters. It consumes you. I never saw him intentionally be difficult or mean. But there's an obliviousness to the way he's perceived by people. He just doesn't see it. In this story, he's the victim. He says, 'Everything that's going wrong -- not my fault.' And he sits on that. All the way. To play that, you don't spin it, you don't pander to it."

And you might not win awards for it. But man, Daniels should.

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