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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007 02:16 am

He’s paid his dues

Whitaker shines as despot, but he’s been stellar all along

Untitled Document Forest Whitaker just received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role as the evil dictator Idi Amin, who ruled the nation of Uganda during the 1970s, in The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker is the frontrunner in his category, and a win will be well deserved. I defy anyone to find a better performance from 2006. Whitaker’s flamboyant and boisterous characterization perfectly captures the contradictory nature of Amin’s outward persona. Amin could be charming and monstrous, sometimes simultaneously. Whitaker is one of those workhorse actors who turns in one exemplary performance after another, most often in supporting roles, with little recognition to show for it. His list of credits is long and varied, and he moves back and forth between movies and television quite easily. Lately he has had recurring roles on ER and The Shield. Whitaker began his film with a bit part in Tag: The Assassination Game (1982), and later that same year he was seen briefly as an angry football player in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He was finally noticed as a pool player who hustles Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in The Color of Money (1986). More supporting roles quickly followed in Platoon (1986), Stakeout (1987), and Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Whitaker received much praise in his first significant starring role, as jazz legend Charlie Parker, in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird (1988). The box-office failure of Bird prevented Whitaker from receiving an Oscar nomination, and it probably hindered the progress of his career. A Rage In Harlem (1991) afforded him the opportunity for a lead role in a comedy. Whitaker plays a naïve nerd in 1950s Harlem who becomes involved with a beautiful, scheming woman (Robin Givens) who is clearly out of his league. Whitaker is effective as a dork in this eccentric crime story that blends violence with the humor. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) stars Whitaker as, believe it or not, a samurai hitman who does jobs for the Mafia. One hit doesn’t go as planned, and he finds himself at war with his former employers. Ghost Dog is a typically odd film from director Jim Jarmusch, and Whitaker fills the large role with quiet intensity. Even the best actors have duds in their filmographies, and Whitaker co-starred in a whopper. Battlefield Earth (2000) is so shockingly bad that it requires masochistic tendencies to endure it. After The Last King of Scotland, though, Whitaker can be forgiven.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Jan. 23): Saw III, Jesus Camp, and This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
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