"Concussion," a biopic starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovers the brain diseasechronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that affects NFL players, doesn't debut till Christmas. But this week the subject matter made the headlines twice. In last Sunday's game between the St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens, Rams quarterback Case Keenum continued to play even after he was sacked and his head hit the field; he went on to throw two incompletes and stumbled with a fumble and his team lost 16-13. And on Wednesday, the family of late gridiron legend Frank Gifford announced that an autopsy revealed he was afflicted with CTE.
"Concussion" writer/director Peter Landesman ("Parkland") adapted the 2009 GQ article, "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas, which first brought this heartbreaking subject to light. And Smith delivers one of his finest film performances as the Nigerian born forsensic pathologist who relentlessly pursues the cause of the untimely death in 2002 of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster at the age of 50.
Smith's work was singled out by both trade papers when the picture premiered at the AFI filmfest in early November. Stephen Farber (Hollywood Reporter) notes, "Smith transforms himself impressively [and] submerges his usual wise-guy persona into the character of this slightly stiff and arrogant doctor." And Andrew Barker (Variety) says he gives a "fine, understated performance" and that he "nails the accent without ever calling undue attention to it."
While Smith currently has odds of 25-to-1 to win Best Actor according to our Oscar experts, expect his standing to rise in the coming weeks as more of them see his riveting portrayal of Omalu. He subsumes his movie star persona to embody this soft-spoken Nigerian immigrant, altering his physical appearance and nailing the accent.
Playing a man on a personal crusade in "Concussion" affords Smith a chance to deliver a series of impassioned speeches as he rails against the NFL and its team of doctors who deny the existence of this disease.
Among those who have won Oscars for portraying real-life heroes are Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club" (2013), Sean Penn as a politico in "Milk" (2008), Julia Roberts as a legal assistant in "Erin Brockovich" (2000), Ben Kingsley as an Indian leader in "Gandhi" (1982) and Sally Field as a union organizer in "Norma Rae" (1979).
While sports-themed films have a spotty history at the Oscars, three recent movies that looked at the lives of those on the sidelines did make it into the expanded Best Picture race: "The Blind Side" (2009) won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for her performance as the adoptive mother of a football player; "The Fighter" won for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as the brother and mother of the title character; and "Moneyball" (2010) earned bids for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as baseball execs.
Academy voters love it when movie stars lose themselves in real-life roles. Indeed, seven of the most recent 10 Best Actor champs won for their portrayals of famous fellows: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking ("The Theory of Everything," 2014), Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroff ("Dallas Buyers Club," 2013), Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln," 2012), Colin Firth as King George VI ("The King's Speech," 2010), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk ("Milk," 2008), Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin ("The Last King of Scotland," 2006) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote ("Capote," 2005).
Smith reaped both his Best Actor bids for films in which he played real people: "Ali" (2001) for his portrayal of boxer Muhammad Ali and "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006) in which he took on the role of homeless salesman Chris Gardner.
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Photo Credit: Sony/Columbia