Spacey, Kidman Show They're At Top Of Their Games

Two Golden Globe nominated performances hit theaters Friday: Kevin Spacey's disgraced lobbyist in Casino Jack, and Nicole Kidman's distressed wife in Rabbit Hole.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're going to focus now on two Golden Globe-nominated performances that arrive in theaters today: Best Actor nominee Kevin Spacey plays disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the comedy "Casino Jack"; and Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman plays a wife dealing with family tragedy in the drama "Rabbit Hole."

Bob Mondello says the performers choose two very different ways to illuminate their characters and in the process, offer a master class in acting.

BOB MONDELLO: "Casino Jack" opens with Kevin Spacey brushing his teeth Jack Abramoff style - which is to say, he's dressed to the nines, suit and tie, and it's a performance pitched straight into his bathroom mirror - with him as audience.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): (As Jack Abramoff) You know, people look at politicians and celebrities on the TV and the newspapers, glossy magazines. What do they see?

MONDELLO: He leans into the mirror.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) I'm just like them. Thats what they see.

MONDELLO: Jaunty, persuasive, convivial.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) I'm different. I could be any one of them. Well, guess what? You can't. You know why? Because in reality, mediocrity is where most people live. Mediocrity is the elephant in the room. It's ubiquitous.

MONDELLO: His eyes narrow. He jabs the toothbrush for emphasis.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) Those of us who understand the disease of the dull, we do something about it. We do more because we have to. The deck was always stacked against us.

MONDELLO: His eyes cloud with long-ago slights.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) Some people say Jack Abramoff moves too fast; Jack Abramoff cuts corners. Well, I say to them if that's the difference between me and my family having a good life, and walking and using the subway every day, then so be it.

MONDELLO: He's turning red.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) I will not allow my family to be slaves. I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla.

MONDELLO: Implacable.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) You say I'm selfish? (BEEP) you. I give back. I give back plenty. You say I got a big ego? (BEEP) you twice! I'm humbly grateful for the wonderful gifts that I've received here in America, the greatest country on this planet.

MONDELLO: A head roll to loosen the collar.

(Soundbite of film, "Casino Jack")

Mr. SPACEY: (As Abramoff) I'm Jack Abramoff and oh, yeah, I work out every day.

MONDELLO: Big audience laugh on that line because as soon as he delivers it, he relaxes his jaw, puts the toothbrush back in, and he's just a guy brushing his teeth.

This sequence in "Casino Jack" is one continuous shot, a spoken aria that lasts just over a minute and 40 seconds. And by the time it's done, you know not just all you need to know about the character, but how the actor and the film are going to approach the character.

Jack Abramoff caused a lot of pain - frauds perpetrated, lives ruined, money squandered. But in "Casino Jack," his arrogance will be played for comedy: bruising, slashing, larger than life. Just like Spacey's performance.

Now take an early moment in "Rabbit Hole," an intimate look at a marriage unraveling after a terrible loss. Nicole Kidman plays Becca, a character who is keeping a tight rein on her emotions, which is always tricky to communicate onscreen.

Becca is afraid that if she lets herself feel, she'll feel too much - something you realize when her husband dims the lights and puts on Al Green, and her eyes signal that she recognizes a slippery slope. This is clearly an old routine.

(Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

(Soundbite of Al Green song, "Lay It Down")

Mr. AARON ECKHART (Actor): (As Howie) You need to relax.

MONDELLO: She shoots him a sly smile, arches an eyebrow, but it's all a mask. As he moves behind her to rub her back, and he can no longer see her face, her smile fades, eyes go someplace far away, someplace full of hurt.

(Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

Mr. ECKHART: (As Howie) Your shoulders are all knotted up.

MONDELLO: An eyebrow arches as if to say, duh.

(Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

Ms. NICOLE KIDMAN (Actress): (As Becca) Yeah.

Mr. ECKHART: (As Howie) Forget about Debbie(ph).

MONDELLO: The friend who hasn't called. Pain clouds her eyes.

(Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

Mr. ECKHART: (As Howie) And whatever else is bothering you.

MONDELLO: She leans back into a kiss on her neck. (Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Becca) I know what this is, dimming the lights. You're trying to seduce me. You're plying me with - with liquor.

Mr. ECKHART: (As Howie) It worked in college.

MONDELLO: It's working again. She's letting go. Her eyes close, then pop open in panic at the emotion she has almost let herself feel.

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Becca) That's enough.

MONDELLO: As she pulls away, you can see the wall go back up, and so can he.

(Soundbite of film, "Rabbit Hole")

Mr. ECKHART: (As Howie) Where are you going?

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Becca) Oh, I just - I'm feeling antsy tonight. I'm sorry.

MONDELLO: Can anyone inhabit two emotions simultaneously better than Nicole Kidman? Tiny flickers of doubt inflecting a smile, eyes hopeful even as they brim with tears. A moment later, she gets a laugh with an Al Green crack, and she's barely changed her tone of voice.

It's all so intimate, calibrated to the internal struggles depicted in "Rabbit Hole" - just as Spacey's "Casino Jack" performance is outsized, befitting a guy who affects geopolitics. Each film prompts both laughs and tears. Each character is written with considerable wit. But the performances, worlds apart.

Kidman has tailored Becca for quiet desperation; Spacey's given Abramoff the desperation of a clown. I'm Bob Mondello

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