The Oscars are upon us again. I’m looking forward to the debates, disagreements, surprises and disappointments that inevitably accompany the Academy Awards. The fact that we often disagree on the artistic qualities of the nominated films and performances is what makes Award Season so damn exciting.
Today, I want to delve into one particular category: Best Actor (in a lead or supporting role). And I want to ask one simple, but compelling question: How do we assess the quality of acting, the caliber of the performance as we seek to define ‘best’? Clearly, such a determination is terribly subjective. There are no tools of finite measurement – no timers, no scoreboards, no bars that can be cleared that indisputably declare a winner. This is not the Olympics, after all. There are, however, criteria I believe we can use not only to narrow down the field of players, but that can likewise provide a more nuanced assessment of excellence.
First, we consider the script. Or, more specifically, the character contained within the script that the actor has been called upon to play. How challenging is the role for this particular actor? Is the character simply a darker or lighter shade of the actor’s personality or does the character require the actor to more or less abandon his sense of self and slip into the skin of one with entirely different sensibilities? Paul Newman once said to me (okay, me and a few other directors), “Don’t judge my work by the roles that were easy, where I didn’t have to stretch and explore and expand. Judge my work by the roles that challenged me physically, emotionally or spiritually. Those are the roles where one false step could bring down the whole house of cards.” Good point. Let’s look at a couple of nominees and the roles they took on.
THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin faced a very unique set of challenges as he embodied the character of George Valentin, a silent film star in 1920s Hollywood. First, Dujardin needed to research, explore and adapt a style of film acting that has long been abandoned. Since it is a silent film, there is no dialogue, so he lost the tool of language, intonation, verbal rhythm and tone. Finally, add in the dancing, an area in which Dujardin had no previous experience and which required five months of intense training.
Contrast this with George Clooney as Matt King in THE DESCENDANTS. King is a wealthy lawyer and member of contemporary Hawaiian aristocracy whose wife is in a fatal coma. Ostensibly, this story is about a distant and disconnected father of two unmanageable daughters who attempts to pull his family back together in the wake of the mother’s accident. In the midst of this, King discovers his wife had been having an affair. Finding his wife’s lover becomes King’s obsession as his wife lies dying in the hospital. Putting aside the gaping holes in the story itself, Clooney’s greatest challenge is bringing credibility to a character who is, at best, two dimensional.
Taking a look at these two examples, we see there are very different challenges. As I see it, THE ARTIST was an acting challenge whereas THE DESCENDANTS was more of a casting challenge. Casting George Clooney in THE DESCENDANTS meant that 90% of the work was done – all he had to do was once again showcase his charm, quirkiness, smiles and charisma in a loosely defined role. For nearly two hours, we watch Clooney do what he does so well, but do we ever really lose sight of George Clooney? In other words, do we feel connected to Matt King or George Clooney? And, does it really matter? Is the experience diminished if we don’t intimately connect with Matt King?
In THE ARTIST, however, the performance challenges are simply much more substantial. If Dujardin had not transformed himself wholly and completely into George Valentin, the film simply would not have worked. All credibility would have been lost.
This brings us to the second aspect with which to judge the success of an actor’s performance: The Transformation. How completely and thoroughly has the actor given himself over to the uniqueness of the character? Has the actor (think Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY) disappeared into the role so unreservedly that we are no longer watching the actor but only experiencing the character?
Meryl Streep not only transformed herself physically, mentally and spiritually into the role of Margaret Thatcher, she imbued the character with such humanity that we often forgot this was a performance. I would also respectfully submit that Viola Davis’s performance in THE HELP and Demián Bichir in A BETTER LIFE are examples of such remarkable transformations.
So, what is it about transformational acting that is so challenging? Abandoning oneself and allowing a character to take up residence in one’s body and speak through one’s mouth is the fundamental challenge of acting. For well-known star actors (Streep, Pitt, Clooney, etc.) this challenge is even greater precisely because of their familiarity to us. We thrust expectations upon them to be as they have been in previous roles we have enjoyed. Essentially, they have more work to do to convince us that they are not who they have been before, but are now this new, fascinating someone dancing across the screen.
I know what you’re going to say. Meryl Streep had the benefit of a real physical transformation to aid in her becoming Margaret Thatcher. Dujardin had the creation of a bygone Hollywood world to support his performance. So, too did Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. Of course, period characters and characters that require physical transformations have a bit of an easier time drawing us into the character (think also Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS), but I submit that the real transformation is internal. In fact, if the actor never lets her own persona take a back seat to the idiosyncrasies, attitudes, behavioral patterns and emotional experiences of the character, we become painfully aware that we are watching an actor parade around in latex.
Taking another brief look at George Clooney as Matt King, my experience was that King never displaced Clooney. I was left watching Clooney play yet another iteration of Clooney. Understandably, this was efficient and effective casting and acting, but is it worthy of an Academy Award?
So, as you take out your scorecards this Oscar season and as you get ready to render your verdict in the category of Best Actor, consider the challenges of the role the actor was required to play and think about how well the actor completed the transformation into the character. Happy judging.