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Best Acting Performances in a TV Commercial

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Here’s why the Seventh Annual Bobby Awards are more important than the Oscars. First of all, the easiest way to get an Oscar is to play someone retarded, autistic, crippled, dying or simply a blithering nutso. Ask Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis or Anthony Hopkins -- all brilliant actors honored

Michelle Silver wins for her work in a Discovery Channel spot about an overturned milk truck and cats.
Dale E. Turner and Maurice Blake of the Army's 'Something Important' spot win for best actors.
Martin Scorsese wins for his role in an American Express commercial
not for their greatest work but for their most handicapped. Oh, it’s still acting, the way a sledgehammer is a tool.

Us, we like nuance. You can have Silence of the Lambs. We’ll take Remains of the Day any day.

Which gets to the second reason to credit commercial actors: They don’t have 97 minutes to make an impact, with a sledgehammer or a scalpel, a palsy or an evil glare. They generally have less than 30 seconds to establish a character, and sometimes only three or four. Such circumstances require the most concentrated expression of the craft -- a gesture, a squint, a tone of voice.

Finally, advertising doesn’t exactly offer the meatiest roles. There is hardly a commercial made with human drama afoot -- at least drama not in service of a punch line. It’s 95% comedy out there, and comedy requires more condensed performance still.

So bear that in mind, please, as we honor the best performances in U.S. TV advertising of 2004.

First a quick shout-out to a non-actress, Lisa Walsh, of Lisa Walsh Chevrolet (Meyer & Wallis, Milwaukee) in Canton, Ga. Like many an auto dealer, she stars in her own spot. Unlike most of her megalomaniacal colleagues, she doesn’t just bloviate; she acts, in a vignette about being stopped by a cop. She instantly admits to several violations and accuses the officer of patriarchal behavior -- because (get it?) she’s too honest for her own good.

But you don’t need a long speech to master the moment. In a spot called “Silent Car” from the Las Vegas visitors’ bureau (R&R, Las Vegas), Esther Friedman plays a woman who has just gone through an embarrassing episode (what, exactly, we aren’t told) and must endure the sniggering of her friends. Her wordless transformation from being affronted to conceding the humor with the glimmer of a smile is masterful.

The same goes for Angela Lindvall, the angry girlfriend who goes from unforgiving to reluctantly won-over in the space of three silent Levi’s commercial seconds ( Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York) when her jerky lover shows up with flowers. These are expressions of genius.

Betsy Clark, on the other hand, is asked to do the full Pacino -- downshifting from a scream-and-shout, door-slamming rage to quiet resignation in a spot for the Partnership for a Drug Free America (FCB, New York). She’s a mom, rehearsing with her husband for a confrontation with their teenager. And Holly Mandel takes the Peter Sellers route in a spot for Morgan Stanley ( Leo Burnett, Chicago), playing eight versions of herself, representing her various conflicting investment issues.

Michelle Silver
The Bobby Award, however, goes to Michelle Silver, the window-gazing office worker who sees somebody drop an umbrella in a spot for the Discovery Channel (Nicebigbrain, New York). “Great,” she snorts nasally, “now there’re going to be cats everywhere.” She looks like a young Meryl Streep, and she finds her character just as convincingly. When a chain of events leads to a milk-truck spill, and cats everywhere, she turns to her colleague and says, unimpressed by her prescience, “I like your shirt.” Perfection.

Subtlety is nice. There’s also something to be said for chewing the scenery.

That’s what Dean Jacobson does in a funny, if confusing, spot for the Citibusiness credit card ( Fallon, Minneapolis). He’s amusing when imitating phone-mail beep tones. He’s hilarious when he sings the hold-button cover of Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.”

Similarly, it isn’t exactly nuance Evan Helmuth displays in the commercial ( DDB, Chicago), as a lime-green fetishist who can’t believe his good fortune to see a lime-green AMC Gremlin offered for sale. Still, his display of excitement is full-body delightful.

Adam Lefevre offers a drier kind of comic overstatement as the dad of sullen teenage daughters who want no part of his affection, in a spot for Verizon Wireless ( McCann Erickson, New York). And child actor MacKenzie Hannigan is drier than dust in a T-Mobile spot (Publicis, Seattle) after some goof drops his cellphone into a gorilla cage at the zoo. “I hope you don’t pay roaming charges,” the kid deadpans, as he licks his ice cream cone. A tip of the hat, too, to the actor in the gorilla suit, John Rosengrant, for sticking up one hairy finger to gesture, “Hold on for a minute. I’m talking.”

Dale E. Turner and Maurice Blake
The Bobby Award, though, goes to two actors: Dale E. Turner and Maurice Blake as the father and son in "Something Important," a spot for the U.S. Army. It’s a dialogue with the highest of stakes; the kid is thinking of enlisting. But there are no histrionics or oversize emotions -- just the incredible tension of an abashed kid breaking difficult news to a suspicious dad, a masterpiece of blue-collar haiku.

OK, we’ve long since had enough of Donald Trump, who erupts in and out of the public consciousness like a recurring sty. But he merits consideration for his Visa Check Card spot ( BBDO, New York) in which, by Dumpster diving for a lost debit card, he once again demonstrates the disarming willingness to mock his own overblown persona. He’s a pest, but at least a self-deprecating one.

Speaking of good sports, Olympian Lenny Krazelberg is somehow simultaneously painfully awkward and luminous -- as well as soon-to-be-unemployed -- in a charming spot for online employment site ( Deutsch, New York) that aired during the Summer Games. In a rather different economic situation is big-bucks quarterback Peyton Manning, who plays an annoyingly rabid fan of ordinary Indianapolis Colts fans in a spot for MasterCard (McCann Erickson, New York). And, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, he displays great timing and a great delivery.

Another performer who doesn’t really need the money is Jerry Seinfeld, who became a mega-rich star with, shall we say, a limited bag of actor’s tools. But his command has caught up with his material in a hilariously understated performance, next to an animated Superman, for American Express (Ogilvy, New York).

Seinfeld should win the Bobby, but we are unfairly taking it away from him to give to a celebrity in another Ogilvy AmEx spot that first aired in 2003.

Martin Scorsese
But because we missed it then, and because the commercial aired well into 2004, we are exercising our prerogative to honor director Martin Scorsese for one of the great celebrity performances ever.

In it he plays Martin Scorsese being absurdly self-critical of snapshots he took at his nephew’s kiddie birthday party. “Here, this one, interesting it’s far too nostalgic. What do you think?” To which the teenager clerk can offer only, “It’s pretty.” Scorsese’s contemptuous glare as he snaps the photo back into the stack is simply unforgettable.

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