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Javier Bardem's A-list cheering section -- Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, Ryan Gosling and writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- must have been thrilled by his Best Actor nomination for his ...

Javier Bardem's A-list cheering section -- Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, Ryan Gosling and writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- must have been thrilled by his Best Actor nomination for his emotional performance in Biutiful, which opened Friday in area theaters.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a hustler who deals in undocumented workers on the streets of Barcelona. He has two young kids, a mentally unstable ex-wife, and he is dying. The movie, which was also nominated for Best Foreign Language film, follows his struggle to provide for his children and create some sort of legacy in the short time he has left.

Roberts has called the performance ``a miracle altogether.'' Gosling called it ``one of the best things I've ever seen.'' And Penn compared its ``soulful gravitas'' to Marlon Brando's work in Last Tango in Paris.

Already a winner for No Country for Old Men and a previous nominee for Before Night Falls, Bardem says the glory of such accolades is precious but fleeting. The real reward comes in stretching himself emotionally and studying life, and sometimes death, through the characters he plays.

Becoming Uxbal was profoundly challenging. The role is ``the most emotionally complex that I've ever portrayed,'' he says over a soda at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge. ``There are many layers and there are many open doors in his life, places that he has to come in and get out of.''

Embodying a series of painful emotions over the five-month shoot was exhausting, says Bardem, who became a father last week (he's married to actress Penelope Cruz).

``You need a lot of focus and attention and concentration and also the ability to be vulnerable,'' he says. ``Sometimes you feel like you're in control; sometimes the role is in control of you.''

Inarritu says he had Bardem in mind for the part from the beginning.

``Nobody else could have brought to the character what he has brought,'' he says. ``This film could not have been done without him. I think he did monumental work.''

Uxbal left a mark on Bardem.

``You have to really open yourself and allow, in this case, this man and his drama take place within yourself, and of course it creates a turbulence, an imbalanced situation where you don't know where your feet are anymore,'' he says. ``But also, it expands you in a different way, like it makes you wider, mentally and psychologically . . . emotionally wider.''

-- SANDY COHEN

The Associated Press

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