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Oscar-worthy performances ... by four-legged friends

Last night may have been a "Slumdog" landslide, but what I am thinking about today is Oscar-worthy performances ... by animals.

I still get weepy whenever I catch "Lassie Come Home" (1943) on TV. Lassie, limping but valiant, outshines a young Elizabeth Taylor and gets my vote for a gold dog statuette.

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I asked someone who really knows what he's talking about, our smart and very funny movie critic Michael Sragow. (He's something of a dog lover himself; in his youth, his family had, successively, a standard poodle, a pug, a beagle and a peekapoo.) 

Here's his take on who's top dog in the movies:

My favorite dog actor in movies is Mike (no relation), the Scottish border collie with a black-and-white coat and brown and blue eyes, who spiritually as well as physically lived up to his character’s name, Matisse, in

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

.

Part of what makes Matisse neurotic is that his masters, the Whitemans (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler), have never taught him what it means to be a dog – that's what he learns from a surprise visitor, Jerry the bum (Nick Nolte). He mirrors the confusion of the Whiteman family (especially the Whiteman children), who've been so pampered they've lost track of their basic instinctual needs.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a shaggy-dog story in which the human Jerry is a shaggy dog – and the dogs are more like shaggy humans. That doesn't just include Matisse, but the dog Jerry loses at the beginning, a terrier mix named Kerouac, played by Corky.

Near the end, Jerry tries and fails to return to his bum state and eat from an open pate tin he's filched from a dumpster. The Whitemans, looking on, flash ambiguous smiles. Only Matisse looks distraught and whimpers. He hasn't merely learned what it is to be a dog; he senses what it means to be a man.

There have been some other great dog characters in recent years, especially Fly, the border collie who becomes the title piglet's stepmother in Babe and proves to be a model of maternal compassion. In the days after the Slumdog Oscars, give yourself a dream-dog double-bill of Down and Out and Babe. And see them with a canine you love.

Do you have a favorite animal performance from the big screen? Please comment below.

(Photo courtesy of Universal)

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