In matters of taste, there can be no dispute.. except when it comes to the Academy Awards. What started as a Hollywood publicity stunt to bolster box office has become an institution, so no matter how many times we repeat the axiom that art is subjective and shouldn’t be judged, the reality is there are people out there who take Hollywood’s annual give-away of golden statues very, very seriously. As long as that’s the case, there will always be people who will be upset at the results. And with good reason. The Oscars tend to make bad decisions. I am distressed as many times as I am delighted while watching their yearly telecast, even if I know after each bad decision that there is a chance they will get it right next year. By and large, this is true. If you look back at their decisions, they tend to go back and forth from good to bad, evening out the quality of the recipients in the long run… but there is an exception. The Best Actor category has gone so off-the-rails in the last few years that I think there is no other solution than simply retiring it.
The quality of a performance is something that cannot be easily quantified. One person can think a performance is laughably bad, while the exact same performance moves the person sitting next to them to tears. However, the last decade or so of the Best Actor category makes it seem as if these actors might have found a way to quantify the reasons why they should win awards, and not in a good way. These actors have found two external factors that allow them to turn the art of acting into a sort of sporting competition in which the best performances are trumped by the “most” performances. To illustrate, five out of the past six winning performances of the Best Actor trophy display one (if not both) of these factors, which I’ve decided to call: mimicry and physical transformation.
Portraying a real-life person has been a surefire way to earn Academy respect for a while now. Period dramas have been a historically well-respected and prestigious genre, so it makes sense that a lot of winning performances come from this type of movie. In recent years, however, we’ve seen more and more winning performances benefiting from their actors being able to compare themselves to the real thing. This is to say: If you’re playing a person who was famous in the 20th Century (or later) so that there is a lot of footage of them, and you’re able to imitate them very well, then you should feel pretty good about your chances of gaining Oscar glory. Think, for example, of Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles. He moves and sounds like Ray, but is this kind of mimicry what you would call great acting? Recent examples of this trend include Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking and last year’s winner Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill. This year, four of the five nominees play real-life people (and one could even make the case that Bradley Cooper is kind of playing Eddie Vedder A Star is Born).
Mimicry, though often effective, is not the only way to gain the Academy’s favor. An even more important factor seems to be that the role display some sort of physical transformation, which can range from the use of prosthetic makeup all the way to weight gain, weight loss, and other kinds of bodily harm. Take, for example, the performances listed above. You don’t have to be a cynic to think the amount of makeup that was required to transform skinny Gary Oldman into rotund Winston Churchill played a part in his victory. Similarly, a big reason Eddie Redmayne won his Oscar was the physical demands of playing someone whose body is effectively paralyzed. The most famous -and perhaps most extreme- recent example is Leonardo DiCaprio’s infamous campaign for The Revenant, which stressed how much the actor suffered while exposing himself to sub-freezing temperatures, and resulted on the actor’s long-awaited win.
For those of you who think this might all be a coincidence, consider this fact: This year, the two performances that seemed likely to get nominated but didn’t highlight this category’s recent predilections. Ethan Hawke gave the best performance of his career as a tortured reverend in First Reformed, but had the misfortune that his character looked pretty much like himself. And while John David Washington played a real life figure in BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth is neither a celebrity prone for mimicry nor a role that requires a big physical transformation (unless you count putting on an afro wig as transformative). BlacKkKlansman received six nominations, including Best Picture, but Washington wasn’t one of them. Instead, we got five performances that easily fit into the Academy’s latest trend.
The presumed front-runners are, unsurprisingly, the performances that skew closest to the parameters laid out above. For Vice, Christian Bale put on a bald cap and gained a lot of weight to play Dick Cheney. The actor is notorious for wanting to add physical demands to his performances, like when his lost about 60 pounds for his role in The Fighter, which by the way, won him the Best Supporting Actor statue in 2010. This time, he wanted to imitate Cheney so perfectly that he glued part of his mouth shut so that he would have to talk out of the other end. Meanwhile, Rami Malek put on giant fake teeth to resemble the late Freddie Mercury. He doesn’t do his own singing in Bohemian Rhapsody, but he moves frantically across the stage failing to capture the magnetic charisma that made Mercury a natural rock star.
Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate and looks just like the many famous portraits the painter did of himself, while Viggo Mortensen in Green Book gained weight to play an Italian-American cartoon who you won’t believe is actually based on a real-life individual. Finally Bradley Cooper’s alcoholic rock star for A Star is Born might not be as obvious as the others, but consider the fact that the clean-cut actor goes disheveled, red-faced, gruff and puts on a deep voice in order to “transform” into an authentic rocker. When it comes to the Best Actor category, pillars of good acting such as emotional truth and charisma have been replaced with party tricks, makeup, and strict dieting. I look at these performances -as well as most of the recent winners- the way Laurence Olivier looked at Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man. And like Olivier, I too want to look them in the eye and ask a simple question: “Why don’t you just try acting?”
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright who loves movies. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).